Senator Charlie Watt: Reflections on the Constitutional Talks
Heading into 1982, I was the president of Makivik Corporation, which managed the proceeds of the then-recently-signed James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement for the Inuit. Because of our success at the negotiating table, Inuit had access to money and resources to support our ongoing work. I was fully staffed with teams of lawyers and professional people and had unique access to the 1981 constitutional talks..
The Aboriginal communities saw me as the guy with the answers.
Over the course of many months, we worked to enshrine the recognition of Aboriginal people in the Constitution. It took us about a year before the First Nations, Inuit and Metis worked together fully. Towards the end of the negotiations, there was a meeting behind closed doors where the government dropped the resolution dealing with Aboriginal rights. We were devastated.
The following morning, I went to 24 Sussex to challenge then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau with then-MP Peter Ittinuar and Inuit community leader John Amagoalik. The best he could offer was to hold off on a decision for a week — this allowed us time to lobby the premiers for their support.
We had great support from the CBC and from people at the community level. I felt we did a good job. Although the premiers were reluctant to fully embrace our proposed resolution, they finally came around when then-Alberta-premier Peter Lougheed convinced the group to add the word “existing” to our statement. This cooled the discussion, and we ended up with the following section included in the Constitution Act, 1982:
“35(1) The existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal people in Canada are hereby recognized and affirmed.
(2) In this Act, “Aboriginal Peoples of Canada “includes the Indian, Inuit, and Métis Peoples of Canada.
(3) For greater certainty, in subsection (1), “treaty rights” includes rights that now exist by way of land claims agreements or may be so acquired.
(4) Notwithstanding any other provision of this act, the aboriginal and treaty rights referred to in subsection (1) are guaranteed equally to male and female persons.”
This was the first time in Canada we had national recognition for our people.
Charlie Watt is a senator representing Inkerman, Quebec. He was President of Makivik Corporation in 1982.