All Aboard the Constitutional Express- desired destination: First Nation Rights

The Constitutional Express was a protest led by First Nations across Canada, brought on by proposed changes to the constitution in 1980 by P. Trudeau.  The protest was directed by the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs (UBCIC), a  group founded in 1969, as a response to the proposed removal of the Indian Act to the constitution, commonly referred to as the 1969 White Papers (Constitutional Express, n.d).

The Trudeau party stated that the Indian Act was discriminatory. The argument was that all Canadiens should be equal under the law, and the Indian Act makes a special relationship between First Nations and the government. (Trudeau, 1998)

Pierre Trudeau: “A Just Society”

P Trudeau wanted Canada to have a constitution and charter of their own (Trudeau,1998). In applying his vision he pushed for the removal of the Indian Act. When UBCIC became aware of the proposed changes to their rights, they set out to protect First Nation’s title and rights in Canada. Whilst making it there mission to connect Canadien First Nation communities. The Constitutional Express was an initiative lead by the UBCIC when in September of 1980 the group became aware that though the Patriation of the Canadian Constitution the rights of First Nations, were again at risk (Joseph, n.d). The Constitutional Express was led by George Manual. Manual explained his meaning behind the constitutional express as: “I want to unify our nation and go to Ottawa and fight for our rights”–and so he did, with over a thousand other concerned citizens (UBCIC, n.d). The Constitutional Express was boarded with UBCIC Employees, chiefs, band members, and activist, onto two trains from Vancouver to Ottawa. The trains would arrive in Ottawa on November 24th. Upon arrival, participants flooded parliament hill and engaged in rallies, speeches, and various other events to advocate for the rights of Canadien First Nations (Joseph, n.d).

The Constitutional Express received no government funding, therefore many participants had to fundraise in order to have the means to participate in the event. Many activist even went so far as to sell their belonging in order to have the means to advocate for their rights. Once aboard the Constitutional Express, there struggle expressing their citizenship continued (Joseph, n.d). In Winnipeg, one of the trains received a bomb threat. However, the legitimacy of the bomb threat is questioned by many of those who witnessed the event. Many witnesses claim with certainty that the bomb threat was staged by the RCMP, in order to delay the train, intimidate the participants, and to give authorities cause to search the train and participants belongings (Joseph, n.d). However, the group help firm to their mission, knowing what was at stake if they strayed from their goal–without being legally recognized as First Nations through the Indian Act, they would no longer hold their rights and it would be easy for the government to ignore their status and history.

The Constitutional Express did not succeed in changing P. Trudeau’s position on the eradication of the Indian Act after the protest on parliament hill. So, many members of the Constitutional Express decided they would continue on until their mission was complete. 41 passengers aboard the Constitutional express again, with their destination now set to New York–where the United Nations (UN) headquarters resided (Joseph, n.d). When the group visited the UN, they were given the opportunity to share their platform; however, the UN was unable to help push the group’s mission. When their concerns were not met, the group of First Nations activist continued their journey for First Nation rights to Europe. Now, making their political presence international. From the Netherlands, Germany, France, Belgium to England, the constitutional Express pushed Canadien politics internationally. Abroad, the constitutional express had a more receptive audience and was even recognized by United Nation’s Supreme Court ( Joseph, n.d). Through the group’s activism overseas, the pressure was building on parliament to a listen to the concerns of First Nation Canadiens.

After two years of negotiations between First Nations leaders and the Federal government, they came to an agreement in January of 1982 (UBCIC, n.d). In response to the concerns addressed by the UBCIC, Section 35 was added to the Canadian Constitution. Section 35  of the Canadien Constitution states:

  1. (1) The existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal peoples of 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.

(Dodek, et al., 2016)

After further negotiations, Section 37 was also amended. Section 37 makes the government legally obligated to consult First Nations representatives regarding any and all aboriginal affairs. This opened further negotiations and debates around section 35 that continue into the contemporary day.

What the Constitutional Express is most well known for is the having been one of the most powerful grassroots initiatives in Canadien aboriginal affairs history. Moreover, the  Constitutional Express was a demonstration of the strong commitment First Nations have to protect their rights. Many participants sold their belongings, took work leaves and left their families to fight for what they believe in. The Constitutional Express was a pivotal point for Canadien First Nation’s politics.











Works Cited

Constitution Express. (n.d.). Retrieved March 10, 2018, from

Dodek, A., Johnston, D. L., & McLachlin, B. M. (2016). The Canadian constitution.

UBCIC (n.d.). Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs. Retrieved April 08, 2018, from

Trudeau, P. E., & Graham, R. (1998). The essential Trudeau. Toronto: M & S.

Joseph, B. (n.d.). The Constitution Express and Its Role in Entrenching Aboriginal Rights. Retrieved March 10, 2018, from




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