Negotiating Sovereignty: Aboriginal Perspectives on a Settler-Colonial Constitution, 1975-1983


  • Madeline Rose Knickerbocker Simon Fraser University
  • Sarah Nickel University of Saskatchewan



Aboriginal sovereignty, constitutional patriation, community-based research, settler colonialism, politics, Constitution of Canada, Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs (UBCIC), aboriginal rights, Sto, lo


In contrast to settler colonial legal understandings of Aboriginal rights and title as existing within the Canadian state, BC Aboriginal political actors in the 1970s and 1980s relied on philosophical notions of Aboriginal rights as stemming from the inherent, pre-colonial sovereignty and nationhood of First Nations peoples. These concepts run throughout the history of Aboriginal experience and remained foundational to the discourse of Aboriginal sovereignty in British Columbia during debates surrounding the patriation of the Canadian constitution. Existing Canadian historiography has located Aboriginal activists as key and yet marginal figures in the constitutional debates, while a broad range of interdisciplinary scholarship has helped us understand the concept of Aboriginal sovereignty in theory. Building on these insights, our work shifts Aboriginal people into the foreground and emphasizes their centrality in the patriation debates, which, as an example, grounds and historicizes the theoretical work on Aboriginal sovereignty. As we argue, between 1975 and 1983 Aboriginal peoples relied on oral histories and traditions of sovereignty and mobilized these in response to the settler colonial state’s push for constitutional patriation. In this sense, BC Aboriginal peoples who protested constitutional patriation were not ahistorical agents participating in an isolated movement, but were informed by both their knowledge of their communities’ embedded sovereignties, and generations of historically entrenched Aboriginal resistance.

Author Biographies

Madeline Rose Knickerbocker, Simon Fraser University

PhD Candidate, Department of History

Sarah Nickel, University of Saskatchewan

Assistant Professor, Department of Indigenous Studies