Wednesday, March 3, 2021

The Indian Act

To pick up on my post of Saturday, starting way back with the Royal Proclamation of 1763, today I'll try to give you my short simple unauthorized understanding of the Indian Act and what it's accomplished.  To put it simply, it seems to me that it has destroyed the native populations in Canada, a piece of not just deliberate racism but deliberate cultural genocide.

During the early 1800s treaties were signed, but paternalistic attitudes grew, built on the crown's understanding that they had 'purchased' the native lands under the negotiated treaties.  Specifically the idea grew that the Indian population should be assimilated into modern western Christian and British society.  Since our ways reflected the most advanced civilization in the world, and they were just 'savages' (I'm being a little brutal here), we should help them change to join modern society.

This is reflected in both the Gradual Civilization Act of 1857 and the Gradual Enfranchisement Act of 1869.  These acts encouraged Indians to give up their native status in return for the right to vote.  It encouraged them to buy into a life based on private property ownership and it, importantly, referred to "being of good moral character".  Indian Agents had widespread leeway to determine what was 'good moral character'.  The native peoples didn't buy it.  

Along the way the first major treaty in this area was concluded, the Saugeen Tract Agreement.  It gave the crown free reign over 1.5 million acres, virtually the entire Saugeen watershed, in return for an (unkept) promise by the government to protect those Indians who would move up into the Bruce (Saugeen) Peninsula.

The light green here is the Saugeen watershed surrendered in Treaty 45.5.  The dark green is the peninsula, where the government failed to keep settlers from moving in and taking up land.  The dark red are the 4 reserves the community is left with today.  Meaford is the left of the three communities on Georgian Bay.

A core part of the Indian Act is the issue of Indian 'status', which was seen as flowing through the men, as you'd expect in such a paternalistic society.  If men married white women, the women gained Indian 'status'; if women married white men, they lost their status.  It was not until 2019 that the last remnants of this gender discrimination were dealt with, but only through the continued efforts of native women who went to court to fight for their rights.

The Indian Act dismissed bands' traditional inherited system of chiefs, replacing it with an elected council overseen by the Indian Agent.  The Indian Act also did not allow women to vote or run in band elections; this was also lifted in 1951.  You now find female chiefs on many reserves.  To fit with the Canadian Bill of Rights Indians were given the right to vote in 1960.

The Indian Act had banned such religious ceremonies as the Potlatch. the Sun Dance and powwows.  In 1925 dancing was banned completely.  This ban was only lifted in the 1951 amendments.  (If you ask me the Potlatch was more effective charity for redistributing wealth than anything you can find in western society today). 

There were other major problems with the Indian Act too.  For example, after WWI when native groups were agitating politically, the government made it illegal to hire lawyers or submit land claims.    It reached the point where almost any native gathering was prohibited.  These prohibitions were also lifted in the 1951 amendments.

During the past 70 years, international policies and Canadian human rights issues have helped spur the various improvements to the act, which has therefore been amended several times.  A U.N. ruling against Canada in 1981, as well as the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms brought about a group of 1985 amendments related to the gender discrimination described above.

Once they started hiring lawyers to pursue land claims, native communities went all the way back to that Royal Proclamation of 1763 to establish the legal foundation for their claims.  That's why it's so important.  Remember. that proclamation also referred to the Indians as "tribes or nations".  That's why Indian Reserves have in recent decades chosen known as First Nations.

But the worst features of the Indian Act, from my reading were the residential school system and the 'Sixties Scoop' that followed.  It is simply hard to describe the horrors these schools imposed on native children.

The Indian Act had given the federal government responsibility for education of native people, so beginning in the 1880s residential schools were established across Canada, deliberately a long way from reserves.  The objective was to remove children from all family and community influences and 'civilize' them. Native languages and dress were banned and children were forcibly removed from families when necessary after the Indian Act in 1894 made attendance compulsory.

The abandoned St. Joseph's School for Girls in northern Ontario.

The schools were run primarily by the churches and the education provided was limited, focusing on manual labour and rarely going beyond grade 5.  Diseases killed many and abuse and isolation from their families led many children to try to escape.  Sexual abuse was frequent enough that a B.,C. Supreme Court Judge in 2005 called the schools "nothing more than institutionalized pedophilia".

Without going to that extreme, the emotional and physical abuse was constant.  Children were beaten for speaking their own language.  Sanitation, food and health care were all inadequate, leading to a high death rate.  Children were sometimes buried in unmarked graves and parents were not even notified.  The purpose has been described as 'killing the Indian in the child' in the hopes that the next generation would be able to assimilate smoothly into Canadian society.

But the impact was just the opposite.  Being ripped from the love of their family and the native culture they grew up in left many traumatized for life.  And this went on for several generations; the last residential school was not closed until 1996.  The big question of course was how much the churches and the government knew of the conditions in schools and deliberately chose to continue, or at least ignore, what was going on.  Courts have concluded that they did know.

The long term impact has been devastating.  After only experiencing abuse during childhood, many adults abuse their children and wives.  Broken families become the norm and young adults describe not fitting in either world and not knowing basic parenting skills.  We now have an epidemic of alcoholism, substance abuse and suicide along with the abuse that gets perpetuated generation after generation.

I remember when William was going to flight school in Thunder Bay and working at his first job in Kenora, both towns with high native populations, he'd recount stories of the 'drunken Indians'.  But when I first learned about the residential school system in the last few years it was as if the blinders fell off and it all fitted into place.  No wonder the native adults had difficulty fitting in.  William later worked with several native communities and developed some good relationships, which is one reason I'm personally interested in this entire topic.

By the late 1980s natives were beginning to use the courts to successfully sue the churches and the government for the abuse they suffered.  The lawsuits came together in the largest class-action settlement in Canadian history, the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA) which allocated nearly $2 billion for payments to survivors.  

This finally also led to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission established in 2008.  Under the guidance of its Chair, Murray Sinclair, a lawyer from Manitoba and himself a member of the Peguis First Nation, it reported in 2015, submitting 94 'Calls to Action'.  It remains to be seen how many get acted upon.

In the meantime the residential school system had evolved into the 'sixties scoop' as the actual schools were closed starting in the 1960s.  Child welfare laws enabled social workers to scoop children from native families without notifying either the family or the band.  Native children came to be vastly over-represented in the child welfare system, bounced from foster home to foster home, deprived of their own identify, another attempt at cultural genocide.

The First Nations Child and Family Caring Society filed a lawsuit on behalf of recent children caught in the child welfare system.  The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled that the federal government had discriminated against on-reserve child welfare compared to funds provided to other child welfare systems.  It recommended another huge settlement with survivors, a settlement which the current federal government is arguing against!  The government says eventual costs of the settlement could reach $15 billion.  

It's hard to say where we go from here.  

There are numerous specific issues that need attention, from health and education to employment and incarceration rates, all more understandable if you understand the multi-generational impact of the residential schools.  The Indian Act is hotly debated; some say it should go, but many native groups say it has to stay until the issues get sorted out.  It appears to be an intractable 'Gordian Knot' of challenges, and of course money is usually the answer - either we need more money to do it, or budgets don't allow for it.

With enormous lawsuit payments pending, the courts seem to have recognized that the original Indian Act was a mistake.  International opinion has reinforced native attempts to seek recognition of their rights.  It seems to me that we need the rest of Canadian society to catch up!

Personal Note - although I have a personal interest in this topic, which I think is terribly important for Canadians, I have no known family indigenous history, and no right whatsoever to speak on behalf of any indigenous people.  Still, we who represent 'white Canada' have to start someplace, and the first step for me is understanding.  I hope these two posts have helped slightly with your own understanding of native issues in Canada today, as they've helped mine.  Corrections and advice is welcomed.

I have drawn heavily on articles in The Canadian Encyclopedia and from the First Nations and Indigenous Studies program at UBC in preparing this post.  My thanks for helping me learn.

Needless to say, I never learned a single thing about all of this in school!


  1. After high school, I lived in Northern Saskatchewan for a few years before my daughter was born. Like William, I saw first hand the impacts of the residential schools, the lack of opportunity on reserves, and the helplessness of the people. But I didn't understand any of that at the time. As the years have passed, I have come to the same conclusion as you - that all Canadians need to come to a recognition that somehow the wrongs of the past must be righted. While all of this happened in the past, the impact is still felt because our First Nations people still suffer in many ways and by extension, we do too because not everyone has a fair opportunity to live their fullest lives.
    Sadly, and again I have first hand knowledge of this aspect, at least one of the law firms who represented the First Nations people in the Residential School settlements took advantage of their clients, as did some of our local businesses. Shame!
    Take care, stay well.

  2. My own First Nations connection is a bit tenuous, but it hasn't affected my anger and disgust at the way our native Canadians have been treated. Our family has had close association with First Nations people for several generations. I was raised to have the utmost respect for their sovereignty over this land.

  3. Well, folks north of the border did just about the same as was done down here in the U.S. There aren't enough words to accurately describe the multitude of offenses committed against the native peoples of North America. Some of the long-term impacts may never be solved, once a culture is destroyed and family structure is broken there may be no way to reconstruct either. Shame on our predecessors, and shame on those among us who don't see the wrongs and would do the same all over again.

  4. You have an excellent grasp on the situation. It's a very, very sad history. I taught in Inuvik when we had housing for about 500 kids. It was awful. I did go in the hostels to visit. Your key sentence is to ask where we go from here?

  5. There is a lot of things to make up for, and it will take a long time.

  6. I thought it was only the government of the US that treated First Nations peoples so badly. I am really hoping that something can be done to right the wrongs of the past. I have learned so much from your posts. Thank you for doing this and taking the time to educate people like me.

  7. I've done a lot of research on this, as well. We white people have to read about it. I found the United CHurch minister who spoke truth to power and was taken down for it. We need whistleblowers. We need First nations to tell us about what has happened.
    Good work.

  8. Change is slow to happen and long overdue.

  9. Your right about not learning anything about this in school. It seems the whole indigenes subject was by-passed and conveniently swept under the rug. Growing up years ago watching cowboys and Indians on TV and in movies certainly didn't give us the right perspective on things either. I think Hollywood needs to be held accountable to some degree as well. Easy to point accusing fingers at other countries with their sordid pasts but we have the same thing going on right here in Canada. Its helpful that people like yourself take the time to explain and expose the wrongs because it doesn't look like the ones responsible ever will. Good articles. Keep up the good work.

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  11. It is an interesting read. I was not aware of the number of tribes that were in Canada. I just watched a travel show on the Indians in the Calgary area. I am familiar with the tribes in Minnesota. My own birthplace in southern Iowa was once camping grounds for Natives.

  12. We live just a few miles from the Reservation. The culture for them is different. Being a Volunteer on the Fire and Rescue I have seen it from all sides...most not pretty. From what I know and saw, they have no plans for tomorrow, only today. I feel so sorry for the children...often without shoes or coats in the winter:(

  13. It is sad how we humans judge any culture not our own to be 'uncivilized'. Seems the folks with the most armament take over. A sad commentary.