Saturday, June 19, 2021

The Indian Act and the Politics of Destruction

Between the end of the War or 1812 and the passage of the Indian Act in 1876, attitudes to Indigenous people changed, slowly but dramatically.  Native allies were no longer needed as warriors, the fur trade died out and of course the exploration of Canada was finished.  

The Hudson Bay company sold Rupert's Land to Canada in 1870, and the federal government then began writing treaties with western first Nations.  In the government's eyes it had 'purchased' the land, and a flood of settlers followed.  Two years later the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) were established, initially to make sure that natives moved off the traditional territories and onto reserves.  Starvation often followed and Indian Agents used food as a reward for moving to reserves.  Making room for the transcontinental railway was the first bug motivation.

Underlying the change of attitudes was also a wave of beliefs that we should convert and 'civilize' the natives in the British empire, changing their pagan ways to Christianity.  The English speaking world was seen as the most advanced civilization on the planet; why wouldn't they want to join it!

Out of these attitudes emerged the Indian Act in 1876, setting the terms of Canada's relations with Indigenous peoples for all the years since and completely reversing the relatively cordial relations of the previous 200 years.  Native peoples were restricted to their reserves, relatively tiny 'postage-stamp' plots of land away from any good farmland.  They still have enormous challenges of poor housing and water supply.

The Indian Act is complex and confusing.  To quote the Canadian Encyclopedia, with no consultation: ... "the Indian Act gave the government sweeping powers with regards to First Nations identity, political structures, governance, cultural practices and education. These powers restricted Indigenous freedoms and allowed officials to determine Indigenous rights and benefits based on 'good moral character.'

The Indian Act did a number of specific things:

- it established 'status and non-status' Indians,

- it removed hereditary chiefs and established elected chiefs and band councils,

- it excluded women from band governance,

- it implemented discriminatory marriage policies related to Indian 'status', differing for men and women,

- it banned the potlatch ceremony in 1884, and any Indian festival including powwows and the sun dance in 1895,

- it made attendance at residential schools compulsory in 1894,

- it banned hiring of lawyers in 1925,

- it enabled a pass system which limited the movement of natives off reserve.

It was in short a powerful restriction of the Indian way of life and Indian communities, giving the federal government sweeping powers of control.  It has been described as cultural genocide.  The reverberations of this legislation are still felt today, although amendments have taken away some of the worst abuses.

Following the first ever consultation with Indigenous people in 1951, amendments:

- enabled women to vote in band elections, 

- enabled bands to hire lawyers and commence land claims,

- and removed restrictions on religious ceremonies.

But they did not change the marriage policies related to status; women marrying outside the band lost their status while women marrying a native man gained status.  The amendments gave provinces jurisdiction over child welfare which enabled the notorious 'Sixties Scoop'  whereby welfare agencies could simply remove children from their communities rather than provide provide family support on-reserve.

Further changes followed slowly.  Starting in 1960 natives could vote without losing their status.  And finally in 1985 most of the discriminatory provisions of marriage rules were removed.  And with the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement in 1984 those First Nations took the first steps toward self-government, removing themselves from jurisdiction of the Indian Act.

Today First Nations debate whether to seek abolition of the Act, but it controls such a big part of Indian life that simply removing it would now cause a hug disruption.

I have not discussed the residential school system and its abuses; that will be tomorrow's topic.  But taken together the Indian Act has transformed what was a relatively neutral or even positive relations to a negative one, effectively destroying the native way of life in the process.


  1. It is an act and a mindset which continues its damage today.

  2. The Indian act catches people every time they turn around. The courts haven't made it any easier by coming up with interpretations in the act.

  3. Similar history in the States. The inherited British belief in their "superior" cultures still causes problems today.

  4. The harm that was done in the name of Christianity is mind-boggling. Reparations and reconciliation will be on-going.

  5. Sounds familiar; although the specifics are somewhat different, the end results were the same in the U.S.