Indian Act of Canada, law designed to integrate Indians in Canada into the mainstream economy and culture. Introduced in 1876, the act allowed the Canadian government almost complete control over how Indians lived and interacted with non-Indians. At the same time, it gave the government special responsibility for the health, education, and lands of much of the Indian population. The Canadian Parliament overhauled the act in 1951 and continued to amend it significantly throughout the remainder of the 20th century. While the more recent changes allowed less federal intrusion, the government still exercised a large degree of control over the lives of Indian people. In addition, the government’s control of the Indian population actually worked counter to the act’s stated goal; the act isolated Indian people from mainstream Canadian society instead of integrating them into it.
|II||PASSAGE OF THE ACT|
The Constitution Act that established Canada as a confederation in 1867 gave the new federal government responsibility for and control over most of the aboriginal people and their land reserves. (Since the 1700s the government had set aside lands for some aboriginal bands in return for most of the bands’ territory.) Prior to and immediately after confederation, provincial and federal officials passed many laws restricting interactions between aboriginal people and the increasing number of whites settling near them.
By 1876 there were so many aboriginal-related laws that Parliament consolidated them in the Indian Act. In this way, Parliament hoped to ensure order in relations between whites and aboriginal peoples. The new act defined who was an “Indian,” using a person’s lifestyle and heritage as the primary criteria. The government had complete discretion over who was designated an Indian. To be given Indian status, one generally had to be a member of an aboriginal band that was granted a reserve or government funds or had negotiated a treaty with the government. The act only applies to Status Indians. Aboriginal groups not recognized as Indian in the act include non-Status Indians, the Inuit, and the Métis, people of mixed European and aboriginal heritage. These aboriginal groups have never been subject to the Indian Act’s restrictions, but many have struggled without benefits provided by the act.
The act set forth what rights and protections Status Indians had. Under the act, Indians could continue to hunt and fish for a living, and they were eligible for government-funded education and health care. The government was obligated to protect reserve land from white settlers who wanted to take it, and non-Indian people were prohibited from trespassing on reserves. But the act deprived Indians of the right to govern themselves and denied them citizenship, barring them from voting in federal or provincial elections. The act also restricted their ability to conduct commerce and to own land. Indians were prohibited from consuming alcohol or leaving their reserves without governmental permission. Most of the power on any Indian reserve was held by the federal agent for the Department of Indian Affairs (now the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development), who controlled government money and could veto decisions made by the reserve council.
Although the act differentiated Indians from whites, its main goal was to assimilate the Indian population into white Canadian culture. The act provided guidelines for Indian behavior. When an Indian met white standards by adopting the values and beliefs of the European Canadian population, he or she could be enfranchised (given Canadian citizenship). The requirements for enfranchisement changed over time, from knowing how to read to being a farmer or attaining professional status, for example as a lawyer or doctor. However, enfranchisement meant loss of Indian status. In some cases the act allowed the government to enfranchise Indians whether they wanted to be citizens or not. The act also forced Indians to abandon their own cultures by forbidding traditional ceremonies such as the potlatch and the Sun Dance. Many officials believed the government’s relationship with Indians was appropriate because they thought aboriginal people were unable to make intelligent decisions or to control themselves.
|III||REFORMS SINCE 1951|
After World War II (1939-1945) Canadians developed a new awareness about Indians. They noticed, for example, that Indian men had served admirably in the Canadian army during World War II. They also considered a federal report that showed that most of Canada’s aboriginal peoples were living in poverty. Canadians became more concerned about the ways the government violated the rights of Indians. In response, Parliament decided to remove objectionable and outdated provisions from the Indian Act. After four years of review by a special parliamentary committee, with advice from Indian leaders, Parliament reworked the act in 1951.
The changes generally reduced the control federal agents had on reserves, giving a measure of self-government to Indian bands. Parliament removed the controversial section of the act banning potlatches and Sun Dances. It also took out the rules prohibiting Indian people from consuming alcohol or leaving their reserve without permission. In addition, Parliament lifted some restrictions on Indian trade.
The government continued to amend the Indian Act after it was reworked in 1951. By 1962 Indians had the right to vote in federal and provincial elections. In 1985 the law was changed so that Indians could no longer be forced to give up their Indian status, and Indian women who married non-Indian men no longer automatically lost their Indian status. In the 1980s and 1990s amendments gave bands more self-government, including some control over deciding who was entitled to band membership and could live on their reserves. Despite these changes, the act remained similar to the original act.
|IV||EFFECTS AND REACTIONS|
One of the most pervasive pieces of legislation in Canadian society, the Indian Act regulates almost every aspect of Indians’ lives. At the same time, it has failed many times to protect Indian land, allowing non-Indians to take reserve property or purchase it through the government at a fraction of its worth. The act has stifled Indian economic development by putting commerce on all reserves under the control of an unresponsive centralized bureaucracy. Finally, the measure intended to protect the Indians by barring non-Indians from trespassing on reserve land isolates Indians from mainstream society.
Indians view the act as a tool the federal government uses to control their actions. Although many provisions that violated Indians’ civil rights have been removed, the act still restricts their right to govern themselves. Most Indians want to abolish the Indian Act, but they realize that its recognition of their distinct status provides some safeguards for their culture and their land. Indians would like to keep some of the government benefits provided under the act but gain additional benefits and attain more self-government.