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Indian Act

The Indian Act is a piece of legislation that consolidated earlier colonial Acts dealing with First Nations. It came into force in 1876. The Primary goal of the Act was to encourage assimilation. It was also supposed to protect the interests of the First Nations people, most of whom resided west of the Province of Ontario. The Act contains provisions that regulate membership, liquor prohibition, taxation, education, and land use. The Act provided for the uniform treatment of Indians everywhere in Canada. Parliament has the right to amend the Indian Act without the need to consult with First Nations.

A major component of the Act included definition. The Act defined who was and was not an Indian. The Act defined "Indians" as being men who belonged to a band that held lands or reserves in common, or for whom the federal government held funds in trust. People who were not declared an Indian were Indian women who married a non-Indian man, Children born of non-Indian mothers whose father also had a non-Indian mother, Indians residing outside of Canada for over five years, Indians with a university degree, and Half-breed persons outside Manitoba who accepted scrip. Women bore the brunt of this legislation. Many First Nations’ women found themselves disconnected from their home communities and unable to return home.

The Act read that all status-Indians became wards of the federal government and were to be treated as minors without the full privileges of citizenship. Reserve land was placed in trust of the Crown and stated that this land could not be mortgaged or seized for defaulted debts, nor could it be taxed. The reserve could only be sold with approval of a majority of the adult band members and the Crown could only purchase it.

Amendments have been made to the Indian Act throughout the life of the legislation. On 19 April 1884, MacDonald and his government amended the Indian Act, making it against the law to encourage or participate in the Potlatch ceremony. This prohibition in the Indian Act became known as the Potlatch Law. In 1895 the government of Canada passed another amendment in the form of Section 114 of the Indian Act. This amendment banned any Indian festival, dance, or other ceremony of which the giving away, paying or giving back money, goods or articles of any sort forms a part, or is a feature, whether such a gift of money, goods or articles takes place before, at, or after the celebration.1

A 1933 amendment gave the superintendent-general the power to enfranchise First Nations without their approval. Enfranchisement is the act of stripping First Nations of their identity and status. It allowed the federal government to interfere in all aspects of First Nations’ lives.

In 1951 restrictions were lifted on the prohibition of ceremonies like the Potlatch and the Sundance. In this same year, sweeping legislative changes came into force for all status-Indians. Elected chiefs and councils would govern for a three-year term. Initially, only the adult males could vote in Band elections. A register of all status-Indians was to be maintained and band lists were to be posted. These are only a few examples of changes that were made in 1951. Currently, the Indian Act stands in much the same form it took after its revisions in 1951.

 


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