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The Indian Act

“Our object is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic, and there is no Indian question, and no Indian department.”
- 1920, Duncan Campbell Scott, Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs

Indian Agency Buildings in Onion Lake At the time the numbered treaties were being signed, the Dominion of Canada needed to consolidate all existing Aboriginal lands under one body of legislation. In 1876, the creation of the Indian Act firmly established Canadian policy regarding the use of First Nations lands, as well as laying the foundation for the education and assimilation of First Nations peoples into European-Canadian society.

Also known as "An Act respecting Indians," the Indian Act, as federal law, gave the Minister of Indian Affairs a full range of powers over virtually every aspect of Aboriginal life in Canada. Although, the Aboriginal people were not consulted in the development of the act, it ushered in significant changes to the way Aboriginal chiefs and councils could function, it defined who an “Indian” was, and it introduced the role of Indian agents. The Indian Act also formalized the federal government’s responsibility to First Nations people, including the establishment of reserve lands.

The concept of "status" separated those who were entitled to reside on reserves and those who were not. The act also denied status Indians from voting until 1960. In addition, they could not sit on juries, and they were exempt from conscription during wartime — although the percentage of war volunteers was highest among Aboriginal people than any other group. Under the Act, women would lose their status: if they married a man who was not a status Indian, they had a mother and/or paternal grandmother who did not have status before marriage, were born out of wedlock of a mother with status and a father without, or through enfranchisement. Amendments to the Indian Act in 1985 mean that today, status has been restored to many who had previously lost it. Additionally, there is no voluntary or involuntary enfranchisement and status cannot be lost through marriage.

Increasingly, the measures originally intended to protect the Aboriginal land base, were loosened to open reserve lands to agriculture and settlement. The act allowed the government to set licenses allowing wood to be cut and removed from reserve land. Many Aboriginals, who thought they were given land for settlement purposes only, were displeased with this practice and did not understand how it was that the government could take resources from their reserve land.

When the government became determined to put an end to traditional activities such as the Sun Dance, deeming them detrimental to assimilation and a distraction from farm work, the Indian Act was used to prevent people from leaving their reserves, thus limiting the number of people attending dances and ceremonies. The ceremony was never legally prohibited, though the flesh-sacrifice and gift-giving features of the Sun Dance were outlawed in 1895 through an amendment to the Indian Act, legislation which was not changed until 1951.

Additions and amendments to the Indian Act have lead to an increase in the number of Status Indians; which in turn has led to a growth in demand for government resources – resources which are too few for too many.

Bill Henderson’s Annotated Indian Act on www.bloorstreet.com
Christensen, Deanna. Ahtahkakoop: The Epic Account of a Plains Cree Head Chief, His People, and Their Struggle for Survival, 1816-1896. Shell Lake: Ahtahkakoop Publishing, 2000.
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