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
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.