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The Indian Act: Policies for Assimilation

I want to get rid of the Indian problem. . . 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. . . .

Duncan Campbell Scott, Deputy Superintendent-General of Indian Affairs. 1920.

In 1867, the British North America Act transferred responsibility for "Indians and Lands Reserved for Indians" from the British Crown to the Dominion of Canada. Parliament spelled out the terms under which it would exercise this responsibility when it passed the first Canadian Indian Act in 1876.

The Indian Act was designed to protect Indian people until they could be assimilated into mainstream Euro-Canadian society. In the interim, it made Indians wards of the state, with a legal status equivalent to that of children. They were denied such fundamental rights as the vote in federal elections and the right to dispose of their own property.

Restructuring almost every aspect of Aboriginal life, the Indian Act legally defined who was and who was not an Indian. It determined who could and who could not live on reserves. Non-Indians were considered trespassers if they lived on reserve without the Indian agent's permission. The policy even applied to status women who married non-status men. They and their children were excluded from band membership, had no Treaty rights and could only live on reserves if they had a licence from the Indian agent.

A new political system of elected band chiefs and councils was also imposed by the Indian Act. This system was designed to replace traditional political structures with Euro-Canadian political institutions. Treaties stipulated that band chiefs and counsellors receive European-style treaty suits. Despite this show of respect, the Indian Act allowed band councils limited authority. Indian agents could remove from office chiefs whom they considered unsuitable and overrule band council decisions with which they disagreed. Some bands refused to hold elections and continued to honour traditional leaders. Others simply elected as chiefs traditional leaders already in power.

When Aboriginal people resisted the government's program of directed change, the Act was amended to increase government powers and hasten assimilation goals. Some amendments targeted traditional spiritual practices. Others imposed a new system of education, a new political structure, and new forms of family life. The Indian Act has been amended and revised many times since 1876. But it still remains in effect.

From pgs. 57-58 of Aboriginal Cultures in Alberta: Five Hundred Generations by Susan Berry and Jack Brink.  Reprinted with kind permission of Susan Berry

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