Hanging over every indigenous individual and community in Canada is the unavoidable shadow of the federal Indian Act, a piece of legislation that was introduced in 1876 and has been amended, augmented and altered many times in the decades since. Although its effects on native life have been almost universally negative, it is often pointed out by critics that most indigenous people and the various groups that represent them, are opposed to abolishing the Act, proving, they say, that it is not nearly as oppressive as has been claimed. This view point is based on a misreading of the history that lies behind this legal cage that has been built around one sector of Canada’s population. The irony is that the Indian Act, and its pre-Confederation predecessors, was originally designed to protect First Nations from the baleful influence of settlers in the nineteenth century.
In 1830, the British Imperial Government introduced what they called the “Civilisation Policy”, a plan by which Indians in Canada could be integrated into the wider society, leaving behind their traditional ways and lifestyles. The idea was to establish settlements, in which the aboriginal people could learn to live in houses, educate their children, and become farmers. The European belief was that only cultivating the land could make a people “civilised”, and traditional nomadic lifestyles were, therefore, “uncivilised”, savage.
Reserves were land that had been “reserved” from treaties, remaining the possession of the bands and on which they could gradually transition into civilised Canadians. The problem was that unscrupulous whites were using alcohol and cash to trespass on Indian lands and were having a very unfortunate impact on native communities. To protect the indigenous settlements, Indian lands were declared Crown lands in an 1839 Act, bringing them under the protection of the Government. Residents of Reserves were denied the right to sell or lease their lands without government approval, which developed into a process whereby they lost all control over land use entirely.
In the same way, the Government took over control of all finances and revenues on reserve lands, leading to the situation where bands could no longer decide their own financial destinies. Every purchase of supplies, every new school, house, or piece of farm equipment had to be approved by the Crown, which came to mean the local Indian Agent. His individual personality, or attitude to indigenous people, determined the economic life of the community.
The Indian Act of 1876, and subsequent amendments to it, also laid down who was, and who was not, an Indian, as defined by law. This was originally designed to prevent non-natives from marrying into a band and alienating property, or gaining access to funds. What it led to was complete control by the Crown over decisions as to who had “status” under the Act, and who didn’t. To this day, the Indian Department decides whether the children of a “mixed” marriage will be allowed status or not. The bureaucrats decide whether your children can claim your heritage and history.
Traditional cultural expressions, such as dances, ceremonies, or even gift-giving, were outlawed under various Indian Acts in a deliberate and clearly stated campaign to destroy traditional indigenous social order. As early as 1858, a government Commission declared that: “Another point of vital importance to be kept steadily in view, is the gradual destruction of the tribal organization”.
Over the years, the Indian Act, instead of protecting indigenous culture, became a prison in which indigenous people were to be assimilated into Canadian society. By force. The horrible irony is that the generations of Indian Act legislation has made these communities dependant on government support, having destroyed traditional lifestyles and legally prevented communities from potential economic development opportunities. It is the dreadful fruit of the old Civilisation Policy of the early Nineteenth Century that every attempt to avoid making indigenous people dependent on government only created more dependency.
It is certainly not that indigenous people love the Indian Act: but they cannot afford to have it simply abolished until an alternative system is put in place. Otherwise, they are left in possession of economically useless land, upon which they were settled long ago and on which they have been largely confined ever since. The choice is to stay there, or move to urban areas and leave behind their culture, their legal status, and, often, their identity. What is needed is a gradual change, a new way of thinking and governing that allows people to protect and preserve their identities on their own terms, and at their own expense.
Dependence is not their desire, but neither is abandonment by those who placed them in such a dependant position. Indigenous people do not need anyone to “civilise” them. On February 14, 2018, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made a statement in the House of Commons outlining a policy initiative by his government on the “Recognition and Implementation of Indigenous Rights”. In it, the Prime Minister commented that it was unacceptable for indigenous people to be living in overcrowded houses, and of the need for First Nations to be allowed manage their own affairs. “We need to get to a place where Indigenous peoples in Canada are in control of their own destiny, making their own decisions about their future,” he said.