The Indian Act

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The Times is publishing a series of articles on Indigenous History as part of Indigenous History Month.

The infamous Indian Act has been used by the Canadian Government to dictate much of the daily lives of indigenous people in this country since 1876. But it had its origins in legislation passed in 1839, which was designed to protect indigenous lands from trespass and exploitation by white settlers and land speculators. Special experimental settlements had been established to educate native people in farming methods, in a bid to find an alternative to traditional lifestyles based on hunting and fishing.

Those pursuits required very large tracts of land for each family, where wildlife and fisheries were maintained. But, with the spread of European settlement, forests were cut down, fences were built, farms were established, all of which became barriers to traditional ways of life.

The problem was that close contact with white settlements proved to be detrimental to indigenous culture and health, and so legislation was passed to “protect” them from such negative influences until indigenous people could complete the transition to farmers on the Canadian model. But, how could they adapt and blend with the wider society if their settlements were deliberately separated and located in out of the way locations?

Ottawa bureaucrats soon decided that the reason there was no progress being made in “civilising” the natives was because they were temperamentally incapable of such progress. The Indian Act was introduced as a means of giving control over indigenous people to agents of the government, in theory until the people could reach a level where they could make decisions for themselves. Of course, being under such close legal control, it was increasingly impossible for the native bands to accomplish what government had demanded of them.

Unable, by law, to establish commercial businesses, to even leave the reserve lands which were often of poor quality and remote from centres of commerce, it was apparent to the bureaucrats that “progress” was beyond the abilities of indigenous people. This was, in fact, in spite of the clear and obvious examples of those few indigenous leaders and individuals who managed to overcome the obstacles and succeed in a particular field. Those successes were usually squashed by Indian Agents, or competing white business interests who used the Indian Act to end the competition.

It was a vicious circle: the Indian Act prevented indigenous people from becoming independent and successful in the eyes of the wider society, which then blamed the Indians for not succeeding and becoming independent. Which led to stricter regulations being introduced into legislation: outlawing traditional spirituality, social customs, and interaction between bands. And then, when legal remedies were sought by indigenous organisation, the Indian Act was amended to make it illegal for them to hire legal representation to plead their case in court. Chiefs were not permitted to contact the Minister or Prime Minister directly: everything had to go through the local Indian Agent, someone who was quite unwilling to forward letters to Ottawa which complained about his actions and attitudes.

Indian Affairs was a backwater department in the Canadian Government, and complaints against the Indian Act were ignored. Bureaucrats became impatient with what they saw as the failure of indigenous people to develop into non-indigenous people, but there was no attempt to understand why things were as they were. It was not until the 1940’s that a Parliamentary Commission was established to look into Canada’s relations with indigenous people, and this was, believe it or not, the very first time that native people were invited to be part of the discussion. Before that, decisions about the future of indigenous people, and amendments to the Indian Act, were made by bureaucrats and politicians without any reference or consultation with the very people the Act was governing, restricting and culturally maiming.

Much has changed since then, but indigenous people in Canada today remain the only ethnic or cultural group in Canadian society that are governed by their own Act of Parliament, still legally considered minors in the eyes of the law. This is simply an overview: the actual effects of the Indian Act are numerous, long-lasting, and almost unbelievably negative in their impact of indigenous societies. Canadians have remained ignorant of most of this history for too long. It is past time that changed.

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