The Indian Act was established in 1876 by the Canadian government. It was a piece of legislation that determined who and Indian was, and what they could and could not do. Treaties were signed prior to this, and were deemed insufficient in controlling Indian populations in Canada, as they created rights and relationships between Canada and the respective First Nations. Probably the most important law in the Act was the statement that the Crown and Government of Canada have “control over Indians and lands reserved for Indians.” Essentially it denied any form of self-determination for First Nations in Canada.
Beyond being a simple power and control mechanism for the Government, the Indian Act was also a powerful tool of colonization and assimilation. For example, an Indian could not leave their reservation without consent from the Indian Agent. They could not gather in groups of three or more, and ceremonies and other cultural gatherings were strictly forbidden by the law. An important function of the Act was to determine who was a status Indian and who was not. These rules were often discriminatory towards women and their children, and were based on arbitrary rules concerning paternity and blood quantum.
Despite several changes to the Indian Act such as Bill C-31, there is still a great deal of powerlessness in First Nations communities. Of course, it is no longer illegal for Indians to have ceremonies and cultural gatherings, and the position of the Indian Agent has now been abolished, but most of the decisions made on First Nations land must be approved by the Department of Indian Affairs. This can be anything from band budgets, to membership, to housing. Essentially, the intention of the original Treaties for First Nations to maintain a healthy degree of self-determination has been broken by this one piece of legislation.
Given the history and the current realities of the Indian Act, when Assembly of First Nations Chief Shawn Atleo advocates to the Federal Government his wishes to completely abolish the outdated document, you would think it would be cause for celebration in Indian Country. There are many supporters of this vision, as it would create the space to renegotiate terms for self-governance, and hopefully put First Nations and Canada on a more level playing field. However, in 1969 Jean Cretien (at that time Minister of Indian Affairs) created the White Paper. This proposed legislation would also abolish the Indian Act in hopes of creating equality between First Nations citizens and the rest of Canada. What it also did was disregard all of the treaties as well as the inherent rights that Aboriginal people have as a result of their history as Canada’s original people. As a result, First Nations communities vehemently fought the proposed law and it was never passed. Alan Cairns wrote his popular response to the movement with “Citizens Plus”, which would become commonly known as the Red Paper.
Like all Indigenous issues and politics in Canada, there is a great deal of history and complexities that need to be considered. Perhaps the dismantling of the Indian Act is the most positive way forward for First Nations communities in Canada, though the decision is wrought with well-founded fear and mistrust of Canadian leadership. I hope this article has clarified some of the things that you may hear in the news, and give you a more informed decision. The relationship between Indigenous people and the rest of Canada is everyone’s responsibility, and I encourage everyone to join the discussion about this new and exciting time in our history.