The Indian Act
Laws can take abstract ideas and implement them in real life. A law makes following a rule mandatory, and law enforcement ensures that people obey that rule. But while laws can provide order and protection, they can also express prejudice and be used to discriminate.
The Indian Act of 1876 granted the Canadian government control over many aspects of Indigenous Peoples’ lives, including the management of housing, health services, the environment, and other resources on reserves. In this photo, an indigenous Canadian woman is on a reserve, 1930.
In 1876, the British North America Act united three British colonies into the first four provinces of the Dominion of Canada, providing Canada with its own government and federal structure. This new Canadian government inherited the colonial legacy of Great Britain, including two legislations: the Gradual Civilization Act of 1857 and the Gradual Enfranchisement Act of 1869. Both aimed to force Indigenous Peoples to give up all ties to their heritage via the acquisition of Euro-Canadian education or by leaving the reserve and becoming owners of private property. Since the 1830s, the British authorities, and later the Canadian government, had set up reserves to settle the Indigenous Peoples and remove them from areas the newcomers desired to settle or develop. The reserves were small, unproductive land tracts where the Indigenous Peoples were forced to live by the act.
Eventually, the Canadian Parliament consolidated the Gradual Civilization Act and the Gradual Enfranchisement Act into the Indian Act of 1876. This new legislation, which still exists today despite its many amendments, brought Status (registered) Indians under federal jurisdiction. The Department of Indian Affairs, formed by the act, governed nearly all aspects of the lives of First Nations communities, including band membership, reserve infrastructure and services, systems of governance, culture, and education.
The Indian Act of 1876 created the legal category of
, a category that had long-lasting implications for the First Nations of Canada. Once it entered into law, the act imposed a single common legal definition, lumping together different nations and languages into the broad category of First Nations.
What does it mean to be a Status Indian? The original document of 1876 defined someone as being legally Indian if that person fit these descriptions:
First. Any male person of Indian blood reputed to belong to a particular band;
Secondly. Any child of such person;
Thirdly. Any woman who is, or was, lawfully married to such person.
A key element was the law’s definition of who was Indian and what Indianness was. (The term
was used several centuries before—the law simply formalized its use. It is worth noting, however, that none of the many clans, bands, alliances, and nations ever called themselves Indian.)
According to the
of 1876, the “only individuals who could consider themselves Indian were those who could prove they were related, through the male line, to individuals who were already Status Indians,” writes Bonita Lawrence. Thus the policy created “new” members of society whose legal status, rights, and limitations were defined by law; the Indian Act made formal a new Canadian group. Equally powerful was the Indian Act’s power to exclude. Among the groups that were not considered Indians were the Inuit and Métis people. Individuals could easily lose their status, and “without Indian Status and the band membership that goes along with it,” Lawrence notes, “Native people are not allowed to live on any land part of an Indian reserve in Canada. . . . They cannot take part in the life of their own community unless they have Indian Status and hence band membership in that community.” In fact, she writes, “the colonial act of establishing legal definitions of Indianness, which excluded vast numbers of Native people from obtaining Indian status, has enabled the Canadian government to remove a significant sector of Native people from the land.”
The Indian Act has been reformed many times since 1876. Over the years, its most offensive clauses were repealed or altered, including those restricting the movement of individuals outside of reserves, outlawing indigenous ceremonies, and discriminating against women. But to this day, the Indian Act continues to regulate significant parts of life for Indigenous Peoples in Canada, such as band membership, taxation, band governance, elections, rights to land and other resources, and education.
But however bad this legislation is, it recognizes the First Nations of Canada’s legal relationship with the Canadian government and affirms their rights and status not as minorities but as independent groups.
Few indigenous activists would like to see it simply go away before settling the relationship between the Crown and First Nations on a better foundation.
The Residential Schools
In the crowded and understaffed residential schools, the physical and domestic chores performed by students were critical to keeping the schools afloat. Here, children are seen cutting logs at Fort Resolution Indian Residential School in the Northwest Territory.
The Indian Act of 1876 made the education of First Nations groups a federal responsibility. The government was authorized to contract with the different provinces as well as with church authorities to establish boarding schools for indigenous education. The Indian Act empowered the Minister of Indian Affairs to enroll and place all indigenous children (excluding, for many years, the Métis) in school. Then Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald was very clear about the need to sever the connection between the students and their indigenous communities: “When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with his parents who are savages; he is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write, his habits and training and mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write.”
Until 1883, “Canada did not have a residential school system,” but rather, had “a series of individual church-led initiatives to which the federal government provided grants.”
Based on these pre-Confederation religious boarding schools, the government sought partnerships with representatives of the Anglican, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, and other churches to operate the schools and carry out this mission of Indian education for the state. Education was to be the primary tool to “civilize” the First Nations and prepare them for life as mainstream European-Canadians.
A far cry from the boarding schools for Canada’s privileged children, the residential schools were, in fact, built on the model of “reformatories and jails established for the children of the urban poor.”
But from 1883 onward, the government sought a system to enroll all First Nations children in schools.
” were to serve alongside the residential schools to meet the challenge. Roughly 150,000 indigenous students (mostly from First Nations communities) went to residential schools, although a great number of indigenous students attended day schools. While both types of schools espoused the mission of civilizing the Indigenous Peoples and were run by the churches, the residential schools left the most painful marks on Indigenous Peoples in Canada.
began with a modest budget of $44,000 a year in 1883. This money, however, mostly came from cuts to government spending on other indigenous community needs. Thus, the funding of the system was marked by the reluctance of the government to fully invest in the program. Not long after the residential schools system emerged, critics began to denounce its economic utility, its care for student health, its limited academic success, and its failure to create a cadre of young “assimilated Indians.” By the 1940s, the failure of the system as a whole was evident.
The residential schools struggled with poor funding, poor and unsuitable nutrition, unsanitary conditions, and poor medical care. Students lived in crowded dormitories and were rarely isolated when sick. This practice made the schools prone to outbreaks of diseases, and they were hit hard by tuberculosis and flu epidemics, including the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. Overall, more than 6,000 students died in the residential schools.
The death toll of so many students from tuberculosis and other diseases in the schools recently prompted a heated debate about Canada’s responsibility for these deaths.