Historical Background: The Indian Act and the Indian Residential Schools | Facing History & Ourselves
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Historical Background: The Indian Act and the Indian Residential Schools

Go deeper into the history of  the Indian Act and the founding of the Residential Schools system.


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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 Status Indian , 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. 1

A key element was the law’s definition of who was Indian and what Indianness was. (The term  Indian  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 Indian Act 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.” 2

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. 3 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.” 4

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.” 5 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. 6 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.” 7 But from 1883 onward, the government sought a system to enroll all First Nations children in schools. Day school and “ industrial 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. 8

The government’s residential schools system 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. 9 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.

  • Status IndianStatus Indian: The Indian Act of 1876 created the legal category of Status Indian, which referred to an Indian registered under the act. Although receiving this status provided one with certain benefits, such as tax exemptions, the Indian Act established a paternalistic relationship between First Nations and the federal government. (For example, Aboriginal individuals living on a reserve could not leave it without permission from the Indian agent. Also, Status Indians were not able to vote until the 1960s.) It discriminated against many people who lived and self-identified as indigenous but were not included in the act’s definition of who was Indian. This legal category, despite many amendments to the act, still exists today.
  • 1Excerpt from the Indian Act, 1876, “CHAP. 18: An Act to amend and consolidate the laws respecting Indians.
  • IndianIndian: When the first European explorers landed in the Americas in 1492 with Christopher Columbus, they referred to the entire indigenous population on the continent as “Indians” because they believed that they had arrived in India. The term came into widespread use among the settlers, and it lumped together entire local populations, disregarding their extraordinary diversity. Ultimately, the name Indian served to differentiate between Indigenous Peoples and the settlers, who referred to themselves as Europeans, whites, and, finally, Canadians.
  • Indian ActIndian Act: Enacted by the federal government in 1876, the Indian Act combined all previous legislation regarding the First Nations and brought them under federal jurisdiction. This act created the term Indian as a legal category and defined Status Indian (registered Indian), which excluded Inuit and Métis people. It gave the government, through the Department of Indian Affairs, the power to create laws and policies regarding “Indians” and “Indian” affairs such as membership, reserve infrastructure and services, systems of governance, culture, and education.
  • 2Bonita Lawrence, “Gender, Race, and the Regulation of Native Identity in Canada and the United States: An Overview,” Hypatia 18 (2003).
  • 3Erin Hanson, “The Indian Act,” Indigenous Foundations University of British Columbia First Nations Studies Program, accessed May 12, 2015.
  • 4Quoted in Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, They Came for the Children (Winnipeg: The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2012), 6.
  • 5Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, They Came for the Children, 6.
  • 6Two models of schooling were pursued: industrial and residential schools. The industrial schools were to focus more on broad work skills and trades. Those were not boarding schools, although the students often lived in a separate building that served as a hostel. The residential schools were to be more academic, though they too were to offer training in farm work (for boys) and domestic skills (for girls).
  • 7 They Came for the Children, 13. Of course, not all the schools were industrial or residential schools. The majority of indigenous students actually went to day school on the reserve (or in cities). Still, it was the residential school experience that had the most lasting impact on the Indigenous Peoples.
  • Day schoolDay school: Alongside residential schools and industrial schools, day schools were part of the residential school system for indigenous children in Canada. Often located on the reserves, these schools served about two-thirds of indigenous students throughout the history of the system. They were operated by both municipal authorities and the churches, and they attempted to reach the same goals as the Indian Residential Schools: Christianization and assimilation. Many of the troubles and abuses found in the residential schools were also found in the day schools.
  • industrial schoolsindustrial schools: The government initially pursued two models of schooling for indigenous children following the recommendations of the Davin Report: residential and industrial schools. This school system was founded on the belief that cutting indigenous children off from their communities and culture would help them better assimilate into Canada’s Western society. In contrast with the residential schools, which were more academic, the industrial schools focused more on farming skills and trades. In 1923, the distinction between the two was abolished and both became “residential schools.” Lack of funding, prejudice, cultural isolation, and abuse made these schools poor and traumatizing educational institutions for indigenous students.
  • 8“Residential School History: A Legacy of Shame,” Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health, Ottawa, accessed June 18, 2015.
  • residential schools systemresidential schools system: Beginning in 1883, the federal government sought a system to enroll indigenous children in schools. The residential schools system was part of a larger government agenda to assimilate indigenous people into settler society by way of education. Relying almost exclusively on churches to provide the teachers, administrators, and religious instructors, the system was severely underfunded and marked by inferior educational standards and achievement: neglect, malnutrition, abuse, and disease were widely reported. In recent years, researchers discovered that some schools even carried out dangerous medical experiments. It is also estimated that more than 6,000 students died of disease and abuse while enrolled. Over a 150-year span, the government and churches operated close to 150 schools where some 150,000 indigenous youth were enrolled.
  • 9John Paul Tasker, “"Residential schools findings point to ‘cultural genocide,’ commission chair says,” CBCNews, accessed June 15, 2015. See also Brenda Elias, “The challenge of counting the missing when the missing were not counted,” paper presented at the International Association of Genocide Scholars conference, “Time, Movement, and Space: Genocide Studies and Indigenous Peoples,” July 16–19, 201.

Indigenous Canadian Woman on a Reserve

Indigenous Canadian Woman on a Reserve

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.

© Lebrecht Music and Arts Photo Library / Alamy Stock Photo

Fort Resolution Residential School boys working

Fort Resolution Residential School boys working

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.

Library and Archives Canada / PA-185530

How to Cite This Reading

Facing History & Ourselves, “Historical Background: The Indian Act and the Indian Residential Schools”, last updated September 5, 2019.

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