Defining the Indian

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After the 1812 war with the United States ended with no significant border changes, the British Canadians established themselves as the dominant power in the region and began to plan a process of nation building. And by the second half of the nineteenth century, they were ready to do away with the political and cultural independent existence of indigenous nations. In 1867, the British North America Act united three British colonies into the first four provinces of the Dominion of Canada, establishing Canada as a federation of provinces, a dominion under the British Crown.1

Canada inherited the British colonial legacy—the practices and ideas regarding the colonized indigenous populations. Now a new era in the relationship between the Dominion and the Indigenous Peoples began. Two main pieces of legislation laid the foundation for what was to be the new Dominion’s policy regarding relations with First Nations: the Gradual Civilization Act of 1857 and the Gradual Enfranchisement Act of 1869. Both aimed to gradually transform First Nations men and women into Canadian citizens, provided that they give up all ties to their native heritage via the acquisition of Euro-Canadian education or that they leave the reserve and become owners of private property. Eventually, the Canadian Parliament consolidated these laws intothe Indian Actof 1876, reinforcing previous relations between the settlers and First Nations. This legislation, which, despite its many amendments, still exists today, brought registered Indians (Status Indians) under federal responsibility. The newly formed Department of Indian Affairs governed nearly all aspects of the Indigenous Peoples’ lives, including tribal membership, reserve infrastructure and services, systems of governance, culture, and education. Don McCaskill writes:

After Indians were no longer useful for economic or military purposes, the government established a system of reserves designed to “protect and civilize” native people in order that they might eventually assimilate. The policy was to settle the Indians on the land and, over time, develop them into “productive citizens.” In theory, Indians were to learn to exercise [individual] self-determination and assume responsibilities for their own affairs. Missionaries, educators, Indian agents, judges, and police were sent to the reserves to facilitate the transition from savagery to civilization. The Indians themselves had little to say about the process because there was no political structure within which they could operate effectively.2

But in the long run, he argues, the system that was designed to facilitate theassimilationof indigenous communities into colonial Canadian society did the exact opposite. It isolated them on the reserves and set them apart: “Encouraged to become self-sufficient, the Indian was prevented from being so in almost every area—economic, political, and administrative.”3

Bonita Lawrence writes that, according to the 1876 Indian Act, 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.” As much as the Indian Act was about assimilation, equally important was its power to exclude. Lawrence continues:

Without Indian Status and the band membership that goes along with it, 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 . . . the colonial act of establishing legal definitions of Indian-ness, 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.4

The Indian Act created “bands,” designations that included the First Nations but not the Métis, non-Status Indians, or Inuit groups. Right from the start, it discriminated against many people who lived andself-identifiedas indigenous but were not included in the act’s definition of who was “Indian.” What did it mean to be a Status Indian? The original document of 1876 defined someone as being legally Indian if he or she fit these criteria:

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.5

Anyone who was eligible as a Status Indian could report to the Indian Registry, which would issue an Indian status card that carried information about the individual’s identity, band, and registration number.

While being registered as a Status Indian granted individuals certain rights (e.g., permission to live on a reserve, membership in a band, certain tax exemptions, and a few financial benefits), it established a paternalistic relationship between First Nations and the federal government. Overall—and this is key—the Indian Act made all First Nations persons dependent on government institutions for their rights and services, thereby unilaterally striking down their status as independent nations. Many critics have argued that the act essentially made First Nations populations “children” under the supervision of the state and assumed that they were unable to govern themselves.6 Legally, they were indeed wards of the state.

Initially, Status Indians who obtained a university degree or became a professional (e.g., a clergyman or lawyer) became “enfranchised,” or gained the right to have full citizenship in Canada—with or without their consent.7 But in gaining Canadian citizenship (and the right to vote), these individuals lost their Indian status. Some argue that the intent was to strip First Nations bands of their better-educated or articulate leaders. Loss of status also threatened band membership, because individuals were forced to leave their reserves and assimilate into Canadian culture—the ultimate aim of the Indian Act and its related policies.

The Indian Act, with its focus on men’s status, especially undermined the role of women in traditional indigenous society, which was characterized by a substantial degree of gender equality.8 The act and other policies reflected the centrality of men in late nineteenth-century European society, which meant that First Nations women lost their leadership roles once the bands’ administrations were set up by the government.9 The status of women was further eroded by Section 12 (1)(b) of the Indian Act, which stipulated that the Indian status of an indigenous woman in a First Nations band would be revoked if she married a man who was not a Status Indian. This meant that she would also lose her right to band membership, which, among other consequences, would then prohibit her from living and participating in her own community. Furthermore, the loss of status applied to any children the woman might have with that spouse.10 The law went against the traditionally matrilineal rules of descent for various First Nations societies, such as the Huron and the Tsimshian. In these nations, the man joined the household of the woman he married.11


  • 1 : Only gradually did Canada become fully independent from Britain. The Canada Act of 1982 completed the process and ended all remaining legal ties to the UK.
  • the Indian 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.
  • Status Indians : 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.
  • 2 : Don McCaskill, “Native People and the Justice System,” in As Long as the Sun Shines and Water Flows, 289.
  • assimilation : This term refers to the process whereby one group or individual’s culture is absorbed into another, creating one single cultural entity, giving up distinct group or individual identity. Believing that indigenous cultures were inferior, the Canadian government, since the middle of the nineteenth century, put forth a series of policies to assimilate the Indigenous Peoples into settler Canadian society.
  • 3 : Don McCaskill, “Native People and the Justice System,” in As Long as the Sun Shines and Water Flows, 290.
  • self-identified : To self-identify means to define oneself as something without reference to or reliance on external—usually legal—definitions. Historically, many indigenous people in Canada had to self-identify because they did not fit inside the narrow and discriminatory scope of who was “Indian” as defined by the Indian Act.
  • 4 : “History of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada,” Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development website, accessed March 5, 2015. Bonita Lawrence, “Gender, Race, and the Regulation of Native Identity in Canada and the United States: An Overview,” Hypatia 18 (2003), 6.
  • 5 : Excerpt from the Indian Act, 1876, “CHAP. 18: An Act to amend and consolidate the laws respecting Indians,” April 12, 1876.
  • 6 : Regarding the law, McCaskill explains: “Colonialism involves a relationship which leaves one side dependent on the other to define the world. At the individual level, colonialism involves a situation where one individual is forced to relate to another on terms unilaterally defined by the other. The [legal] system [thus] becomes a central institution with which to impose the life of the dominant society.” See McCaskill, “Native People and the Justice System,” 289.
  • 7 : John Milloy, “Indian Act Colonialism: A Century of Dishonour, 1869–1969,” research paper for the National Centre for First Nations Governance, May 2008, accessed March 5, 2015.
  • 8 : Christopher Powell and Julia Peristerakis, “Genocide in Canada: A Relational View,” in Colonial Genocide and Indigenous North America, ed. Andrew Woolford, Jeff Benvenuto, and Alexander Laban Hinton (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014), 81.
  • 9 : In British Victorian culture, women were discouraged from playing a role in public life. They were to stay at home and care for the family. In contrast, indigenous women were as important as—in some nations, more important than—men in running the affairs of their clan or band. See Joanne Barker, “Gender, Sovereignty, Rights,” American Quarterly 60, no. 2 (June 2008), 262.
  • 10 : For more details, see Bonita Lawrence, “Gender, Race, and the Regulation of Native Identity in Canada and the United States: An Overview,” Hypatia 2, vol. 18 (Spring 2003), 7–8.
  • 11 : The Report of the Royal Commission of Aboriginal Peoples, 1996, vol. 1, 55.


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