1857, the British passed a law for the Canadian colonies called "An Act of Gradual Civilization." It was suppose
to promote the native people to give up their land, language,
culture and rights in exchange for full British citizenship.
So this basically meant that if a native man learned to read
and signed a pledge to "live as a white man" he
would be allowed to vote, own property and serve on a jury.
Over the next 20 years very few First Nations
people took advantage of the act, most seen it as a way to
strip them even further of their remaining and diminishing
land base. In 1876 the Dominion of Canada took over responsibility
for Native People in the North west ( NWT, Man, Sask and Alb).
The Indian Act of 1876 essentially made "Status Indians"
wards of the Crown. It also judged the lives of First Nations
people. It gave them restrictions equally important it
ranged from rules about how they would elect leaders to how
their children would be educated and how their estates would
be dealt with after death.
The act named the reserve land to crown represented
by the Minister of Indian Affairs calling it "crown Land
set aside for the use of a Band of Indians." In 1876
they changed the act so it would become illegal for Indians
to sell or produce goods without permission from he local
Indian Agent. This left the Indian Agent to be the ultimate
power. The Indian Agent had to give the Indians a written
consent form for the Indians leaving the reserve for any reason
Over the next 100 years the Act continued to
amend a number of times. With each time it changed it became
more clear that it was aimed at efficient methods of assimilating
the Indians to the white society. An example of the would
be the banning of the "Sun Dance" an important ritual
of the Lakota and other Plains aboriginal cultures. On the
west coast the "Pot Latch", an elaborate ceremony
of feasting and gift giving was also banned. during the same
period, still with an eye to forced assimilation, the Act
authorized the forced removal of children to Residential Schools
and stripped any Indian who obtained a University Education
or Ordination of his rights under the Act.
So-called "Pass Laws" and bans on
the Sun Dance and Pot Latch were repealed in the 1950's. Indian
Act prohibition made it illegal for Status Indians to possess
alcohol which was also repealed in 1970, Status Indians finally
won the vote in 1961.
Chretien and the Politics of Self-Governance
move to assimilation culminated with the "White Paper" of 1969. The proposal was presented by then Indian Affairs
Minister Jean Chretien. It would have lead to the repeal of
the Indian Act. However, it also would have led to the termination
of treaties and any other special status granted First Nations
The defeat of the "White Paper" is
seen by many as the most important political victory for Canada's
First Nations, however it was a mixed blessing. While the
Chretien legislation was eventually withdrawn, the Indian
Act remained in place and with it maintaining restrictions
on First Nations.
Since the failed White paper of 1969 there have
been several important changes to the Indian Act. Most of
the amendments have been introduced to bring the Act into
line with the "Charter of Rights and Freedoms" and
other aspects of the Canadian Constitution that was patriated
C-95 and the feminization of the Indian Act
In 1985 the Act had been amended so Status Indian
women who married non-Indians would no longer lose their status
and named as Treaty Indians and that status also flowed to
The amendment, Bill C-95 was supposed to end
offensive discrimination against women but it caused some
unforeseen problems. After the status rules were changed many
Indian Bands doubled because of the reclamation of status
by thousands of people. This increase in population put more
pressure on budgets for housing education and health. Bill
C-95 also underlined the lack of control over membership band
organizations really have.
This lack of power stemmed from the Indian Act.
Jurisdiction over "Citizenship" remains an issue
of contention between First Nations and the federal government.
While most of the ideas in the 1969 paper never came to fruition,
the move to reduce the size and power of the federal Department
of Indian and Northern Affairs went ahead - albeit in an ad-hoc
way. Many of the powers once held by the department and the
Indian Agent were quietly transferred to Band Chiefs and Band
Councils. This move caused several internal problems that
have never been addressed.
A Royal Commission
The next forceful movement for a change was
the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People. This was the
most sweeping look at the Aboriginal Canadians in
history. The results recommended what Native Leaders had
been saying for decades - the Indian Act is outdated and
In June the Minister of Indian Affairs Robert
Nault introduced a new piece of legislation called "
the Governance Act." Among other things the act proposes
new election rules for Indian Band leadership. It also seeks
to establish strict guidelines for financial reporting by
Chiefs and Councils to their members.
The proposed changes would also allow bands
to take full title of their reserve land, meaning bands
could use lands to back mortgages, lease or sell them. The
proposals have not been well received by First Nation's
leaders. Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Matthew
Coon Come and Chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian
Nations Perry Bellgarde have been among the most vocal opponents
of the proposed Governance Act.