5 facts you need to know about the Indian Act

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The Indian Act was created by the Canadian government in 1867. This Act is a set of rules that allows the government to manage Indian status, local First Nations groups, and reserve land.

The Indian Act also includes rules that aim to eliminate the differences in language and culture between the Indigenous Peoples and the Europeans. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in 2019, described the Indian Act as genocide.

The Indian Act still exists today, and continues to have a huge impact on Indigenous Peoples in Canada. Here are five important facts to know about the Act.

  1. It created the Residential School system (1879 to 1996)

    The purpose of the residential schools was to change Indigenous Peoples, so that they would live the same way as Europeans. They would do the same type of work, they would earn money, and they would live in one place. Residential schools were not about learning information, but about learning practical skills such as farming. Indigenous students spent their time doing physical work to keep the school, and the associated farm, in operation.

    Indigenous children were forced to live in schools far from their families. The children were forbidden from speaking their own language, practicing their beliefs, or fraternizing with their siblings. They also did manual labour for the churches running the schools. Some experienced physical and sexual abuse. The living conditions were so bad that many died. Because of these dismal conditions, many children ran away, but the RCMP would bring them back to the schools.

    This experience was genocide which has had long lasting negative effects on generations of Indigenous families. Based on the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, at least 6000 children died in these schools.

  2. The Act denied Indigenous people the right to vote (until 1960)

    Indigenous people were only allowed to vote if they gave up their special rights promised to them in the treaties made with the British government before Canada became a country.

    However, this was a process. An Indigenous person would have to apply, and if deemed worthy (for example if they were doctors, lawyers, ministers or priests, or had earned a degree) they would be approved. From 1876 to 1920, there were only 250 successful applications.

    In 1948, after the Second World War, where many Indigenous people served with distinction, the Canadian government decided to allow all Indigenous people to vote. Since Indigenous people would still lose their tax exemption if they voted, few of them exercised their right. Finally, in 1960, indigenous people were allowed to vote without conditions.

  3. It made culture and ceremonies illegal (1880 to 1951)

    The Potlach Law made Indigenous ceremonies illegal. The purpose of this law was to remove Indigenous culture, so that they would become more like British people. This was a racist law that wanted to stop indigenous people from practising their culture.

    One of the ceremonies that was considered illegal was the potlach – a large feast and a time to exchange gifts with people in the community. When Indigenous people continued to practice their culture, they were arrested, and their cultural objects (masks, clothing, instruments) were taken away permanently.

  4. It created reserves

    Map of reserves in Manitoba

    Map of reserves in Manitoba, by The Canadian Encyclopedia, data courtesy Natural Resources Canada and licensed under Open Government Licence-Canada

    To ensure that Europeans had good land to settle on in Canada, the Canadian government created reserves – areas of land where First Nations would live. There wasn’t a consistent process or criteria for assigning land. Some were given a small amount of land, and others a large amount. The quality of the land was not considered. They also did not take into account where Indigenous people originally lived.

    Today 40.6% of the 1,048,405 indigenous people in Canada live on reserves (2021 Census).

    Map showing number of First Nations People and proportion living on reserve

    Map – In 2021, 4 in 10 First Nations people with Registered or Treaty Indian status lived on reserve, Statistics Canada.

  5. It controlled movement of people and goods from the reserve (1885 to 1951)

    Under the Act, the government required Indigenous people to get a pass before they can leave the reserve. An indigenous person needed a pass to leave the reserve to sell their goods (wheat, vegetables, etc.), to visit other reserves, or to visit their children in residential schools.

    The creation of the rule was a reaction to the 1867 Red River Rebellion and the 1885 North-West Rebellion. These uprisings were led by Metis people (who are both French and Indigenous) who were fighting for land rights. The government wanted to stop Indigenous people from organizing rebellions, and from committing crimes (this is a racist belief). But it was imposed mostly to control their lives.

    This rule was enforced until 1951. This means that any indigenous person who is at least 73 years old today lived under this rule.

What can you do about the Indian Act?

The Indian Act has damaged indigenous culture and people, and continues to do damage. One of the consequences of the Act are the negative stereotypes about Indigenous people in Canada.

“A lot of the social ills (i.e. alcoholism, violence, verbal and sexual abuse, and suicide) found in Indigenous communities have their roots firmly placed in the dark halls of the residential school system.” (Bob Joseph, founder and President of Indigenous Corporate Training Inc.)

When you hear someone say things like “indigenous people are lazy”, or “indigenous people drink too much” you know this isn’t true. This is racism. Indigenous culture is beautiful, and it still exists despite the efforts of the Canadian government to destroy it.

The debate continues whether to abolish the Act or not. While everyone agrees that it is an outdated policy that discriminates, removing it is not a simple decision. This is because the Act also outlines Indigenous Peoples’ rights as status Indians, as well as their treaty rights. Some think that the better path would be to change it. Others suggest that creating new, modern-day treaties would be better.

Meanwhile, Indigenous Peoples continue to hope for equal treatment under the law. Many believe that until this happens, genuine reconciliation would not be possible.

Sources: Genocide and Indigenous Peoples in Canada, Residential Schools in Canada, Potlatch Ban, and Indian Act, Canadian Encyclopedia; 21 things you may not have not known about the Indian Act, Indigenous Corporate Training, Inc.; and A brief history of First Nations voting rights, Elections Canada. Accessed June 21, 2023.
By Nastashya Wall

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