The Indian Act and why you need to know about it

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Before Canada became a country, the British government made treaties (legal agreements) with the Indigenous people who lived on Turtle Island (the indigenous name for North America). These agreements decided where people would live and how everyone who behave with each other. In the treaties, Indigenous Peoples were equal to the Europeans.

Map showing First Nations and Treaty Areas in Manitoba

From the Government of Canada site

How did the Canadian Government treat Indigenous people?

After Canada became a country (in 1867), King George put the Canadian government in charge of the England’s relationship with the Indigenous Peoples.

Unfortunately the Canadian government broke the promises King George had made to the Indigenous Peoples in the treaties. In 1876, the Canadian government created The Indian Act. In 1887, then Canadian Prime Minister, Sir John A MacDonald, said:

“The great aim of our legislation has been to do away with the tribal system and assimilate the Indian people in all respects with the other inhabitants of the Dominion as speedily as they are fit to change.”

What is the Indian Act?

It is a set of guidelines that apply to all Indigenous Peoples in Canada. Its guidelines encompass all areas of life – culture, family, and business (read 21 Things you may not have known about the Indian Act to see a list of restrictions and impacts imposed on First Nations).

Guided by the Indian Act, the Canadian government restricted Indigenous lives, and tried to erase their culture. For example, Indian Agents were appointed. Indigenous people needed permission from their Indian Agent to leave their reserve. Reserves were often vast, and Indigenous people would travel long distances to speak with their Indian Agent. Sometimes the Indian Agent wasn’t at their home on the reserve, and the trip would be for nothing.

Amendments to the Indian Act also paved the way for the creation of Residential Schools. These institutions were created for indigenous children aged four to 16 to “civilize” them. Indigenous parents were forced to send their children to schools for 10 months a year. At these schools, children were not allowed speak their languages, were told that being indigenous was bad. Aside from these restrictions, many were abused by their caretakers.

In 2008, former Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized to the Indigenous Peoples on behalf of the Canadian government. He said:
“Two primary objectives of the Residential Schools system were to remove and isolate children from the influence of their home, families, traditions and cultures, and to assimilate into the dominant culture. These objectives were based on the assumption that Aboriginal cultures and spiritual beliefs were inferior and unequal. Indeed, some sought, as it was infamously said, ‘to kill the Indian in the child’. Today, we recognize that this policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm, and has no place in our country.” (Statement of apology to former students of Indian Residential Schools).

What can you do about the Indian Act?

The Indian Act, despite causing irreparable damage to generations of Indigenous people, is still in effect today. While we can’t erase it, we can support Indigenous people in many ways.

Learning about the history of Canada and the Indigenous Peoples is the essential first step to understanding their plight. When we know more, we judge less. We might even find that we share the same histories and challenges as the Indigenous Peoples of this land. This builds genuine empathy and respect.

Remember that Indigenous people have suffered a lot in the past, and despite all these challenges, they are standing strong and continuing to persist to overcome what has been done to them.
Sources: 21 things you may not have known about the Indian Act, Indigenous Corporate Training, Inc.; and Indian Act, The Canadian Encyclopedia. Accessed June 23,2023.

Further reading:

By Nastashya Wall

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