Philosophy of the Indian Act, 1876 The first Indian Act adopted an explicit vision of assimilation, in which Indians would be encouraged to leave behind their Indian status and traditional cultures and become full members of the broader Canadian society. In this context, Indians were viewed as children or wards of the state, to which the
Philosophy of the Indian Act, 1876
The first Indian Act adopted an explicit vision of assimilation, in which Indians would be encouraged to leave behind their Indian status and traditional cultures and become full members of the broader Canadian society. In this context, Indians were viewed as children or wards of the state, to which the government had a paternalistic duty to protect and civilize. This underlying philosophy was clearly expressed by the Canadian Department of the Interior in its 1876 annual report:
“Our Indian legislation generally rests on the principle, that the aborigines are to be kept in a condition of tutelage and treated as wards or children of the State. …the true interests of the aborigines and of the State alike require that every effort should be made to aid the Red man in lifting himself out of his condition of tutelage and dependence, and that is clearly our wisdom and our duty, through education and every other means, to prepare him for a higher civilization by encouraging him to assume the privileges and responsibilities of full citizenship.” (Report of the Royal Commission on Indigenous Peoples, 1996)
It is important to note the change in Indigenous policy from the Royal Proclamation, 1763 to the first Indian Act. The first Indian Act maintained the Crown’s role as trustee of Indigenous interests but had a very different view of that relationship. No longer were Indigenous groups viewed as autonomous quasi-Nations within the broader Canadian political system, to which the Crown had an obligation to protect from abuse and encroachment from European colonial society.
Key Provisions of the Indian Act, 1876
The Indian Act, 1876 adopted much of the basic framework established in previous Indigenous legislation, with some minor alterations.
First, the Act maintained the centralized administration of Indigenous affairs, with a Superintendent General of Indian Affairs, which was a cabinet position, who had broad discretionary powers in dealing with Indians and their lands.
The Act also continued the practice of imposing a definition of Indian status on Indigenous groups, thus ensuring that it was the Canadian government, and not Indigenous groups themselves, that had the power to decide who was, and who was not, Indigenous. However, the Act did place a stronger emphasis on male lineage in its definition of Indian status. Under the Act, the term “Indian” now referred to 1) any male of Indian blood reputed to belong to a particular band; 2) any child of such person; and 3) any woman who is or who was married to such a person. Moreover, the Act explicitly denied Indian status to the Métis of Manitoba, which were persons of mixed Indigenous and European decent.
The Act also maintained and broadened the system of enfranchisement, by which Indians could lose their Indian status and gain full citizenship. Previously, Indians could voluntarily apply for enfranchisement if they met certain criteria. Moreover, compulsory enfranchisement occurred for Indian women when they married non-Indian men. In addition to maintaining these provisions, the Act allowed for the compulsory enfranchisement of any Indians who received a university degree or who became a doctor, lawyer or clergyman, regardless of whether they desired to lose their Indian status and gain full citizenship.
Regarding self-government, the Act continued the system of elected chiefs and band councils, who served for three years, and had limited bylaw powers. As before, the Act granted the Superintendent General the power to impose democratic systems on Indigenous groups, regardless of whether they were desired.
Moreover, the Act allowed the Superintendent General to order a reserve to be surveyed and divided into lots, and then require band members to obtain tickets for individual plots of land. This allowed the government to promote individualism amongst Indians, by breaking up communal use of reserve lands, and encouraging practices of individual ownership of property.
Finally, the Act also included many protective features. No one other than an “Indian of the Band” could live on or use reserve lands without licence from the Superintendent General. Moreover, no federal or provincial taxation on real estate or personal property was permitted on a reserve; no liens under provincial law could be placed on Indigenous property; and no Indigenous property could be seized for debt.
Assimilation Reinforced: The Indian Act from 1876 to 1951
Since its introduction in 1876, the Indian Act has undergone several amendments and reforms. The following provides a summary of key changes to the Indian Act during the period 1876 to 1951.
Between 1876 and 1950, the purpose of the Indian Act was to strengthen the philosophy of civilization and assimilation underlying the first Act. Moreover, many of the changes to the Act granted the government greater powers to move Indigenous and expropriate their lands for the purpose of non-Indigenous use.
Key amendments to the Indian Act during this period include:
1876: Defining Indian as non-person of Canada.
- The creation of an officer, the Superintendent General.
- Crown Control of Band Funds: “the proceeds arising for the sale or lease of any Indian lands, or from timber, hay, stone, minerals or other valuables thereon…, shall be paid to the Receiver General for the credit of the Indian fund.”
- Control of Band Membership. Defining who is Indian.
- Band reserves as an instrument for segregation of Indians from Canada. (“No Trespassing” signs were posted on the boundaries off reserves).
- Attacking historic status of women as leaders.
1880: Development of Indian Affairs.
- Enfranchisement Act (Attacking the educated, Indian Status and Treaty Rights)
- Minister the power to dispose any Chief or Headmen.
- Indian Agents made Justices of the Peace to control every aspect of Indians and their lands.
1884: A criminal offense for a band member to move to a reserve of his choice.
- Suppressing Indian disorder or gathering (3 or more Indians gathered is inciting riot).
- Disarming First Nations.
- Compulsory attendance to residential schools (mandatory for Indigenous children from the age of 5 to the age of 17).
1885: Prohibition of several traditional Indigenous ceremonies.
- Pass system on reserves. Indians had to pay a fee to an Indian Agent and to get his permission to leave the reserve.
- Indians are not allowed to use modern machinery for agricultural use.
1888: Implementing a permit system regulating control what Indians could buy, sell or transact.
1889: Attacking and eliminating traditional tribal governance systems. Introducing Colonial Band Elections that are currently in place.
1894: Removal of band control over non-Indigenous living on reserves. This power was transferred to the Superintendent General of Indian Affairs.
- Further Attacking Culture, Language on Reserves: Prohibition of traditional Indigenous ceremonies, such as potlatches, give-aways, dancing, and traditional and cultural gatherings.
1905: Power to remove Indigenous Peoples from reserves near towns with more than 8,000 Peoples.
1911: Power to expropriate portions of reserves for roads, railways, and other public works, as well as to move an entire reserve away from a municipality if it was deemed expedient.
1912: Power to override Treaties.
1914: Requirement that western Indians seek official permission before appearing in Indian “costume” in any public dance, show, exhibition, stampede, or pageant.
- War measures powers of crown, Band funds spent without Indian consent, lands leased without a surrender or consent.
- All dances and ceremonies outlawed in Canada.
1918: Power to lease out uncultivated reserve lands to non-Indigenous if the new leaseholder would use it for farming or pasture.
1920: Unilateral Enfranchisement of Band Members, attacking the educated and war veterans.
1927: Prohibition of anyone (Indigenous or otherwise) from soliciting funds for Indigenous legal claims without special licence from the Superintendent General. This amendment granted the government control over the ability of Indians to pursue land claims and, or defend themselves against government’s laws.
- Forbade Indigenous Peoples from forming political organizations.
- Denied Indigenous Peoples from speaking their native language.
1930: NRTA: Transfer of natural resources to provincial governments to further distances First Nations from their own Lands and Territories. A violation of Treaty Rights and a failure of the Honour of the Crown.
- Prohibition of pool hall owners from allowing entrance of an Indigenous who “by inordinate frequenting of a pool room either on or off an Indian reserve misspends or wastes his time or means to the detriment of himself, his family or household.”
White Spotted Horse, Anishinaabe, Treaty 2 Territory