Did You Know?

Philosophy of the Indian Act

 two row wampum belt3

 You say that you are our Father and I am your son. We say, We will not be like Father and Son, but like Brothers. This wampum belt confirms our words. These two rows will symbolize two paths or two vessels, traveling down the same river together. One, a birch bark canoe, will be for the onkwehón:we, their laws, their customs and their ways. The other, a ship, will be for the white people and their laws, their customs and their ways. We shall each travel the river together, side by side, but in our boat. Neither of us will make compulsory laws or interfere in the internal affairs of the other. Neither of us will try to steer the other’s vessel.”

As long as the Sun shines upon this Earth, that is how long OUR Agreement will stand; Second, as long as the Water still flows; and Third, as long as the Grass Grows Green at a certain time of the year. Now we have Symbolized this Agreement and it shall be binding forever as long as Mother Earth is still in motion.”  Rotinonshón:ni-Dutch Two Row Wampum Treaty of 1613


“I am a red man. If the Great Spirit had desired me to be a white man he would have made me so in the first place. He put in your heart certain wishes and plans, in my heart he put other and different desires. Each man is good in his sight. It is not necessary for Eagles to be Crows.”  – Sitting Bull Hunkpapa Sioux (Tatanka Iyotake)


Race Legislation Concerning Canada’s First Peoples – The Indian Act

Government legislation, past and present, on Indians was all aimed at assimilation. In the nineteenth century, the goal of government was to make Canada’s native cultures disappear. It was expected that native people would be assimilated, meaning that they would give up their own culture, languages, beliefs, identity and legal rights, and live and act just like the British and Canadian settlers.

But Canada’s First Peoples had no intention of giving up their Nationhood, culture, or the government’s convenience of dying out.

Before 1850, Indian legislation had been incomplete, enacted piecemeal and virtually unenforceable. After 1850, two objectives emerged: 1) protection of Indians from destructive elements of “white society until Christianity and education raised them to an acceptable level and 2) protection of Indian lands until Indian people were able to occupy and protect them in the same way as other citizens. To these ends, the 1850 Land Acts and the 1857  Civilization and Enfranchisement Acts were carefully framed. Their main provisions, in intent if not always in letter, formed the foundation for subsequent Indian legislation after 1867.

The dark hidden part of the Canadian history is the Indian Act of 1876 and its ongoing legacy. The Indian Act was used as inspiration for policies of apartheid in South Africa and, some would say,  Palestine, among others around the world.

It was first passed in 1876, yet more than a century later it has scarcely changed in tone and direction. It is a pain to the First Nations peoples whose destinies it controls, and an embarrassment to the nation of Canada, for its abandonment has been a subject of perpetual debate for the last 50 years. To anyone who has looked into it for 10 minutes, the very existence of this strange piece of legislation must remain a source of astonishment and dismay. Yet it persists. Most Canadians know little about the Indian Act. Though its development in the second half of the last century is one of the most extraordinary episodes in the history of Canada, Canadians remain relentlessly ignorant of it.


  • An Act to Encourage the Gradual Civilization of Indian Tribes in this Province, and to Amend the Laws Relating to Indians, passed by the Province of Canada in 1857. Commonly referred to as the Gradual Civilization Act, this statute was the first to introduce the concept of enfranchisement or the process by which Aboriginals lost their Indian status and became full British subjects. In introducing the Act, the colonial government viewed enfranchisement as a privilege for Aboriginals, by which they could gain their freedom from the protected Indian status and gain the rights of full colonial citizenship, such as the right to vote. It is at this point that the strategies of civilization and assimilation begin their legislative existence, with colonial authorities encouraging Aboriginals to forgo their Indian status and be drawn into the larger colonial society as regular citizens (and, hence, become “civilized”). The era of Assimilation and Ethnocide policies begins in Canada.

Under the Act, only Aboriginal men could seek enfranchisement. In order to do so, they had to be over the age of 21, able to read and write in either English or French, be reasonably well educated, free of debt, and of good moral character as determined by a commission of non-Aboriginal examiners” (Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, 1996).  In 1933, an amendment to The Indian Act enforced assimilation even further (involuntary). That amendment empowered the government to order the enfranchisement of First Nations members who met the qualifications set out in the act, even when they had not requested this.

  • Section 91(24) of the Constitution Act, 1867 grants to the federal government, rather than provinces, exclusive jurisdiction over “Indians, and lands reserved for the Indians”. The federal government (ASSUMED THIS AUTHORITY) implemented their responsibility through the Indian Act. The BNA was drafted in part to provide policy “teeth” for Sir John A. MacDonald’s new Indian policy. The Act specified how First Nation peoples were put ‘under the protection’ of the Crown. It provided the Canadian legal base for the treaties, and it emphasized the government’s central priorities for the Indians for “assimilation, enfranchisement, and civilization.”
  • The first Canadian Indian Act of 1876 is passed, consolidating and revising all existing law affecting Indians in existing provinces and setting certain responsibilities of the federal government pursuant to the British North American Act of 1867.  The Indian Act adopted an explicit vision of assimilation, in which First Nations would be encouraged to leave behind their Indian status and traditional cultures and become full members of the broader Canadian society. In this context, First Nations 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 Hon. David Laird told the House of Commons that “they should not attempt to act in any way contrary to the views of the Indians, at least as far as their right to property were concerned”. He said this was “the policy of the Administration.”  However, Laird also said, “Indians must either be treated as minors or as white men.” The Deputy Superintendent of Indian Affairs said that “the legal status of Indians of Canada is that of minors with the Government as their guardians.”

“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.”

It is important to note the change in Aboriginal policy from the Royal Proclamation, 1763 (being Allies) to the first Canadian Indian Act of 1876 (now Wards of Canada). The first Indian Act maintained the Crown’s role as trustee of Indian interests, but had a very different view of that relationship. No longer were Aboriginal 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. Moreover, many of the changes to the Act granted the government greater powers to force Indians onto Reserves and expropriate their lands for the purpose of non-Indian use (A Treaty violation). In the Act, a Band had to have its meeting in the presence of the Superintendent General or his Indian agent (Today, Band Council Resolution or BCR must be forwarded to government). Authority was given to the Governor in Council to depose Chiefs and their traditional tribal systems. Provisions were added to allow the Superintendent General to exclude illegitimate children, those who were absent in a foreign country for more than five years without permission, and those who had taken land scrip.

Between 1876 and 1950, the purpose of the amendments to the Indian Act was to strengthen the philosophy of enfranchisement, assimilation and civilization to government control. Moreover, many of the changes to the Act granted the government greater powers to move the First Nations and expropriate their lands for the purpose of non-Aboriginal use. It was always about getting the control of the land away from the First Nations. Key amendments to the Indian Act during this period include:

  • 1874: Being intoxicated on- or off -reserve is punishable by one month in jail. Failure to name the seller of the alcohol could lead to additional 14 days imprisonment.
  • 1876: Defining Indian as non-person of Canada.
  • 1876: The creation of an officer, the Superintendant-General.
  • 1876: 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 valiables thereon…, shall be paid to the Receiver General for the credit of the Indian fund. [Note to Canadians: You, as taxpayers are not paying for Indian Affairs budget. This comes from the revenue generated of Canada’s natural resources.]
  • 1876: Control of Band Membership. Defining who is Indian.
  • 1876: Reserves as an instrument for segregation of First Peoples from Canada. “No Trespassing” signs were posted on the boundaries off reserves.
  • 1876: Attacking historic status of women as leaders.
  • 1880: Development of Indian Affairs.
  • 1880: Enfranchisement Act (Attacking the educated, Indian Status and Treaty Rights)
  • 1880: Minister the power to dispose any Chief or Headmen.
  • 1881: Indian Agents made Justices of the Peace to control every aspect of Indians and their lands.
  • 1884: Suppressing Indian disorder (3 or more Indians gathered is inciting riot).
  • 1884: Disarming First Nations.
  • 1884: Compulsory attendance to residential schools (mandatory for Aboriginal children from the age of 5 to the age of 17).
  • 1885: Pass system on reserves. Indians had to pay a fee to an Indian Agent and to get his permission to leave the reserve.
  • 1885: Indians are not allowed to use modern machinery.
  • 1888: Implementing a permit system regulating control what Indians could buy, sell or transact.
  • 1889: Attacking and eliminating traditional tribal governance systems. Introducing Band Elections.
  • 1894: Attacking Culture, Language and Reserves: Prohibition of traditional Indigenous ceremonies, such as Potlatches, Give-aways, Sun Dance or any traditional gatherings.
  • 1894: Removal of band control over non-Aboriginals living on reserves. This power was transferred to the Superintendent General of Indian Affairs.
  • 1905: Power to remove First Nation peoples from reserves near towns with more than 8,000 people.
  • 1910: The “Final Solution to End the Indian Problem” is the response of government to the reports of the high deaths rates children of the Indian residential schools. In British Columbia alone, the death of 4,000 children between the age of 5 to 18 years old were reported by the Truth and Reconciliation of Canada in 2013. See website: http://www.trc.ca/websites/trcinstitution/index.php?p=26
  • 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. (Indians out of sight – out of mind)
  • 1912: Power to override Treaties.
  • 1914: War measures powers of crown, Band funds spent without Indian consent, lands leased without a surrender.
  • 1914: All dances and ceremonies outlawed.
  • 1918: Power to lease out uncultivated reserve lands to non-Aboriginals if the new leaseholder would use it for farming or pasture.
  • 1920: Unilateral Enfranchisement of Band Members, attacking the educated and war veterens.
  • In 1922, Dr. Peter Bryce, Canada’s first chief medical health officer, published The Story of a National Crime, a book that outlined statistical evidence that Canada’s Aboriginal population was being destroyed by tuberculosis and the federal government had the means to stop it. Also, reported that the Indian Residential schools were a death trap. Children up to 50 percent of them lost their lives to disease, malnutrition, neglect, and abuse. (One in two children!) The government ignored Bryce’s warnings and fired him for publishing reports on the tuberculosis crisis. 
  • 1922: Requirement that western Indians seek official permission before appearing in Indian “costume” in any public dance, show, exhibition, stampede or pageant.
  • 1927: Prohibition of anyone (Aboriginal or otherwise) from soliciting funds for Aboriginal legal claims without special license from the Superintendent General. This amendment granted the government absolute control over the ability of Aboriginals to pursue land claims.
  • 1927: Forbade First Nations People from forming political organizations.
  • 1927: Denied Aboriginal Peoples from speaking their native language.
  • 1929: Involuntary Sterilization Laws targeting females at Indian residential schools could legally be made infertile.
  • 1930: NRTA: Transfer of natural resources to provincial governments to further distances First Nations from their Lands and Territories. A further erosion of Treaty Rights.
  • 1930: Prohibition of pool hall owners from allowing entrance of an Indian 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.”
  • 1933: Voluntary Enfranchisement to encourage working off the reserves by becoming Non-status Indians.
  • 1940’s and early 1950’s: Government conducted Nutrition Research and Human Biomedical Experimentation in Aboriginal Communities and on First Nations children in Indian residential schools.
  • 1945: First Nations Canadian Veterans under the the Veterans’ Land Act denied benefits. “Good enough to give their lives abroad – forgotten at home.” Aboriginal people have fought for Canada in every overseas conflict in the twentieth century even though its a treaty right not to fight in world conflicts. 
  • 1947: The Jenness Liquidation Plan: The Liquidation of Canada’s Indian Problem within Twenty-five Years.
  • 1951: (The Act is revised to allow some freedoms) Minister of Indian Affairs is granted broader discretionary powers over the implementation of the Act as well as the daily lives of Indians on reserves (from birth to the grave). Parliament would allow that provincial law to apply to Indians on reserves. [After 1952, the Act remains substantially unrevised to 1990’s except in regards to the so-called “discrimination against Indian women (Bill C-31).”]
  • 1960: An Indian person could now have the right to vote federally without having to give up their Indian status.
  • 1961: Compulsory enfranchisement provisions were removed from the Indian Act, meaning that First Nations could no longer be forced to give up their Indian status.

Canada’s genocide legacy continues today under the Indian Act:

 Genocide – Systemic, planned annihilation/destruction of a racial, political or cultural group.

The Indian Act made it very clear “the term person means an individual other than an Indianin Canada.  This simple provision allowed Canadians to treat Indians as non-person or sub-human.  The Indians are effectively removed from all basic human rights.  A Mohawk summed up the Indian Act this way; “the Indian Agent’s duties are becoming more and more like the commander of an internment camp of a defeated enemy.”  Each Indian, like any prisoner of war is given a Indian Status number that over time became like a surname.  His movements are restricted and governed, he could not buy or sell the products of his labour, and he could not practice his religion nor raise his children in his religious tradition.  The Indian Act failed to completely subjugate the Indigenous peoples and religious ceremonies are conducted in isolated places.

THE INDIAN ACT IS BASICALLY NOT THE SOURCE OF SUBSTANTIVE OR BASIC INDIAN RIGHTS (Indian Act is not a Treaty right!); IT MERELY TELLS HOW TO ADMINISTRATE OVER AND THE EVENTUAL ABOLITION OF SPECIAL RIGHTS FOR FIRST NATIONS. Currently, 76% of First Nations is under direct Minister’s control. Most, want Self – Government and to move away from the Colonial Legacy of the Indian Act.

The effect of the Indian Act on First Nation peoples was to transform independent Indigenous Nations into physically marginalized and economically impoverished ‘bands,’ and individuals into “wards of the state.” Through the Indian Act, the federal government has denied First Nation peoples the basic rights that most Canadians take for granted. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1996) called the Indian Act “the single most prominent reflection of the distinctive place of Indian peoples within the Canadian federation … marked by singular disparities in legal rights with Indian people subject to penalties and prohibitions that would have been ruled illegal and unconstitutional if they had been applied to anyone else in Canada.”

It is the only archaic legislation in the world designed for a particular race of people. It influences all aspect of a First Nations person’s life from birth to death. Indian Bands were created, forcing First Nation peoples on reserves and Indian Agents became the intermediaries between First Nations and the rest of the country of Canada. It is not about protecting the rights of First Nations. It is about control of a certain segment of society. It was always about taking the land and their territories away from the First Nations. That is all the Indian Act does.

To this day, the provisions of the Indian Act allow for the administration of “Indians on Reserves”in areas such as: governance, education, taxation, management of land, and membership continues under the federal government control. The colonial rule of the Indian Act has to be abandoned. There needs to be a renewed Treaty policy within Canada that reflects a genuine First Nations and Crown Relationship that supports First Nations inherent right of self-government within Canada – A Path of Healing and Reconciliation must prevail. Education of all Canadians plays a key and crucial role for this Reconciliation to occur.  


“The history of our people needs to be told. We need to present accurately what happened in the past, so that we can deal with it in the future … I don’t like what happened over the last 500 years. We can’t do much about that. But what are we going to do about the next 500 years? What are we going to do about the next ten years?”  George Erasmus, Dene, National Chief of Assembly of First Nations, c. 1990


“We believe the relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in Canada must change. We believe it can. The cycle of blame and guilt; grievance and denial; frustration and fear can be broken. It is time to renew, to turn the page.

It does not befit this great democracy, a place that prides itself on its compassion, its respect for rights and the law, to perpetuate within its midst and throughout most of its history a systematic disregard for the contractual relationship with Aboriginal people that first allowed this country to come into existence.

Not only does this not befit this country.

We cannot afford to allow the present situation to persist.

The legacy of Canada’s treatment of Aboriginal people is one of waste: wasted potential, wasted money, wasted lives.

It is measured in statistic after statistic: in the rates of suicide; of substance abuse; of incarceration; of unemployment; of welfare dependence; of low educational attainment; of poor health and poor housing.” Rene Dussault, Address for the launch of the report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1996)


”Aboriginal reality in Canada has become a vicious circle of cause and effect. If that vicious circle is to become a healing circle, the roots of injustice must be addressed. Instead of problem feeding problem, solution must feed solution.

The roots of injustice lie in history and it is there where the key to the regeneration of Aboriginal society and a new and better relationship with the rest of Canada can be found.

Aboriginal peoples were nations before the first European settlers arrived. They were nations, and recognized as such, in the Royal Proclamation of 1763 which confirmed and codified the relationship with Aboriginal peoples. They were nations, and recognized as such, when they signed treaties to share their land and resources.

And they remain nations today in their coherence, their distinctiveness and their understanding of themselves and the world. There was no conquest, no giving up of rights. What there was, was a partnership, expressed in law, embedded in our history.”  – George Erasmus, Address for the launch of the report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1996)


“When the present does not recognize the wrongs of the past, the future takes its revenge … For that reason, we must never, never turn away from the opportunity of confronting history together — the opportunity to right a historical wrong.”  – Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean tells an audience that included Indian residential school survivors. October 15, 2009.


“The cost — in lost opportunities —-of not meeting this challenge is unacceptably high, both for First Nations and for Canada. This is a Canadian issue, not an Aboriginal issue, and we must all shoulder our responsibility as Canadians. This is an urgent moment in our shared history. Together, Canadians must act decisively, and boldly. Canada must succeed.”  –   THE STANDING SENATE COMMITTEE ON ABORIGINAL PEOPLES , 41th Parliament, 1st Session, December 2011 –  The Honourable Gerry St. Germain, P.C. Chair


All Canadians need to know more of the Aboriginal History of Canada:

Why don’t you people just get over it? Well, umm…. first you need to understand?

That’s the gist of this video put together by Canada’s largest labor union, the Public Service Alliance of Canada, which celebrated National Aboriginal Day on June 21 by launching a new campaign, Justice for Aboriginal Peoples—It’s Time!

“Aboriginal Peoples in this country have endured centuries of oppression and face many challenges in their struggle for justice. This struggle is not only for the First Peoples of this nation to take on,” the union says on its site. “Treaties were signed between First Nations and the Government of Canada—the people we elected to represent us. So we all have a responsibility to ensure that the terms and conditions of those treaties are met.”

Deftly encapsulating centuries of shared history, this video pinpoints just when it went acrimonious between the First Nations and the settlers. The bring-it-home stats that hit the opening line’s question out of the park are strictly Canadian, but the story told beforehand applies to all of Turtle Island (North America).

Why don’t you just get over it? Check out this video to hear Aboriginal union members spell it out succinctly.


******** UPDATE*********

Hundreds of First Nations Chiefs gathered in Ottawa on January 24, 2012 for a landmark meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

The Crown-First Nations gathering is being billed as a summit meant to rebuild the relationship between Canada and the First Nations. Many Chiefs also hope it will provide some concrete solutions to the most pressing issues facing their communities and open the door for regular meetings in the future. Most have called for the replacement of the Indian Act.

In response, Prime Minister Stephen Harper went out of his way to say that the Act isn’t going anywhere soon. “To be sure, our government has no grand scheme to repeal or to unilaterally re-write the Indian Act: After 136 years, that tree has deep roots … blowing up the stump would just leave a big hole.” He went on to explain that his approach would be, instead, to replace parts of the Act or make changes that don’t require new legislation. But far from creating an atmosphere of co-operation and consensus, Harper’s comments left the impression that he and the Chiefs are in disagreement about a fundamental question that the Chiefs want to move forward faster than he does. To Canadians listening to the summit, it sounded an awful lot like Harper was saying “no,” before the discussion even really began. For most pragmatic and principled reasons, Harper should have used the summit to laud the Chiefs who want to move beyond the Indian Act, and tell the country that he’s ready to do the same. The problems that face many First Nations communities are extreme. They cannot be solved without fundamentally altering the relationship between First Nations and the federal government. This is no time for political timidity or maintaining the status quo.

First Nations are calling out for their Allies, the Canadians, to join us in restoring honour and justice within Canada.  The Idle No More Movement is not just for Aboriginal Peoples – Its for all the People of Canada.

My name is White Spotted Horse, Mii’Gwech!


“When ever the white man treats the Indian as they treat each other, Then we will have no more wars. We shall all be alike – brothers or one father and one another, with one sky above us and one country around us, and one government for all.” 

Chief Joseph 
(Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-keky) Nez perce,
1840- 1904     

1 Response to “Did You Know?”

  • Hi Allen,
    I was moved by your seminar on the history of first nations people in Canada at our ASEC conference at the Victoria Inn in Winnipeg. (I introduced you as a traditional and contemporary man.) I will gladly share your web site with my students.

Leave a Reply