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Legislation Concerning Canada's First Peoples

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

But Canada's First Peoples had no intention of giving up their culture, or of dying out.

The 1857 "Civilization of Indian Tribes Act", enacted by the British colonial government, declared that Indians who were "sufficiency advanced education wise or capable of managing their own affairs" would be enfranchised, i.e. given the vote. That law was the first of many seeking to encourage First Nation's People to relinquish their land, language, culture and existing rights in exchange for full British/Canadian citizenship. The law basically said that if an Indian man learned to read and signed a pledge to "live as a white" he was allowed to vote, own property, and serve on juries. But, he would lose all his Aboriginal rights. Very few First Nations "took advantage" of the act and most saw it as an attempt to strip them of their remaining land base.

First Nations people had no intention of assimilating, or disappearing. They also had no intention of giving up their rights or their special status. They began to form political organizations at the provincial and the national level. Their political power, and national voice increased.

Confederation: Transfer of Responsibility to the Government of Canada

In 1867, the British North America Act transferred reponsibility for Canada's First Peoples was transferred from the British to the Canadian government. The Canadian government now had the sole authority to negotiate treaties with the Indians, and purchase their land.

Yet, at the same time, the Canadian government was supposed to be looking after the Indians' best interests. It was a huge conflict of interest, that led to many abuses.

The Indian Act 1876

The 1876 Indian Act attempted to consolidate all existing legislation that covered First Nations and their relationship to Canada. The Act was designed to protect the land that First Nations still had left to them. But, under the act, title to the land still belonged to the Crown, which would administer the land on behalf of the First Nations people through the representative of the Minister of Indian Affairs (the Indian agent). A Reserve was deemed "Crown Land set aside for the use of a Band of Indians."

The theme throughout the new Act remained that of assimilation and "civilizing" of the Indians. Their Indian status was regarded as a temporary stage on the road to assimilation. They were expected to settle down and learn to become farmers. (Some cynics thought they would just disappear.)

The Indian Act of 1876 essentially made "Status Indians" wards of the Crown, and regulated their lives. Restrictions 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. First Nations were allowed virtually no self-governing powers.

Amendment to the Indian Act 1884

The Indian Advancement Act of 1884 tried to give wider powers over local government and the raising of money. Yet it took away the same powers by appointing the local Indian Agent as chairman of the Council. Over the next hundred years the Indian Act was amended a number of times but each time was aimed at a more efficient means of assimilating First Nations into white society. The Act was amended to ban the "Sun Dance" an important ritual among 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. 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.

The act vested title to reserve land to the Crown represented by the Minister of Indian Affairs deeming it "Crown Land set aside for the use of a Band of Indians."

The 1876 act also made it illegal for an Indian to sell or produce goods without the written permission of the local Indian Agent, who became the de-facto ruler of Indians on reserve. Indian Agents had to give written permission for Indians who wanted to leave the reserve for any reason.  

Status Indians were not allowed to vote until 1961.

Buffalo Bull's Back Fat - Chief
Painter - George Catlin 1832

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