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
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.
WHITE SPOTTED HORSE
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