The Indian Act – 1876

The relationship between the British and Indigenous peoples changed fundamentally after the War of 1812. Indigenous peoples were no longer needed as military allies. New ideas about this relationship began to take hold. Ideas of British superiority began to emerge fueled by missionaries who believed that Indigenous peoples were ‘savage.’ The role of the government shifted from acknowledging the original peoples of the territories to one where the original peoples were in need of being saved. The government felt that it was their duty to bring Christianity and agriculture to Indigenous peoples. This task became the responsibility of the Indian Department, whose role shifted from solidifying military alliances to encouraging Indigenous peoples to abandon their traditional ways of life in favour of becoming more agricultural and sedentary, just like the British. The Indian Act was created to assimilate Indigenous peoples into mainstream society and contained policies intended to terminate the cultural, social, economic, and political distinctiveness of Indigenous peoples.

To be federally recognized as an Indian either in Canada or the United States, an individual must be able to comply with very distinct standards of government regulation… The Indian Act in Canada, in this respect, is much more than a body of laws that for over a century have controlled every aspect of Indian life. As a regulatory regime, the Indian Act provides ways of understanding Native identity, organizing a conceptual framework that has shaped contemporary Native life in ways that are now so familiar as to almost seem “natural.” (Lawrence, 2003)

The Indian Act originally administered by the Indian Department through Indian Agents has gone through numerous amendments since its creation in 1876. It is now administered by Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC), formerly the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (DIAND). The Indian Act (1876) is a Canadian federal law that granted the federal government exclusive rights to create legislation regarding Indian status, bands and Indian reserves (Milloy, 2008). In other words, who qualifies to be “Indian.” Under this legislation, the federal government regulated every aspect of life for registered Indians and reserve communities ranging from the imposition of governing structures such as band councils, to control over the rights of Indians to practice their culture and traditions.

Learning Activities

  1. Imagine for a moment that you are the Indian Agent tasked with regulating the lives of ‘Indian’ peoples on Reserve.
    1. How would you feel about disallowing ‘Indian’ people to hunt in their own territories?
    2. Now put yourself into the moccasins of the ‘Indian.’ How would you feel about being disallowed to hunt in your own territory?
  2. Take some time to explore one of the resources identified in the expanding your knowledge section below about the Indigenous perspective on the Indian Act.

    1. What new appreciation of the history around the establishment of the Indian Act do you now hold?
    2. What can you do, personally, to help educate others about this history?
    3. What can you do to aid in reconciliation?

Expanding Your Knowledge

  1. The following website contains more information about the Indian Act and subsequent policies aimed at assimilation of Indigenous peoples such as the Constitution Act of 1867, The Gradual Civilization Act of 1857, The Enfranchisement Act of 1869. It also includes information about the residential school policies and policies aimed at making it illegal to practice ceremonies.
    Indian Act
  2. The following Indian Act timeline link provides an overview of the events leading up to the establishment of the Indian Act and events that occurred after the Indian Act came into being:
    The Indian Act
  3. This research paper by Coates (2008) provides an Aboriginal perspective about the origins and impact of the Indian Act and how the imposition of the Indian Act has distorted the political structures and political cultures of Aboriginal communities across the country. This paper describes the various forms of resistance that Aboriginal peoples have undertaken in response to the Indian Act and highlights what the future of the Indian Act might look like moving forward.
    The Indian Act and the Future of Aboriginal Governance in Canada (Ken Coates).
  4. This website provides another source of information about the Indian Act from an Indigenous perspective:
    The Indian Act (Indigenous Foundations)
  5. The following link provides greater detail on key dates in the evolution of the relationship between Canada and the First Nations:
    Timeline Key dates for Canada’s dealing with First Nations
  6. The following links from the CBC dispel some of the myths about the Indian Act. The first link, “21 things you may not know about the Indian Act,” draws attention to some of the regressive and paternalistic attitudes that have resulted in the ways that the Indian Act continues to impact Indigenous peoples in Canada. The second link, “Indian Status: 5 more things you need to know,” clears up some of the myths around status cards and status Indians.
    21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act
    Indian Status: 5 More Things You Need to Know


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