The Indian Act is a Canadian statute that was first passed in 1876 and that governs how the Canadian state interacts with the First Nations of Canada and their members. The Indian Act has two main features: it a) says how Reserves and Bands can operate, and b) defines who is (and who is not) recognized as Indian. It is often considered to be controversial, and it has been said that it was introduced as a way to enforce Euro-Canadian standards of “civilization”.

There have been many amendments to the original Indian Act over the years, one of the earliest being an 1884 amendment mandating that all Aboriginal children receive their education in either English or French, which eventually led to compulsory Residential Schools. Other amendments throughout the years have pertained to the “Euro-Canadian civilization of the Indian”. For example, there have been amendments that banned ceremonies and dancing (in 1884 an amendment banned Potlach ceremonies for West Coast peoples, in 1895 an amendment banned Sun Dance ceremony for Plains peoples, in 1914 dancing off-Reserve was outlawed and in 1925 dancing was outlawed altogether). There were even amendments that revoked an Aboriginal person’s status if they graduated from university, became Christian ministers, or achieved a professional designation, such as a doctor or lawyer. Worse still, Aboriginal women lost their status if they married a non-native man! The purpose of these amendments is said to have been to make Aboriginal people feel compelled to renounce their Indian status and join Canadian society “as full members”.

Thankfully, many of the discriminatory sections and amendments of the Indian Act have been revoked. The 1951 reforms led to the decriminalization of ceremony and other gatherings, communities being able to bring about land claims against the government, and women being able to vote in Band Council elections. In 1961 the “Compulsory Enfranchisement” section was removed putting an end to many assimilatory practices. Finally, in 1985 Bill C-31 reinstated status to those who had lost it through marriage.
Although the Indian Act still provides the Federal Government with the exclusive authority to govern “Indians and Lands Reserved for Indians”, many Aboriginal communities are now negotiating treaties with the government in the view of self-governance, just like the Sliammon Nation.
Feb 8, 2016
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