Canadian History, Week One:
John Leslie, and Ron Maguire, eds., with Robert G. Moore, The Historical Development of the Indian Act, 2d ed. (Ottawa: Treaties and Historical Research Centre, Policy, Planning and Research Branch, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, 1978).
Leslie, Maguire and Moore set out to examine the main themes of Canadian Indian policy and legislation from colonial times to their present. Effectively, their text covers policy statements from 1670 to about 1960. Although general principles are discernible in the wording of policy over the period, in the absence of contextual detail, coherent themes beyond the resounding emphasis on control of land and resources are difficult to trace. For the most part the data compiled reads like a detailed chronicle of adjustments to wording and chains of command within Canada’s state bureaucracy. Apparent intent, as expressed in one piece of legislation, is subject to contradiction in another. There is little indication given as to why wording, or departments and personnel, were changed or what effect these changes had. If reasons are supplied in the legislation itself, it is not clear whether the assessments justifying change rested on actual evidence or merely conjecture. Nevertheless the compilation does supply a useful reference text.
A first principle of British Indian policy in North America is evident from 1670 – that of ‘protection.’ It was carried forward to the Royal Proclamation of 1763. Initially, the proponents of protectionist policies argued that disruptions would occur if Aboriginal peoples were subject to non-regulated incursions into their territories. Gradually the dominant implication came to be that Aboriginal peoples were incapable of dealing directly with non-Aboriginal individuals and groups without being exploited.
After 1815, Indian policy gradually came to include the principle of ‘civilization.’ The goal to civilize appears to reflect supremacist notions of the time. Various approaches were taken to inculcating in Aboriginal people an appreciation of the values of Euroamerican culture. By the 1850’s, Government expectations changed significantly: complete ‘assimilation’ of ‘Indians’ into the dominant culture became the goal, although the term assimilated was replaced by ‘integrated.’ By the time the Dominion of Canada was formed, the Robinson Treaties, Upper Canada Land Surrenders and Peace and Friendship Treaties were already in place. The British North America Act of 1867 confirmed a ‘special status’ for Aboriginal people, with the Dominion government acting as a guardian of their interests – including their persons and their property. In 1869, the Federal government made a particularly clear statement of assimilationist intent tied to the enfranchising of Aboriginal people. In keeping with the stated objective, existing Aboriginal political systems (in bands with which the government had established a relationship) were replaced. Band councils were mandated for the first time. However, their powers were extremely limited, council membership was virtually at the whim of the Dominion government, no new regulations could be acted upon without the consent of the Minister of Indian Affairs.
From 1867, when the presumption was that Rupert’s Land would go to Canadian control, expectations of western expansion influenced the policies directed at that territory and reflected the belief that Western Indians were less ‘civilized’ than those in the East, because lacking a commensurate term of exposure to appropriate influences. From 1871-1877 the first wave of treaty-making (Numbered Treaties 1-7), was pursued in order to pave the way for non-Aboriginal settlement. From the Canadian government’s perspective the treaties appear to have been regarded principally as straight-forward real-estate transactions in which annuities and gratuities were traded to extinguish any claims to Aboriginal title (although usufructory rights were conceded).
By the close of 1885 the government appears to have consolidated its program for colonization of the West. The railway was in place, lands were open to settlement, and Indian Affairs were under Federal management. Indian policy maintained a focus on assimilation, along with discouragement of those who might choose to stay on reserve. An open assault was launched against Aboriginal cultural continuity: children were removed from their communities and placed in residential schools, ceremonies and gatherings were outlawed. As well, a second series of Numbered Treaty negotiations were completed — the Treaty No. 6 Adhesion of 1889, and Treaties 8-10 of 1899, 1905 and 1910 respectively. The last of the Numbered Treaties (11), and the Williams Treaties were negotiated by 1923. It is difficult to find that the pattern implied by this collection of government policy from 1867 to 1945 is one of protection, civilization, and assimilation. Rather, contrary to overt assertions, but in keeping with what the innumerable contradictions suggest, subjugation, extinction, and dispossession seem to be the underlying themes. Government officials such as Hayter Reed and Frank Oliver stand out as designers and implementers of programs and policies that effectively undermined First Nations peoples’ attempts to join the mainstream economy, and, at the same time, progressively eroded their land bases.
After 1945 it seems that very nearly every aspect of Indian life was subject to government control. There also seems to have been considerable pressure from Aboriginal peoples for relief from what they rejected as onerous conditions. The government apparently agreed that Indian policy needed reform. In 1946 the Joint Committee of the Senate and the House of Commons was formed to review and revise the Indian Act. Yet, when the Committee made its recommendation in 1948, it again endorsed assimilation. In 1951 the Indian Act was softened somewhat with the lifting of bans on ceremonies and on the purchasing and consumption of alcoholic beverages. Even so, by 1960 Aboriginal people had no control over the education of their children, the land they inhabited, or local government. Although some were granted the right to vote without losing the right to belong to their community of origin, the Canadian government still maintained the right to determine who was and was not an Indian at any given place at any given point in time.
As the 1960s ad 1970s passed, the theme of Aboriginal dissatisfaction appears to have displaced Euroamerican dissatisfaction as a force determining government responses. The rationalizations put forward by government officials do not hide the fact that in all respects, excepting control of lands and production, government policies laid out in the Indian Act failed to meet stated objectives.
Related online resources:
Accessible primary and secondary sources –
See, home page, National Aboriginal Document Database, http://bit.ly/C3N17, to access Statutes/Acts, Court Decisions, Treaties, and Links — including “to additional information sites for First Nations in Canada and Native American sites in the United States.”
i portal, “Indian Act,” Indigenous Studies Portal Research Tool website, developed by the University of Saskatchewan Library, http://bit.ly/Rvkhq, is a rich resource for related scanned archival documents, general and peer-reviewed articles, e-books, films and videos, theses, and websites (governmental and organizations).
Info on finding sources –
Library and Archives Canada, “Frequently Asked Questions: Is a copy of the original Indian Act of 1876 available, and what about later amendments to the Act?,” Aboriginal Resources and Services, Library and Archives Canada website, (last modified: 26 January 2009), http://bit.ly/3H3LVh, supplies information on locating and accessing relevant documents, including links to online versions.
General information –
Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, “Cede, Yield, and Surrender: A History of Indian Treaties in Canada,” (Parts 1-10), Indian and Northern Affairs Canada website, http://bit.ly/qbyvn, in video, audio, or text.
Map, “Historical Indian Treaties,” The Atlas of Canada, Natural Resources Canada website, http://bit.ly/Yc85D
“The Indian Act (PRB 99-23-E),” prepared by Mary C. Hurley, Law and Government Division, Parliamentary Research Branch, Government of Canada website, (4 October, 1999), http://bit.ly/12zZsO, supplies a bite-sized impression of official attitudes to the Act and includes a two paragraph section entitled “1876-1996: A Very Brief History.”