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WET 219 - Applied Water Law - Indigenous Rights

The Indian Act

For One-Hundred and forty-six years the Indian Act has been the most intrusive piece of federal legislation ever conceived in terms of its impact on Indigenous people in Canada. It has been used to regulate and control almost all aspects of their lives, from the nature of band governance and land tenure systems to restrictions on Indigenous cultural practices.  Most critically, the Indian Act defined the qualifications for who was a "status Indian", and who was not." 

The Indian Act reflected the core assumptions held about Indigenous peoples by the European-dominated Canadian society in the mid to late 19th century. Its basic purpose for “civilization, protection and assimilation,” on Indigenous people, because the Canadian Government viewed Aboriginal thems as wards of the state, were incapable of managing their affairs, that it was in the best interest of everyone to assimilate Indigenous cultures into the Canadian mainstream.  

It is the most despised piece of Canadian legislation by Indigenous Nations and people, for a number of reasons:

  • It totally ignored the fact that Indigenous peoples have existed and governed themselves for thousands of years.  It replaced traditional structures of Indigenous governance with band councils changing from government lead by hereditary chiefs (both male and female) whose power was acquired through the line of descent, rather than through regularly scheduled elections. 
  • Its main purpose was to serve as a tool of assimilation and cultural destruction of Indigenous people.
  • It established the Reserve System that isolated Indigenous people of small tracts of land. At one point in time, indigenous persons need to obtain a permit to leave the reservation. 
  • It established the use of the term Indian in the Canadian legal and cultural lexicon.
  • It made it illegal for Indigenous people to practice religious and cultural ceremonies including the potlach.
  • Until 1927, the Act made it illegal for Indigenous Nations and communities to hire lawyers or bring about land claims against the Government of Canada. without the consent of the government.
  • It created the Residential School System. Which meant the separation of Indigenous children from their families at an age as early as 5 years old. 
  • Until 1951, women were excluded from band council politics.
  • Indigenous people under the Act (and other associated Acts of Parliament) were forbidden to vote in Canadian elections. This provision was not repealed until 1962. 
  • Until 1961, it contained the concept of “compulsory enfranchisement” which meant a First Nations person lost their status if they graduated university, married a non-status person (if they were a woman) or became a Christian minister, doctor or lawyer. The enfranchisement clauses were not totally removed until 1985.

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