Gradual Civilization Act


The Gradual Civilization Act is one of the most significant legislative events in the evolution of Canadian Indian policy. Any First Nations man over the age of 21 who was able to read or write either English or French, reasonably well-educated according to the standard of the day, free of debt and of good “moral character” was eligible to apply to be enfranchised and join the Canadian body politic. Indigenous people with a professional designation (doctor, lawyer or clergy) were automatically enfranchised regardless of whether they desired to change their legal status or not. Enfranchisement was portrayed as a highly valued privilege by the Canadian government, such that any First Nations man who falsely represented himself as enfranchised would receive a jail term of six months.



Enfranchisement had the effect of removing all legal distinctions between First Nations people and Settlers with the intent that Indigenous peoples would effectively assimilate, the long-term goal was to reduce the fiduciary and Treaty obligations of the Canadian Government through enfranchisement. The concept of 'status' (Indian status vs. no Indian status), and thus the ability of the government to remove it, was instituted as a way to create both legal distinctions that would disadvantage Indigenous peoples, and determined federal expenditures.  To further encourage First Nations men to enfranchise, the government awarded enfranchised persons an individual possession of up to 50 acres of land from within their home reserve, as well as their per capita share in the principal of treaty annuities and other band payments.  The enfranchised person could not sell the land.  Upon the death of the enfranchised person, however, the land would pass to his children, who could sell the land if they wished.  Although, if the land passed on to the widow of an enfranchised man, said land would revert to Crown ownership upon her death - she could not sell it, nor would the band receive it.  This ensured a gradual erosion of the reserve’s land base through legal loop holes without the formal and sometimes challenging process of a formal and consensual land surrender, as was stipulated in early treaty-making by the Crown. 

The aggressive darwinian and colonial ideology that informed the Gradual Civilization Act had several further negative implications.  By implicitly stating that Indigenous peoples were not “civilized” and were not "intelligent" as dictated by White Europeans and Colonists until they acquired a certain level of education, the Crown was abandoning the promise to respect Indigenous peoples as  nations, with their own education systems and worldviews, which had been affirmed in the Royal Proclamation of 1763.  This nation-to-nation relationship would not be acknowledged again until the 1980s.  Moreover, the government’s refusal to rescind this policy until the 1980s effectively soured Indigenous-government relations by engendering mutual suspicion. Attempting to replace Indigenous self-determination and invalidating Indigenous kinship structures also had deleterious effects on relationships between band councils and members.  This initiated a state-sanctioned form of violence on Indigenous sovereignty that would serve as the precursor to the Indian Act in 1876.

The colonial civilizing mission, as demonstrated in the Gradual Civilzation Act, stems from ideologies of white supremacy, social darwinism, and arm-chair anthropology. Colonists viewed Indigenous peoples to be "near extinction," and could not survive without the intervention and control of Settler Colonists and their ideological systems. Other stereotypes that were weaponized against of Indigenous peoples included: "lazy," "unsanitary," "promiscuous," etc. These stereotypes in large effect permeate Canadian socio-political culture and have informed North American's perceptions of Indigenous peoples for centuries. For many First Nations, the act of enfranchisement was connected with a state-sanctioned loss of culture, ancestral land-bases, language, and Indigenous worldviews and protocols, resulting in the deterioration of mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual wellbeing.