A Brief Introduction to the Indian Act


As a means of consolidating existing legislation regarding Indigenous peoples, this new federal legislation marked the beginning of creating special offenses that only applied to Indians. From the Crown’s perspective, it unilaterally marked a transition of Indigenous peoples in British North America from that of sovereign tribal nation in the tripartite imperial system to that of legally incompetent wards of the state in the federal and provincial system. Whereas previously the Crown had an expressed goal of protecting Indian tribal autonomy, the Indian was now cast as a dependent child. There would be no further protection of the cultural distinctiveness of Indigenous people, but rather, an expressed goal of civilization, as defined by the Crown, and assimilation.

In its drafting of the Indian Act, the Crown chose not to make reference to the treaties made with Indigenous peoples that were already in existence. This was in keeping with the Crown’s emphasis on a policy of assimilation, as well as undermining the previous nation-to-nation legal relationship and shifting towards one which perceived Indigenous people as subordinates. The version of the Indian Act that was passed in 1876 communicated the paternalistic mindset of the Crown by dictating the operations of almost every aspect of the daily lives on Indigenous people on reserves, including procedures for determining Indigenous identity, land surrender, and land use

The Indian Act also attacked traditional forms of band governance in an attempt to implement democratic forms of government. Extensive steps were taken to supposedly educate Indians in matters of self-governance, despite the presence of functional structures of intra and inter-tribal governance prior to European contact. For example, the superintendent general acquired vast powers to direct all aspects of the electoral process. By controlling this process in its entirety including initiation and the selection of candidates, this interference was akin to appointment of band leadership by the Department of Indian Affairs. The government also included clauses that enabled the unilateral deposition of leadership. Section 75 of the Indian Act read that chiefs “shall continue to hold the rank of chief until death or resignation, or until their removal, by the Governor in Council, for dishonesty, intemperance, immorality or incompetency..." These grounds for deposition were vaguely defined to enable the government to manufacture legally unassailable arguments to remove band officials in the case that said leaders engaged in behavior that ran contrary to federal objectives, resisted the agenda of the Department of Indian Affairs or otherwise proved to be problematic to their goal of assimilation. The local Indian Agents also held vast powers in regards to interference in band governance and council meetings, and ensured that all aspects of band affairs were under the surveillance and control of the Department.

In addition to imposing democratic governance, the government attempted to undermine community ties by outlawing communal practices such as Potlatches and dances. This coordinated with the government’s desire to foster individualism, which was further encouraged by surveying reserves and dividing them into individual farm plots, isolating families. This demonstrates the devastating effect that the Indian Act held on women. Isolating families sabotaged the means that would have provided communal accountability for violent or otherwise abusive husbands. The Act also oppressed Indigenous women by taking away the Indian status of those who married non-Indigenous persons, thus alienating them from their land base and preventing them from inheriting family property, receiving treaty benefits and being buried with their ancestors on the reserve. Despite a history of inclusion in affairs of self-governance, particularly amongst matriarchal tribes, Indigenous women were now also excluded from taking part in band land surrender decisions. The exclusion of women would not change until 1951.