Reserve Justice Administration and Bureaucracy


Beginning in the 1880s, the Department of Indian Affairs implemented bureaucracy relating to the execution of justice on reserves. These administrative forms of non-Aboriginal justice served less as a protector of individuals and communities than an enforcer of an inappropriate and unhelpful system of law that facilitated the government’s agenda. Indigenous peoples were the most knowledgeable about their own cultural paradigms and the systems of justice that best served their philosophical perspectives. The stripping of power as it relates to self-governed frameworks of law, however, resulted in the continued inability of bands to provide for the safety and security of their own members. A forced reliance on non-Indigenous administered courts also resulted in the absence of authority for bands to correct problematic jurisdictional gaps, confusion over procedures and policies, and power vacuums whereby outside police forces refused to enforce by-laws.-------------------- In other cases, the exercise of local power through forces of non-Aboriginal justice extended from outside of the reserve to increase control. For example, in 1881, the jurisdiction of magistrates was broadened to reserves, and members of the Indian Affairs Department the Indian Agents were made ex officio justices of the peace. In 1882, the Indian Agent was given the same power as magistrates, despite lacking formal legal training. In 1884, another Indian Act amendment permitted Indian Agents, acting as justices of the peace, to conduct trials whenever they thought necessary, to “any other matter affecting Indians.” Within the same amendment, Indian Agents were granted judicial authority which enabled them to not only lodge a complaint with the police, but to direct the process of prosecution and then act as the sitting judge as well. Aboriginal peoples were thoroughly excluded and alienated throughout the judicial process, except by virtue of their position as the accused.-------------------- Also in 1884, in anticipation of an Indian and Metis uprising due to growing minority agitation, the Act was amended to prohibit inciting “three or more Indians, non-treaty Indians, or halfbreeds” to breach the peace or to make “riotous” or “threatening demands” on a civil servant. This amendment also prohibited the sale to any Indian in the west of “fixed ammunition or ball cartridge,” thus preventing stockpiling of ammunition. These actions effectively criminalized Indian and Metis political protest. Additionally, it prevented Indians from receiving the ammunition needed for hunting at a time when they were already suffering from government policy which restricted rations following the endangerment of buffalo herds. Not surprisingly, these measures did not quell the growing discontentment of Metis and Cree people, who were increasingly frustrated with government policy.

To summarize a participant in the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples" (section 9.5 of the final report): "The Indian Act did a very destructive thing...It meant an interruption of the respected forms of government that we used to have, and we did have forms of government be they oral and not in writing before any of the Europeans came to this country. We had a system that worked for us. We respected each other. We had ways of dealing with disputes. We did not have institutions like the courts that we are talking about now. We did not have the massive bureaucracies that are in place today that we have to go through in order to get some kind of recognition and some kind of resolution."
Sub Event
Indian Act Amendments of 1881 and 1884