The Indian Act: cradle to the grave policies
Posted By ERNIE SANDY
Posted 4 months ago
As an indigenous person of Canada, namely one of the first peoples of this continent, I pose this question to our readers: How am I different from you as a non-Native, legislatively speaking? The answer to that question and some of the shocking revelations are mentioned briefly in this article. The limited space for this column will only allow me to give you a snapshot of an otherwise complex story.
Without a doubt, one of the most racist pieces of legislation ever passed by the Canadian government in the late 1800's was the Indian Act. First, it's title is misleading, in that, it does not 'act' on behalf of First Nation (FN) peoples, quite the contrary, it spells out what cannot be done unless sanctioned by the federal government through the Department of Indian Affairs. Second, most readers may not have heard about the Indian Act, however, mention of Apartheid in South Africa will bring back images of genocide that flashed across the television screen in the 1980's.
A very short comparison of Canadian and South African history in reference to the oppression of its indigenous peoples will help put this story into perspective.
According to African history books, South Africa was colonized by the English and Dutch in the seventeenth century. In North America, it was the English and French who laid claim to Aboriginal land through a series of very questionable documents called treaties. The discovery of diamonds in South Africa around 1900 resulted in an English invasion which sparked the Boer War.
The terrible irony of this conflict is that two foreign countries were fighting over land and resources that wasn't theirs to begin with. One can only summize that the motivation was greed and power and lust for domination.
Following independence from England, the Afrikaner National Party was looking for a model for oppression. That was when they learned how effective the Indian Act was in segregating one race of people from the rest of society by creating reservations and destroying theirs means of livelihood. The rest, as they say, is history.
The Indian Act has had, and to a greater extent, a direct social, economical, moral, and political impact on FN peoples of Canada. First Nation election are based on Indian Act rules and regulations that pit individuals against each other for seats on council.
We are the only members of Canadian society who have specific legislation designed to dictate every aspect of our lives, essentially from the time we are born to the time we die. For example, through a formula of inclusion and exclusion, a baby born into a First Nation can be classified as a non-native depending on the ancestral lineage; at the other end of the spectrum of life, an individual cannot be buried on a reserve where he lives if the community complies to the letter of the law. This latter part of the legislation has been ignored in most cases by the community for compassion reasons.
The Indian Act has been around for a long time. It was enacted in 1876 by the Parliament of Canada under the provisions of Section 91(24) of the Constitution Act, 1867. That section gives the federal government exclusive authority to laws in relation to "Indians and Lands Reserved for Indians". The Indian Act is administered by the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development in Ottawa and major cities across Canada.
Some of the highlights of the Indian Act's power, both present and in the past include, but not limited to, the following:
In 1881, an amendment was made to make officers of the Indian Department, including Indian Agents, legal justices of the peace that were able to enforce regulations at will. The following year they were granted the same legal power as magistrates. Further amendments prohibited the sale of farm products grown by Native peoples in Prairie Provinces without an appropriate permit from an Indian agent, became the law of the land. This prohibition is still to this day, 2008, included in the Indian Act.
Throughout this time until the late 1960's Indian Agents had dictorial powers over Chief and Council. But the shadows of Department of Indian Affairs still loom over First Nations across Canada. In 1905, an amendment was made by the federal government to allow aboriginal people to be removed from reserves near towns with more than 8,000 residents.
If the above wasn't enough, in 1911, changes were made in the Act to allow municipalities and companies to expropriate portions of reserves, without surrender. Further amendments allowed a judge to move an entire reserve away from a municipality.
With respect to customary selection of community leaders, an amendment in 1920 allowed the Department of Indian Affairs to ban hereditary rule of Chiefs. For thousands of years, leaders were chosen by consensus. It was at this time that the current election of two years terms became law.
Hundreds of thousand of acres of First Nations land was lost through a provision in 1918 that allowed the Superintendent-General to lease out uncultivated reserve lands to nonaboriginals.
This land was never returned, therefore, one could conclude that most farms and portions of municipalities today are essentially stolen First Nation lands.
When I read about people referring to us as poor little Indians, I encourage these individuals to learn more about Canadian history so they do not speak from ignorance.
Ernie Sandy is a educator who lives in Rama First Nation with his family.