How the ‘Indian Act’ Hurts more than it Helps

native americans playing woodwind instruments

People don’t like the Indian Act. But we also don’t know what to do with it! Originally designed to see Indigenous People, in the broader sense as Canadians. First by defining who qualified as an ‘Indian’ (through a registry of ‘status Indians’). Then by establishing the on-reserve band system that further allowed the Crown to control their movement, economic activity, and legal rights.

Indigenous Peoples had rights that were promised to them by the Crown even before Canada’s existence.

And the Act was no doubt elicited in such a way that would have the ‘Indians’ more inclined to surrender their heritage than to not. And thereby ‘become Canadians’.

 To that end, the Act rolled out the new residential school system. Designed to further assimilate the First Nations at a quicker rate. (And not only did it not work to ‘Westernize’ the Natives, it further corrupted their relationships with their own culture’s, degrading evermore those ‘cultures’ –to both theirs, and our, misfortune –in the perspective of the Westerner’s eye).

“The great aim of our legislation,” said John A. Macdonald in 1887, “has been to do away with the tribal system and assimilate the Indian people in all respects with the other inhabitants of the Dominion as speedily as they are fit to change.”

The Indian Act is an old and outdated law (at least in my study’s conclusions) that hasn’t been seriously looked at or reformed in the last 200 years. 

Reminder that those are the most exponentially progressive years in recorded history…

From the 19th to 21st centuries AD… From the invention of the automobile, two world wars, countless revolutions, the invention of the airplane, the light bulb, the refrigerator, the moon-landing… I could go on. All of that progress and we still choose to spend more time fighting people with power instead of training people without.

If the residential schools were designed to ‘kill the Indian in the child’… as the phrase so went, then the Indian Act was made to break apart the pre-existing First Nation governance, and replace it with the Crown’s.

“It’s the reason self-government is handcuffed in Canada.” says Merle Alexander, a partner at Gowling WLG in Vancouver and a member of the Kitasoo Xai’xais First Nation. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government isn’t the first to promise the reform of Idigenious relationships between the Crown and People during an election campaign. And he definitely won’t be the last. (Unless he manages to pull a rabbit from a hat on this one) 

But it’s undoubtedly hard work.

And in back in 2017 Trudeau followed through on a recommendation that dates back to the 1996 Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples; splitting Indigenous and Northern Affairs into two separate departments. What does this mean?

It means that Indigenous Services; responsible for the delivery of, obviously services in non-self-governing Indigenous communities. And the other; Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs, would be solely responsible for running the Indian Act.

If this is confusing, don’t worry. It gets even moreso the more you look into it…

Maybe that why we’re so hesitant to tackle this giant of a cause.

David Newhouse, director of the Chanie Wenjack School for Indigenous Studies at Trent University, wrote in a recent paper published in Policy Options. “Reforming the Act in one fell swoop, or repealing it, would be enormously disruptive to First Nations.” Abolishing the Indian Act with the single stroke of a pen isn’t exactly a recipe for success either… many Indigenous communities if not most, would see it as another attempt at ‘re-colonization’ rather than ‘decolonization’. 

The problem is the Indian Act is deeply interwoven into the fabric of First Nations over seven generations,” says Merle Alexander. “It’s embedded in almost every aspect of life on a reserve, and has had a terrible effect on how First Nations people see themselves.”

It’s not just about assimilation. It’s about oppression

So you can’t just eliminate it, no matter how much it is hated. It’s like a person with a knife wound, waiting for the paramedics. If you pull the knife out too soon, he’s going to bleed to death. Like doctors, we have a fiduciary relationship with the patient.”

The federal government’s only attempt to scrap the Indian Act in one go was proposed in a 1969 White Paper by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s government. And it was met with utter disapproval by Indigenous Canadians themselves.

Where Trudeau Sr. saw the long-overdue axing of a paternalistic and racist law that hurts the people and the culture themselves. The Indigenous Canadians merely saw an attack on their rights, and an attempt to speed up the assimilation work the Indian Act had started so many years ago.

There is no firm consensus among Indigenous Peoples about what a World in the post legal landscape of the Indian Act would look like.

But I think it could definitely use a good; looking at.

I’m tired of people turning their heads to our neighbours. And those neighbours then turning their heads from us because they believe we ‘don’t care’ or ‘we don’t belong’. It’s a sad and vicious cycle of affairs, won’t you join us in looking at it under a different scope, new lighting, and multiple lenses?  

You can start by sharing this post. The Block Bard’s Non-Profit Sector will be working with Indigenous Communities in the near future on surveying and building awareness and education around the subject and its much needed reformation.

You can also check out our Indigenous People’s Poems that cover the lives and accounts of many American tribes, some of which have almost been forgotten forever over the years on our Instagram.

Thank-you so much for reading!

Mackenzie Andres.


Founder | Head of Copy

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