How the Indian Act Made Indians Act Like Indian Act Indians
What is the Indian Act?
The Indian Act is a law first passed by Canada in 1876. It imposed government control over all Natives, covering many aspects of daily life. It focused on 3 main areas, however: band councils, reserves, and status (membership). Its primary purpose was (and is) to control Natives & assimilate them into Canada. It was always intended as a temporary set of laws until Native peoples were successfully assimilated.
What is a Band Council?
Under the Indian Act, 1876, a band is a “group of Indians for whom reserve land has been set aside and money is held by the Crown” (the government of Canada). A band council is comprised of a chief and a certain number of councilors, usually elected by band members.
The band council corresponds to a municipal town or village council, and the chief to a mayor. Band councils were used to replace traditional forms of social organization. Many of the first band councils were organized by missionaries, who used them to exert control over communities.
A band council derives its authority to govern from the Indian Act, and is subject to both provincial & federal laws, as well as the Department of Indian Affairs. It gains power from the money & resources provided by the government, which is used at the discretion of the chief & council. This provides it with a great amount of control & influence over the community (as intended).
What is a Reserve?
Under the Indian Act, 1876, a reserve is “Crown land set aside for use by an Indian band.” The land belongs to Canada but is “reserved” for use by Indians. Like the Indian Act, reserves were meant to be temporary; the land was to be used for housing & establishing economic self-sufficiency (a necessary part of assimilation).
What is the Department of Indian Affairs?
The DIA (presently titled Indian & Northern Affairs Canada, INAC) is the federal department responsible for administering the Indian Act over some 609 bands across Canada. It has an annual budget of some $6 billion, some of which is distributed to band councils as both a form of control and to ensure government policies are carried out. The first Indian Department was formed in 1755 as part of the British military in N. America. Many of its first ministers were military officers.
What is the Government’s Strategy Re: the Indian Act?
The strategy of the government is to remove the Indian Act & all special legal status for Natives & reserve lands. This has always been its long-term goal, for it would mean the legal (& political & economic) assimilation of Native peoples was complete. In 1969, Canada proposed abolishing the Indian Act & DIA (the ‘White Paper’) but was met with strong opposition from Natives. Today, both government & chiefs call for an end to the Indian Act, which they claim is now an obstacle to economic progress. Of course, how can Natives be assimilated if they continue to have special legal status (including reservations)?
What is Self-Government?
Self-government is the current government plan for assimilation. It involves transforming band councils into municipal governments, with similar powers & responsibilities. Under self-government, bands gain more control over land, resources, finances, and local governance. Selling or leasing land, resource exploitation & taxation are seen as the primary means for bands to attain economic self-sufficiency. In this way, self-government will really be the self-administration of our own oppression.
What is the ‘Aboriginal Business Elite’?
The Aboriginal business elite are Natives who have gained wealth, status & power through their involvement or association with the Indian Act system. Much of the Native elite’s wealth comes from government funding & corporations.
Today, many bands handle multi-million dollar budgets and double as Native corporations involved in many diverse businesses (logging, mining, leasing of reserve land, garbage dumps, airlines, water bottling, etc.). Yet, less than a century ago, bands were directly administered by DIA & its Indian Agents. What changed?
In the 1960s, Indian Agents began to be phased out. They were replaced by chiefs & councilors trained by the DIA to implement government programs & to administer the band councils.
As well, in the 1970s, thousands of Natives began attending colleges or universities. By the 1980s, as many as 30,000 Natives may have gone to university to study economics, political science or law, skills which became valuable as they returned to their reserves and began their careers in the Indian Act system.
In return for their collaboration, many chiefs & councilors enjoy lives of material wealth & luxury. Their collaboration involves enabling corporations to better exploit natural resources, & maintaining a system of oppression over Natives.
What is Assimilation?
Assimilation is the merging of one entity, or group, into another. In N. America, this has involved the destruction of traditional Native culture & social organization, and their replacement with European forms.
In order to accomplish this, Native peoples first had to be weakened through biological warfare & military violence. After this, they were forced onto reservations where they were then subjected to policies of assimilation.
These policies included Christian-ization & Residential Schools (run by the Churches). Until the 1970s, generations of Native children & youth were forced into Residential Schools, where they were forbidden to practise their culture (inc. language) and indoctrinated with European values & ways of life.
Today, this assimilation continues through the educational system as well as the corporate media & entertainment industries. Through these, our views, beliefs & values are shaped by the system.
The success of assimilation can be measured in how much a person accepts these values & beliefs as their own, which is reflected in their way of life. Today, many assimilated Natives see getting a job, having money & material items, etc., as positive life goals.