The sustainability of the Indian Act

The Indian Act was established in 1876 by the Canadian government in an attempt to amalgamate all previous laws pertaining to First Nation people. It is a federal law in Canada enacted to govern the status of First Nations and their reserves. How relevant is this act today in terms of the First Nation people? To understand the relevance and the sustainability of the Indian Act, it is necessary to understand its history and the [real] purpose of its enactment.

The origins and history of the Indian Act

The aim of all legislation related to First Nation people was about their assimilation into the white society. It was the intent of the settlers that all First Nation people would leave their cultures and languages and adapt to the ways of the European rulers. When such a thing didn’t happen, the government began passing and enacting laws to tempt the First Nation people or the “Indians” as they were then referred to, with citizenship or enfranchisement offers.

Almost a hundred years after the first law was passed, the British government relinquished all responsibility for First Nation people and deferred responsibility to the Canadian government. Then ten years later came the Indian Act. This act, in the name of assimilation, imposed severe restrictions on First Nations who were already oppressed through the previous laws.

These restrictions regulated how the First Nation people were to live their lives, educate themselves, and manage their resources and estates after death. Over the next century, the original act was amended many times and each time, new rules were placed on First Nations in the guise of assimilation. Some of their dances or ceremonies were banned. They were not allowed to produce goods without government permission and the government controlled their education.

The need and sustainability of the Indian Act

The Canadian government proposed to abolish the Indian Act in 1969 by which all First Nations would be considered Canadian citizens with same rules and laws. But it was widely opposed by First Nation people. The proposal suddenly granted them the status of citizenship after years of patriarchal regulation, however did nothing to address their recommendations for social and economic development in the face of well documented historical oppression.

The Indian Act remains contentious. International human rights groups and the UN have criticized it as violating the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Despite all the problems associated with the Indian Act, it is considered relevant for the fact that it establishes that there exists a unique relationship of First Nations with the government. It is a legal document that clarifies the differences between First Nations people and other Canadians. The Act serves as a living example of the beliefs and values that informed its development, and is a reference point for dialogue around any new statute. One reality is abundantly clear; First Nations want to participate if any changes are made to the Indian Act and not let the government decide for them as they did in 1876.

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