The Indian Act
Owing to the development of Canada in 1867, the rights of managing the aboriginal affairs, resided with the federal government. Since then, the Indian Act (enacted in 1876) has undergone several amendments and this has given the government, the rights to control almost all the major aspects of aboriginal life- like the land, resources, education facility, administration of the band, status of Indians and even their wills.
To legally and federally be recognized as an Indian, in Canada, one needs to abide by all the rules and the regulations and the standards of living that are imposed by the government. To ensure this, the Indian Act was passed, not merely as a body of law but as a sole controller of each and every aspect of the life of the Indians. In the older versions of this act, the norms on bringing together the First Nations, were mentioned.
The people who successfully completed and got a degree from the University, were liable to lose their Indian Status while the women who married the non status men, were liable to lose their status as well.
The Act implied the rule that if a woman married an aboriginal man, then her Indian status would remain intact and she would receive cultural as well as social benefits but if any woman marries a white (European), she would lose her Indian status and would be considered as the member of Canadian society.
The halfbreed Indians, also called as the Métis, were denied Indian status. The Indian Act aimed to combine all the already prevalent legislations that covered the First Nations and their existing relationship with Canada.
The Act came into being with the target of helping the aboriginals to the protect the land that was left with them. However, the main owner of the land, remained the Crown. The administration of the land was supposed to be done by the Crown via the Minister of Indian Affairs, who was an Indian Agent.
The Act tried to vest more power in the hands of the local government but simultaneously it took away the existing powers by appointing an Indian agent as the chairman of the counsil. According to the rules listed in the Act, the Indians were not allowed to sell or produce goods if they did not have written permission from the local Indian agent. Moreover, the status Indians were denied the right to vote until 1961.
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Since Canada was created in 1867, the federal government has been in charge of aboriginal affairs. The Indian Act, which was enacted in 1876 and has since been amended, allows the government to control most aspects of aboriginal life: Indian status, land, resources, wills, education, band administration and so on.
Inuit and Métis are not governed by this law.
In its previous versions, the Indian Act clearly aimed to assimilate First Nations. People who earned a university degree would automatically lose their Indian status, as would status women who married non-status men. Some traditional practices were prohibited.
Between 1879 and 1996, tens of thousands of First Nations children attended residential schools designed to make them forget their language and culture, where many suffered abuse. On behalf of Canadians, Prime Minister Stephen Harper made a formal apology in 2008 to Canada's Aboriginal Peoples for this policy that sought to "kill the Indian in the child."
Some provisions of the Indian Act, however, were designed to protect the native population.
"The government, and formerly the Crown, had a fiduciary obligation to protect aboriginal interests and the lands reserved for their use during the process of colonization," explains anthropologist Pierre Trudel, an expert on aboriginal issues.
Two sides to relationship
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo has called on the federal government to repeal the Indian Act. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)
Many aboriginal people have an ambivalent relationship with the Indian Act. They denounce its paternalism, but are at the same time reluctant to give up its protections, such as tax exemptions in the reserves.
Some aboriginal communities have chosen to throw off the yoke of this law by signing treaties to form their own governments and manage their own affairs.
Others have signed onto the First Nations Land Management Act, enacted by Ottawa in 1999, while remaining subject to the Indian Act. They have thus acquired certain powers in the management of reserve lands, resources and the environment.
At the 2010 annual meeting of the Assembly of First Nations, National Chief Shawn Atleo called on Ottawa to repeal the Indian Act within five years. He proposed replacing the law with a new arrangement that would allow all parties to move forward on land claims and resource sharing.