This column has reviewed some of the most discriminatory aspects of the Indian Act system. These included the extension of the Indian Act legislation and the development of reserves in BC without benefit of treaties; the internal colonialism which brought with it a municipal style of governance introducing the “band council and the ousting of the traditional political leadership; the outlawing of the traditional modes of social, ceremonial and political organization by banning the potlatch; implementation of the infamous residential school system; and lastly, the Indian Act amendment making it illegal to pursue work on the Aboriginal title issue.
Exploring remaining oppressive measures that have also been included in the Indian Act will round out this month’s discussion. The most oppressive measures of the Indian Act were brought into effect during the 1880s-1930s when the development of Indian legislation was at its peak. Only after 1951 were the most discriminatory aspects of the Act discontinued.
During this time period, pressure was being applied by settlers to access reserve lands that had been set a side as part of treaties. In response, in 1911 authorities were then given power to expropriate reserve lands without Native surrender or consent.
Another discriminatory component of the Indian Act was compulsory enfranchisement. Through enfranchisement, Native people lost their right to live on reserve, be buried on reserve lands, the rights to any treaty benefits and the right to inherit reserve lands from family members.
Removal of “Indian status was meant to assimilate Native people into Euro-Canadian society. Enfranchisement became mandatory for Natives that got a university degree or joined the clergy or married a white man. The Indian Act is well known for its blatant discrimination against Native women through enfranchisement. This mark was eventually changed with the introduction of Bill C-31 in 1985.
The Indian Act took on the responsibility of determining citizenship and membership within indigenous nations across Canada, unilaterally deciding who had band membership.
In addition, several features of the Indian Act brought into effect the wide and vast array of powers that were available to Indian agents as they carried out official federal policy. The Indian agent had control over local administration, all financial matters and almost every other imaginable element of reserve life.
This included the administration of justice. Indian agents were given the same considerable powers as a magistrate. They acted as justices of peace, could press charges and conduct trials. This amounted to a significant amount of power and control for civil servants without any formal training. The Indian agents continued to operate on reserves into the 1960s.
The sale of agricultural products by Native people was tightly regulated. Their activities were regarded as competition to other ranchers and farmers. As a result, Native farmers required a permit from the Indian agent before they could sell their produce.
And finally, the Indian Act determined if and when “Indians could vote federally. The federal vote was extended to status Indians without any pre-existing conditions during the 1960s.
Cathy Narcisse First Published in Bridge River
Lillooet News Nov 2003
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