Parliament enacted “an Act to amend and consolidate the laws respecting Indians,” commonly known as the Indian Act, in 1876. This legislation consolidated earlier colonial Acts dealing with First Nations.
The primary goal of the Act was to encourage assimilation. It was also supposed to protect and defend First Nations people from those who would do violence against their persons, goods or possessions. The Act includes provisions that regulate membership, taxation, education, and land use, and prohibit liquor. The Indian Act provided for the uniform treatment of Indians across Canada; Parliament has the right to amend the Act without consulting First Nations.
A major component of the Act included definition. The Act defined who was and was not an Indian. The Act defined 'as Indians' men who belonged to a band that held lands or reserves in common, or for whom the federal government held funds in trust. People who were not deemed Indian included: Indian women who married non-Indian men, children born of non-Indian mothers whose father also had a non-Indian mother, Indians residing outside of Canada for five years continuously, Indians obtaining university degrees, and half-breeds who accepted scrip (a certificate redeemable for land or money – the choice was the applicant’s – of either 160 or 240 acres or dollars, depending on their age and status).
Women bore the brunt of this legislation. Many First Nations women were not only disconnected from their home communities but also unable to return home.
The Act declared that all status Indians were wards of the federal government and were to be treated as minors without the full privileges of citizenship. Reserve land was placed in trust of the Crown and this land could not be mortgaged or seized for defaulted debts, nor could it be taxed. The reserve could only be sold with approval of a majority of the adult band members, and only the Crown could purchase it.
Amendments have been made to the Indian Act throughout the life of the statute. In 1884, MacDonald and his government amended the Indian Act, making it illegal to encourage or participate in the Potlatch ceremony. This prohibition in the Indian Act became known as the Potlatch Law.
A 1933 amendment gave the superintendent-general the power to enfranchise First Nations individuals without their consent. Enfranchisement is the act of stripping First Nations individuals of their identity and status.
In 1951 restrictions were lifted on the prohibition of ceremonies like the Potlatch and the Sundance. In this same year, far-reaching legislative changes came into force for all status Indians. One of these changes was that elected chiefs and councils would govern for a two-year term. Initially, only the adult males could vote in Band elections. Another change required that a register of all status Indians be maintained and band lists were to be posted.
In 1895 the government of Canada passed another amendment in the form of Section 114 of the Indian Act. This amendment banned any Indian festival, dance (i.e. Powwow), or other ceremony of which the giving away, paying or giving back money, goods or any sort of articles forms a part, or is a feature, whether such gifting takes place before, during, or after the celebration.
Currently, the Indian Act stands in much the same form it took after the 1951 revisions. However, there were significant changes to the Indian Act on June 28, 1985, when Parliament passed Bill C-31, an Act to Amend the Indian Act. Bill C-31 brought the Act into line with the provisions of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The three principles that guided the amendments to the Indian Act were: