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.