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Indian Act — Basics

The Indian Act is a law that defines the legal rights and status of registered Indians, bands, and their reserves. It governs education, health care, housing, hunting and fishing rights, and many other aspects of First Nations government, as well as relations between those bands and the federal government.

What does it do? 

The act was first created in 1876 and it’s been extensively revised and amended since then.

Originally, it was a paternalistic piece of legislation that aimed “to do away with the tribal system and assimilate the Indian people,” in the words of then-Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald.

It limited access to intoxicants, promoted “civilization,” and essentially made the Crown a guardian of aboriginals until they could take care of themselves.

The government began gradually chipping away at the act’s paternalistic aspects after the Second World War, implementing stronger rights of self-government and aiming to foster a better relationship between aboriginals and Ottawa.

As it exists today, the act governs, in part:

  • Management of reserve lands (owned by the Crown, reserved for Indian use);
  • Management of band funds;
  • Election and powers of chiefs and band councils;
  • Education and schools;
  • Wills and estates. The government has wide-ranging powers to appoint executors and handle other estate issues;
  • Taxation. Some earnings and transactions are tax-exempt on reserves.

Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal government proposed scrapping the act altogether in 1969 and moving ahead with the notion that all Canadians have the same rights. First Nations rejected the plan, as it would have rescinded their status and treaty rights. Some critics viewed it as a fresh attempt to assimilate Canada’s aboriginal people.

Who’s an “Indian”?

Not all aboriginal Canadians are “Indians” under the law, so may not be eligible for the rights of a status Indian. Inuit peoples are not considered Indians, and it was only in 2014 that the Federal Court of Appeal ruled that Metis also qualify.

According to the act, an Indian is a person who is registered or qualifies to be registered as one, according to criteria listed in the act.

According to government data, fewer than 50 per cent of Canada’s 1.8 million aboriginal people are registered Indians.

Prior to 1985 amendments, an Indian could lose their status in several ways, including marrying a non-status man or being born out of wedlock to a status mother but non-status father.

Status Indians did not have the right to vote until 1961. Prior to that, they had to renounce their status in order to cast a ballot.

Governments have attempted many more changes and revisions to the act, many of which have failed. The act remains a controversial piece of legislation and will likely face many more court challenges in the future.

Read more:

Indian Act 

A history of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada