Canada’s Indian Act Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Indian Act was the first comprehensive post-confederation law to establish Canadian policy toward Native Americans. That policy stipulated a goal of integrating Native Americans into Euro-Canadian society—a goal that met both with mixed success and with mixed reactions on the part of Native Canadians.

Summary of Event

The British North America Act of 1867, which created the Dominion of Canada, gave the federal government sole jurisdiction in all issues related to Native Canadians. This long-held British colonial policy had been established initially in recognition of the fact that indigenous peoples, when treated in an inconsistent and often unscrupulous manner, posed a military threat to British colonies. Even after Indians ceased to be an obstacle to British settlement, the policy was continued with the twin goals of the protection and eventual assimilation of the Native Canadians. Indian Act of 1876 Canada;Indians Native Canadians [kw]Canada’s Indian Act (1876) [kw]Indian Act, Canada’s (1876) [kw]Act, Canada’s Indian (1876) Indian Act of 1876 Canada;Indians Native Canadians [g]Canada;1876: Canada’s Indian Act[4830] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;1876: Canada’s Indian Act[4830] [c]Indigenous people’s rights;1876: Canada’s Indian Act[4830] [c]Government and politics;1876: Canada’s Indian Act[4830] Lavelle, Jeannette Chrétien, Jean

With the passage of the Act to Amend and Consolidate the Laws Respecting Indians, better known as the Indian Act of 1876, the government of Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie Mackenzie, Alexander [p]Mackenzie, Alexander;and Indian Act[Indian Act] continued the policies established during British colonial rule. As prime minister, Mackenzie’s primary aim was nation building—to which Native Canadians, particularly those in the newly acquired prairies, presented an obstacle. With regard to the Indian Act, Mackenzie’s predecessor and successor, Prime Minister Sir John Alexander Macdonald, Macdonald, Sir John Alexander [p]Macdonald, Sir John Alexander[Macdonald, John Alexander];and Indian Act[Indian Act] was later quoted as saying, “the great aim of our legislation has been to do away with the tribal system and assimilate the Indian people in all respects with the other inhabitants of the Dominion.” Consequently, Native Canadian policy under both Mackenzie and Macdonald placed less emphasis on protection and more on assimilation. Ironically, the goals worked at cross-purposes. Paternalistic efforts to protect indigenous peoples emphasized the distinctions between them and the Euro-Canadians, thereby discouraging assimilation. The Indian Act was amended nine times between 1914 and 1930. Nearly every change in the act placed greater restrictions on the activities of Native Canadians.

The Indian Act set out a series of reserved lands that were to be laboratories to test various techniques for training Native Canadians in the ways of the European settlers. The first reserves were established away from areas of white settlement in an effort to protect Indians from the unsavory elements of Euro-Canadian society. When it became clear that this policy hindered assimilation, new reserves were created near towns populated by whites, in the hopes that Native Canadians would learn from their Euro-Canadian neighbors.

Another element of the Indian Act provided for the establishment of elected band councils. Although these councils had little power, they were meant to supplant traditional native leadership. The act permitted the superintendent general for Indian Affairs or his agent to remove any elected councillor deemed unfit to serve for reasons of “dishonesty, intemperance, or immorality.” The native peoples of British Columbia British Columbia;native peoples were forbidden from engaging in potlatches or any other giveaway feasts, in part because such ceremonies helped to perpetuate traditional leadership roles. This ban on ceremonies was quickly extended beyond the tribes of British Columbia and the northwestern coast to nearly all traditional religions and cultures. Native Canadians also were prohibited from consuming alcohol.

In order to protect tribal lands from being sold to non-native people, title to those lands was held by the Crown rather than by the tribes. Reserve lands were exempt from property and estate taxes, and income earned on reserves was exempted from taxation. Although these provisions protected Native Canadian property from seizure, they also hindered economic development on the reserves. Because Native Canadians were unable to mortgage their lands, it was often difficult for them to raise capital for development projects. Indian agents, who retained power to make nearly all economic decisions with regard to tribal lands, often resorted to harsh measures (such as withholding relief rations) in efforts to force adoption of Euro-Canadian beliefs and practices.

Although many of the provisions of the Indian Act were intended to ease Native Canadians into a Euro-Canadian lifestyle, others were purely racist. In British Columbia British Columbia;native peoples , for example, native peoples had been denied the treaty rights and land tenure provisions afforded native peoples in much of the rest of Canada. In order to prevent court action to secure those rights, the Indian Act was amended to prohibit fund-raising for the purposes of pursuing land claims.


The Indian Act was significantly revised in 1951 to eliminate much of the blatant discrimination resulting from previous amendments to the 1876 act. Some discrimination remained, however. One onerous aspect of the Indian Act that was retained codified the category “Indian” as a legal rather than a racial or cultural designation and gave the government the legal power to determine who qualified as an Indian. It also provided that a man could surrender Indian status for himself, his wife, and his children in exchange for Canadian citizenship and a plot of land. Very few Native Canadians chose to relinquish their Indian status voluntarily, however.

An Indian woman who married a non-Indian (either a man not of indigenous descent or a Native Canadian who had legally become a non-Indian) involuntarily surrendered her own Indian status and benefits, and her children were precluded from claiming Indian status. Non-Indian women who married Indians, however, became legal Indians themselves. This provision of the Indian Act was challenged in 1973 by Jeannette Lavelle Lavelle, Jeannette , an Ojibwa from Manitoulin Island who had lost her Indian status through marriage. Lavelle based her case on Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Although Lavelle did not prevail in court, her case and others exposed Canada to condemnation by several international human rights organizations and led to the 1985 passage of Bill C-31, which restored to thousands of Native Canadian women and their children the legal Indian status they had lost through marriage to non-Indians.

The issue of Indian legal status divides Native Canadians as well. Although many acknowledge that maintaining a legal status distinct from that of other Canadians creates opportunities for discrimination, others believe that they have inherent aboriginal rights that must be recognized. Despite the flaws and failures of the Indian Act, there has been only one serious attempt to discard it. In 1969, Jean Chrétien, Chrétien, Jean minister of the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, proposed a repeal of the Indian Act. This initiative, which became known as the White Paper, proposed eliminating many of the legal distinctions between native and non-native Canadians and requiring the provinces to provide the same services to Native Canadians that they provide to other citizens. Fearing that the provinces would be even more likely to discriminate against Native Canadians and that the federal government would abandon its responsibilities for native welfare, many Indian groups fought the White Paper proposals until they were withdrawn in 1971.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dickason, Olive Patricia. Canada’s First Nations: A History of Founding Peoples from Earliest Times. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992. Contains several lengthy discussions of the policies generated by the Indian Act.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lawrence, Bonita.“Real” Indians and Others: Mixed-Blood Urban Native Peoples and Indigenous Nationhood. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004. Detailed discussion of the Indian Act, its amendments and legacy, and the legal status of Native Canadians.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McMillan, Alan D. Native Peoples and Cultures of Canada: An Anthropological Overview. Vancouver, B.C.: Douglas & McIntyre, 1988. Chapter 12 discusses both the Indian Act and issues related to the status of Native Canadians.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Satzewich, Vic, and Terry Wotherspoon. First Nations: Race, Class, and Gender Relations. Scarborough, Ont.: Nelson Canada, 1993. Contains a thoughtful discussion of the impact of the Indian Act on native women in Canada.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tennant, Paul. Aboriginal Peoples and Politics: The Indian Land Question in British Columbia, 1849-1989. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1990. A thorough discussion of the history of Native Canadian policy and relations between Native Canadians and whites in the province of British Columbia. Several sections deal specifically with the Indian Act.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tobias, John L. “Protection, Civilization, Assimilation: An Outline History of Canada’s Indian Policy.” In Sweet Promises: A Reader on Indian-White Relations in Canada, edited by J. R. Miller. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991. This article, reprinted from the Western Canadian Journal of Anthropology, provides a critical overview of legislation and policy making with regard to Native Canadians.

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Categories: History