The Indian Act (which does not apply to the Métis or Inuit) is a legislative measure that was designed without the agreement of the First Nations. The measures that eventually comprised the Act date back to the middle of the nineteenth century. With this Act, the Crown defined the “status” of an Indian:
“All persons of Indian blood, reputed to belong to the particular tribe, band or body of Indians interested in such lands or immoveable property, and their descendants;”
“All persons residing among such Indians, whose parents were or are, or either of them was or is, descended on either side from Indians or an Indian reputed to belong to the particular tribe, band or body of Indians interested in such lands or immoveable property, and the descendants of all such persons;”
“All women lawfully married to any of the persons included in the several classes hereinbefore designated; the children issue of such marriages, and their descendants.”
These definitions deprived many persons of their status, in particular the Ikwe, First Nations women who had married non-Native men (a restriction that remained in effect until 1985, Bill C-31). The Act also specified that Status Indians were to be considered as minors or wards of the State. The authorities were convinced that the First Nations would quickly disappear through assimilation, taking the reserves with them. However, since assimilation was not progressing at the expected pace, the government introduced the policy of enfranchisement in 1869. Enfranchisement was a process whereby a member of the First Nations could abandon his or her Indian status to obtain citizenship.
In 1876, the government consolidated all the previous laws in order to create the Indian Act. The Act controlled all aspects of life and governance on the reserves. The power of the authorities increased through the years. Regarding mandatory enfranchisement, Deputy Superintendent General Duncan Campbell Scott made a speech in 1920 in which he clearly stated the government’s intentions:
“Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department; that is the whole object of this Bill.”
Contrary to the government’s expectations, the population of the First Nations grew, and it was not long before the reserves were no longer able to meet the needs of their residents. Living conditions deteriorated even further and by the end of the Second World War, the situation of the First Nations had become a matter of concern throughout the country. Between 1946 and 1948, a joint committee of the Senate and the House of Commons examined the Indian Act and made several recommendations, the majority of which were rejected by the deputies. Finally, in 1951, a revised version that in actual fact differed only very slightly from the previous versions was enacted. The revised version did, however, allow the First Nations to practice their customs once again. It was not until the 1980s that more significant changes were made. Further to the repatriation of the Constitution in 1982, the government proposed amendments to Indian status. Bill C-31 in 1985 restored Indian status for some Ikwe, but the Act remains discriminatory despite an additional modification made in 2011 with the passing of Bill C-3.