Revolutionizing Awareness

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Posted by Admin on January 30, 2011

Introduction: This research paper is a full-scale exploration of the Indian Act, passed in Canada in 1876. It makes a detailed explanation of the background to the Act. It takes the position that this Act has been a primary contributor to the state of underdevelopment among the Indians, from the time of its inception till date. It vindicates this position by illustrating elaborately the situation in which this Act was passed. This paper elucidates that this Act was passed with the intention of depriving the Indians of the share of development that took place on their own lands. This was done by disowning mixed marriages, the most potent tool with which access to their lands was gained, once their utility dissipated to the Settlers. It then lists the ways in which this Act has affected the Indians by driving them out of their lands and isolating them into near prisons of underdevelopment.

Background to the promulgation of the Act:  The Indian Act of 1876 was passed under the guise of restoring lands to their original owners, the Native peoples, such as the Indians, Metis and Inuit, from whom the European settlers had confiscated them. It was the culmination of a series of events in the tiff between the Native Indians and the European settlers over the issue of land ownership and control spanning several centuries. The conflict between the Natives and Settlers revolved round two crucial factors –expropriation of Native lands by the Settlers, and the failure of the medium through which this was initially carried out –mixed marriages between Europeans and Natives.

The starting point of the conflict between the two groups dates to the time of colonization of this vast stretch of land, which had been given sovereign legitimacy with the passage of the Royal Proclamation of 1763, passed by King George III. Ironically, this proclamation recognized the right of the Natives to the ownership of their lands; accordingly, these indigenous groups, called the various ‘nations’ of the Indians, were to be treated on a ‘nation to nation’ basis. It was conceived with the salutary intention of demarcating lands between Natives and Settlers, with the proviso that should the Natives decide to sell their lands to the Settlers, they would be compensated through legally binding treaties. In this was implicit the acknowledgment that the Indians were a distinct set of people with their own identity and cultural practices. Unfortunately, the later years saw a terrible misuse of the well-intentioned parts of these treaties, with the result that they became nothing more than mere documents whose spirit could be negated with impunity to drive the Natives out of their lands. (Cote, 2001, p. 15) The relationship between the Natives and Settlers took an anthropo-economic dimension, given the nature of involvement of the Settlers in the land they chose to settle in: they were essentially attracted to the New World for trade reasons. The sprawling area of land that came to be called Canada was rich in fur, a critical commodity for Western trade. So central was fur trade to the dynamics of the new colony, that it got wedded with the Native culture, quite literally –in order to facilitate this trade, several settlers started marrying into the local native communities. This was necessitated as much by the willingness of the Natives to expand their socioeconomic base by synthesizing the two cultures by means of exogamous marriages, as by the additional incentive the Settler got by becoming a part of the Native band. Over time, as the Settlers saw no major economic or social benefit by marrying the Natives, towards the end of the colonial period, the accent shifted from fostering marriages to impeding and repudiating them. Thus, while in the beginning of and in the course of the history of colonization, the union of the two cultures was predicated along matrimonial lines,  “…by the end of the colonial period, intermarriage had been transformed by settler society into “marrying-out.” Aboriginal women lost their Indian status if they married nonstatus males. Aboriginal groups were deprived of any say in the matter and their kinship structures were ignored.”  (Van Kirk, 2002) To further reinforce this separation from the Native tribes, the Settlers enforced the policy of segregating the Natives.

During the period of the relationship through marriage, there were two distinct nuances, intertwined with the question of race and gender: one concerning the attitudes of the colonizers towards the Natives, and another concerning fur trade. Even as the process of colonization, and with it, exogamous marriages were taking place, the general perception among the Settlers was that they were marrying members of a tribe who belonged to a pagan, inferior race, to whom loyalties to the ritualistic clan were more important than to what the Settlers considered the one and only true God. Marriage to such a tribe would entail passing on these base qualities to subsequent generations of their own blood. Thus, it comes as no surprise that the practice was overwhelmingly unions between European males and Native females. However, there was frequent resentment between the two groups since the Native culture demanded that marriages became legitimate only when the Settler accepted Native cultural practices, most of which were anathema to the Settler. Yet, several men consented to marriages despite all these reservations, since marriage to a member of the Native clan was an essential ingredient to access to the fur trade, and also because Native women were active participants in the fur trade, involving themselves in its secondary aspects. Within the huge territory, marriage patterns varied according to the geography of the region –in areas where fur was abundant, marriages were overwhelmingly in greater numbers than in areas that had other resources. A major reason mixed marriages failed was that there existed irreconcilable differences in the meaning and utility of marriage between the two groups. If the Natives perceived marriage to a settler as a means of economic betterment, the Settlers thought marriage was meant “…to make them like us, to give them the knowledge of the true God…” (Van Kirk, 2002) It was only natural that marriage between such dichotomous entities would collapse, once the thread that wrapped them snapped. From being indispensable to facilitating trade, the Natives now became an intrusion into Settler lives.

It was in this backdrop that the Indian Act was promulgated in 1876, aimed at isolating the Natives. Designed to spell out the policy of the Federal government towards the Natives, it looked at the question of Natives in a condescending manner; instead of recognizing the rights of the Natives over the lands that rightfully belonged to them, the law aimed at the total obliteration of the Indian cultures. (Cote, 2001, p. 15) Defining an Indian as one, “…who pursuant to this Act is registered as an Indian or is entitled to be registered as an Indian”, (Harold, 1969, p. 18) what the law did was to put the Federal seal on a virtual ostracism of the Natives under the garb of granting them land. Under the pretext of placing the Natives in what were conveniently called ‘Reserve lands’, the government used this as a ruse to Christianize the Natives. (Cote, 2001, p. 15) Classified on par with minors, and thus deprived of the legal status of full citizenship, the Indians were further discriminated against; Indian women who married non-Indians were excluded from the definition of ‘Indians’. (Titley, 1986, p. 11) With the law quarantining the Natives in their own country, the next step was to make sure they were molded into the Settlers’ line of thinking. “Once they “proved” they were civilized, they were supposed to disappear or assimilate into the general Canadian population, thus getting rid of the (so-called) “Indian problem” by getting rid of Indians and their special status altogether.” (Cote, 2001, p. 15)

The primary aim of the Act was to weaken Indian families, by placing the option of leaving the reserves out of their own volition if they wished to join the mainstream of British society, a precondition for full franchise. In other words, this Act was intended to give the Indians two options –either to forcibly become part of the establishment (Tennant, 1990, p. 45), or simply “…disappear as distinct and recognizable ethnic groups”. (Nichols, 1998, p. 226)

Effect of the law: The effect of this law has also been manifold: at the social level, it has created a system of bands, defined as a “…body of Indians holding lands or a reserve in common or for whom funds were held in trust by the federal government” (Titley, 1986, p. 11), wherein the Natives are to exercise their powers through the equivalent of municipal commissions, having nothing more than the subordinate powers these bodies are granted. The Minister of Indian Affairs still has absolute control over vital areas. (Cote, 2001, p. 15) Even the composition of the band council, consisting usually of one chief and one councilor for every 100 band members, is left to the discretion of the Minister, who may authorize the creation of a band council “…in the interest of the good government of the band”.(Catt & Murphy, 2002, p. 85)

The second effect of this law is economic in nature: it has driven the Indians to penury. It has left only the Indians in pockets of underdevelopment, while the UN rates Canada the best country in the world to live in. This is understandable, considering that the Indian Act is a systematic procedure aimed at detaching the Indians from development, by confining them to the reserves. The malefic effects of this apartheid are all too obvious, resulting in average unemployment rates touching a high of 25 percent. In particular, one of the sections of the Acts hits the Indians where it hurts most, by prohibiting them from borrowing loans by pledging their lands, their only resource. This deprives them of the already meager avenues for development. (Kendall, 2001, p. 43)

Another example of how this law crippled the Indians of their bare resources is that of the Indians living on the Saskatchewan River in the years following the enactment of the law. Here, poverty forced the Natives to trap beavers and muskrats for a living. Driven to desperation, they often resorted to over trapping. This led to a severe weakening of water levels. With a drop in the water levels, the muskrat population started dwindling; this chain reaction reduced the Indians’ incomes drastically. (Nichols, 1998, p. 276)

Conclusion: The Indian Act was designed to be discriminatory in nature. The tragedy is that the original spirit of the Royal Proclamation, promulgated in a different context and time continues to be preserved down the ages, especially that which bifurcated lands between Natives and Settlers. Although the Act has had its progenies in the form of the Penner Report of 1983, the Charlottetown Accord of 1992, and the Final Report of the Canadian Royal Commission on Aboriginal People of 1995, the best these half-hearted measures have achieved is that some of the Indian tribes, such as the Sechelt, the Nisga’a, the Inuit, Yukon First Nations and the James Bay Cree have negotiated separate treaties and have diluted some of the provisions of the original Act. Overall, the spirit of discrimination embodied in this law remains essentially the same. (Catt & Murphy, 2002, p. 85)

Viewed in its totality, this Act has been the symbol of the degradation and aggrandizement of Native resources by the Settlers. This has been the commonality between most cultures that were colonized.

Written By Ravindra G Rao




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Van Kirk, S. (2002). From “Marrying-In” to “Marrying-Out”: Changing Patterns of Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal Marriage in Colonial Canada. Frontiers – A Journal of Women’s Studies, 23(3), 1+. Retrieved October 2, 2005, from Questia database:


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