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21 things you may not know about Canada's Indian Act

More than a week since the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation announced ground-penetrating radar had located what are believed to be the remains of 215 children, one expert says it's time Canadians start learning their buried history, starting with the Indian Act.
Kamloops residential school
The former Kamloops Indian Residential School is seen on Tk’emlups te Secwépemc First Nation in Kamloops, B.C. on Thursday, May 27, 2021.

It’s been more than a week since the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation announced ground-penetrating radar had located what are believed to be the remains of 215 children in an unmarked burial site on the grounds of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C.

Since then, pressure is mounting for an independent investigation examining all burial sites near former residential schools across Canada. 

For Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, director of UBC’s Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre, the response from politicians and church officials that the discovery is "shocking" rings hollow, as Indigenous people have tried to raise awareness about the issue for years.

For others, like Bob Joseph — author and head of the Indigenous Relations Academy based on Vancouver Island — the grief surrounding such a profoundly tragic find must be met with a renewed push to learn how we got here.

From the 19th Century to the 1970s, more than 150,000 Indigenous children aged six to 16 were forced to attend state-funded Christian schools designed to assimilate them into Canadian society in what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TCR) report has described as “cultural genocide.”

Children were removed from their families, not allowed to speak their own language and forced to convert to Christianity. Many were physically, sexually and verbally abused, triggering lifetimes of trauma. According to the TCR report, at least 6,000 Indigenous children are thought to have died between the 1880s and 1996.

What made that system legally possible? A 145-year-old law known as the Indian Act.

On June 1, Joseph drew on his book, tracing the contours of the Indian Act, and began releasing daily tweets in the lead up to National Indigenous Peoples’ Day on June 21.

Glacier Media caught up with Joseph to help understand what makes the Indian Act "a lightning rod for criticism and controversy over the years." 

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How important was the Indian Act in laying the groundwork for colonial rule in Canada? 

Bob Joseph: People like John A. Macdonald and [Egerton] Ryerson and those guys felt that the assimilation process would be something that happened really quickly. And the problem was, it didn't happen quickly and dragged on. We started to get more aggressive as a country.

First it was: ‘All we got to do is just sort of ride it out because it's a dying race of people.’

Earlier during colonial rule, negotiations were done on more of a nation-to-nation basis. The Indian Act sort of is kind of a flip-flop and that policy: ‘They're not fitting in militarily and economically. It would go really well if we took away their kids and we indoctrinated them, you know, killed the Indian in the child.'

The Indian Act [is] just a litany of legislation designed to assimilate. Today, if we are in another part of the world, and we decided to take away the kids from the kinship group, that’s actually a genocidal act.

Why is understanding the Indian Act so important to understanding the burial sites found in Kamloops?

What we're seeing with the 215 [child remains] today, I mean, it's a hard thing to look at as we do reconciliation as a country. It's just one of those moments where we hold a mirror up to Canada, and we say, ‘look.’ 

You can't unsee that.

We're definitely seeing how deep the rabbit hole really goes.

Why else does the Indian Act matter today? 

If you're wondering about systemic racism, and whether Canada is involved and engaged in it, you only need to look at the Indian Act. The thing about it is that it’s so omnipresent, you just don't notice it.

The Indian Act is like a driftnet that's broken away from the mothership. Nobody's watching what it's doing. But it's still killing fish.

So what we've got is this sort of a hangover from Indian Act policy, which was supposed to assimilate. Now, we're kind of dealing with the aftermath of a failed policy. The Indian Act is still taking names off the list and still shipping people to urban centres. 

When you cut back Indian Affairs spending, that means people have to leave the reserves. And when they leave the reserves, they show up in Toronto, all of the Halifaxes and Victorias and Vancouvers — all of those places, right? And now they are provincial problems: ‘We've got to come up with low-cost native housing, we've got to deal with crime, we’ve got to deal with homelessness.’

It’s still throwing people off the list and, you know, we still see moldy houses, clean drinking water problems, lesser education.

What is the solution: rework the Indian Act or do away with it completely?

There are actually Indigenous people that say, ‘Oh, we don't want to get rid of it.’ Well, why not? ‘Because it's like, the only game in town,’ they say.

There's already a lot of models out there. It's workable in places where we get the Nisga’a Treaty, for example, here in British Columbia. It’s worked out really well for them. 

I've talked to mayors from the region in the past and said, ‘Man, if it wasn't for that treaty, this whole region would be in the tanks right now.’

There are ways forward and outside of the Indian Act, and that really is where we have to go as a society, you know, because it was designed to do something, and it’s still doing it.

Where do you see reconciliation playing out in the best ways today?

I don't really care if the politicians take it on or not because they're so flip-floppy. 

I'd just rather see Canadians and churches and schools — and I think the schools are doing a great job. K-through-12 educators are working on reconciliation, they're decolonizing and Indigenizing their curriculums and, you know, the country. 

In 16 years — that's one whole generation of kids K through 12 — this will be a different country because of those efforts.

We've got to make sure Canadians really adopt it because that's what sustains the future of the country. It's going to make such a huge difference millennia down the road. That's really what's at stake.

Drawn from Joseph’s popular book, here are 21 things you may not have known about Canada's Indian Act:

  1. denied women status (1869-1985, with corrective legislation passed in 2019);
  2. introduced residential schools (last school closed in 1996, but their legacy continues);
  3. created reserves (1876-present);
  4. renamed individuals with European names (1880-undetermined)
  5. restricted First Nations from leaving reserve without permission from Indian Agent (phased out in the 1960s)
  6. enforced enfranchisement of any First Nation admitted to university (1876-1951, though enfranchisement was tied to voting until 1961, and women marrying non-Indigenous men until 1985);
  7. could expropriate portions of reserves for roads, railways and other public works, as well as to move an entire reserve away from a municipality if it was deemed expedient (1876-1985, though still an issue, says Joseph);
  8. could lease out uncultivated reserve lands to non-First Nations if the new leaseholder would use it for farming or pasture (1906-1985);
  9. forbade First Nations from forming political organizations (1927-1951);
  10. prohibited anyone, First Nation or non-First Nation, from soliciting funds for First Nation legal claims without special license from the Superintendent General. (this 1927-1951 amendment granted the government control over the ability of First Nations to pursue land claims);
  11. prohibited the sale of alcohol to First Nations (1884-1985);
  12. prohibited sale of ammunition to First Nations (1882-undetermined);
  13. prohibited pool hall owners from allowing First Nations entrance (1927-1951, however, the Governor General still has powers regulate such on-reserve establishments);
  14. imposed the "band council" system (1869-present, unless self-government in place);
  15. forbade First Nations from speaking their native language (1880s to 1960s, though in practice, it was phased out with residential schools);
  16. forbade First Nations from practicing their traditional religion (until 1951; however, in practice, residential schools continued the policy);
  17. forbade western First Nations from appearing in any public dance, show, exhibition, stampede or pageant wearing traditional regalia (1906-1951);
  18. declared potlatch and other cultural ceremonies illegal (1884-1951);
  19. denied First Nations the right to vote (until 1960);
  20. created permit system to control First Nations ability to sell products from farms (1881-2014);
  21. is a piece of legislation created under British rule for the purpose of subjugating one race — Indigenous people.