I have been working on a piece about the inquiry into the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Woman in Canada, but the topic is so difficult for me to face that each time I try to write, I become so consumed with anger that I can’t formulate words. Needless to say, it’s coming.
In the meantime, however, I thought I’d tackle another issue that is commonly talked about, not really understood, and considered slightly taboo.
This is about the Indian Act. I am not going to go into the history of it, or how it came to be (although I definitely suggest reading about it). Instead, I’m going to approach this subject in a way to help educate those that either don’t know, haven’t researched it, aren’t affected by it, or have taken hearsay as truth.
This is going to be a myth-debunking post based on conversations I’ve personally had with white people, followed by some important facts frequently kept out of the history books — and Canada’s narrative.
All Indigenous people get free health care, education, gas, tax breaks, etc.
Why Its Wrong:
First of all, this type of thinking completely dismisses the atrocities that the Indian Act writ into Canadian history, and only focuses on one tiny subject, instead of looking at the entirety of the document and taking it into consideration.
But, since it’s a question that will never *not* be asked, let me demonstrate all the reasons that is wrong.
There is a program in Canada called the Non-Insured Health Benefit (NIHB) plan for First Nations and Inuit. However, not *all* Indigenous people in Canada fall in this category. Non-status Indians* and Métis are not covered under the NIHB. Furthermore, it isn’t as simple as walking in and getting free health care. It requires paperwork, and a lot of the time, required individuals to pay up front for the healthcare they receive, which is later reimbursed. This alienates a large number of people, as it is estimated that 81% of reserves have a median income below the poverty line. This demonstrates how difficult it actually is for Indigenous people to benefit from these programs. In many cases, the need to prepay for the services you receive means families are not able to receive the health care they need, nor are they able to benefit from something that was originally a treaty right.
The simplest way to address this issue is by acknowledging that the demand for post-secondary education far exceeds the funding bands are given for this purpose. Once again, this is a benefit solely for Status Indians*, and it is also a treaty right, but just because someone is eligible doesn’t mean they will receive funding. The most common way for a First Nations person to receive funding is by applying through their band for sponsorship, but there is no guarantee the band will have the funds to be able to cover all of the students that apply. Furthermore, in order to continue to receive funding throughout the duration of their studies, students must meet a variety of conditions each semester, like upholding a specific GPA, not missing any classes, and not being enrolled in less than four classes per semester. Priority is usually given to newly graduated high school students, so the longer you have been out of school, the less likely it is you will receive funding. Priority may also be given to those who lived on the reservation versus those with Status that have never lived on a reserve.
No, there is no such thing as free gas, you [redacted]. This rumour started because of Justin Bieber telling Rolling Stone he is “Indian enough to get free gas in Canada”. The only thing that happens is that if Status Indians* purchase gas on the reserve, they are exempt from paying provincial taxes. But let me be clear: they still have to pay for gas. They just don’t pay tax on the gas paid for on reserve.
First Nations people are not exempt from paying taxes. The only way they are exempt from paying taxes is if their purchases, property, and workplace is on a reservation. Any income that is gained on a reservation is tax exempt, along with the purchase of goods. Any income gained off the reservation must be paid the same as any other Canadian. Métis, non-Status Indians*, and Inuit are ineligible for this exemption.
All bands share their income with each other.
Why Its Wrong:
This belief is detrimental to our people, because when news breaks about reservations without access to clean water, it’s common for non-Indigenous people to feel like this is the responsibility of First Nations people, because there are a few wealthy bands in Canada.
However, a band’s income is not shared amongst other bands. In fact, the Indian Act states that health and social services, roads, housing, water and waste management is federal jurisdiction. However, the services available on reserves are often incomparable, and tend to remain in much poorer states than that of the land off the reservation.
Funding is renewed annually through “contribution agreements”, but the timeliness of these agreements is not always prompt, which means the bands rely heavily on their own income to support their people. However, the Indian Act originally forbade Indigenous people from controlling their own economy and finances – this is something that has only changed in the last few decades.
The Indian Act allows for First Nations people to do whatever they want on the reserve.
Why Its Wrong:
Every facet of the Indian Act is controlled by the Canadian government; many of the clauses are written in a way that favours the government, despite the guise of being mutually beneficial.
The government passed laws allowing Canada to expropriate lands from First Nations people in order to build roads, railways, highways, and as we’ve seen recently, pipelines. These are often implemented without consent from the First Nations people of the reservation that it affects. Furthermore, the lands are taken without compensation.
*I only use the term Indian as it is used in the Indian Act; this word shouldn’t be used to describe First Nations people.
Now that we have covered some basic misconceptions frequently faced by Indigenous people in Canada, I’ll be sharing some facts about the Indian Act that will hopefully educate those who haven’t researched it, and shed some light onto the damage this Act has done to our people.
The Indian Act is the very document that allowed for the creation of residential schools.
What This Means:
The document that was written as a mutually beneficial agreement between settlers and our ancestors also paved the way for the acts of violence committed by the Canadian government against our people.
In stating that the government will provide education to First Nations people, they created a school system meant to assimilate and destroy native people and our culture. Compulsory attendance was written into the Indian Act, to ensure cultural genocide.
Children were removed from their families and forced to attend schools where they were beaten, starved, sexually assaulted, fell victim to disease, and in some cases, death. It is impossible to know how many children died, as they were buried in unmarked grave sites and the school system had very poor record keeping systems in place.
The last residential school closed in 1996, in Duck Lake, Saskatchewan. My grandmother and my ancestors come from Duck Lake. Residential schools are something that still affect living people — they aren’t some historical atrocity that was committed against our people long enough ago that we should just “get over it” or “let it go”. Even those in my generation are still faced with the fallout and repercussions of their family members being forced to attend.
The Indian Act renamed First Nations people with “difficult to pronounce” names to something European.
What This Means:
Most of the motivation, if not all, behind the Indian Act is assimilation. It was believed that those with traditional names would be harder to assimilate, so they were forced to change their name to something European.
Indian Agents are responsible for many of the name changes, and most of the names were biblical in nature. That is how so many of our ancestors are named Joseph, Mary, John, etc. In fact, in many cases, traditional naming ceremonies and using traditional names were outlawed.
The result is entire generations of people who lost their traditional names, which in many cases meant they were never recovered, and the younger generations missed out on learning these important pieces of their ancestral history.
First Nations were restricted from leaving the reserves that the Indian Act created without permission from an Indian Agent.
What This Means:
This was never an official “law”, but Indian Agents were given authority over First Nations people to implement a pass system as a way to prevent “rebel” natives from leaving the reserve and “threatening” neighbouring farmers. This authority was directly implemented in response to the Red River Rebellion and the Northwest Rebellion. However, this eventually spread from “rebels” to all Indigenous people.
This resulted in reservations resembling prisons, more than communities. The duration of time an individual was allowed to leave for was recorded and if they were not back they would face prosecution.
The pass system was also used to prevent parents from being able to visit their children in residential schools. It was used as a way to control how much contact parents had with their children to further force the child’s assimilation.
The Indian Act prohibited the sale of alcohol to First Nations People.
What This Means:
Alcohol was originally used as a bartering tool by traders to gain furs from the First Nations people. Offering liquor before a trade was made was a common practice for traders, in order to take advantage of Indigenous people and make them more susceptible to persuasion. This was later prohibited, which laid the groundwork for the Indian Act.
Under the Indian Act, it became a felony for Indigenous people to purchase, consume, or enter an establishment that sold, liquor of any kind. This law also prevented people from selling alcohol to Natives. No prohibition has ever been 100% effective, but by outlawing it, individuals began purchasing it on the black market and drinking it as quickly as they could before getting caught and facing prosecution.
This prohibition directly caused the pervasive and harmful stereotype that Indigenous people can’t handle their liquor, and that they are more susceptible to its effects.
The Indian Act prohibited First Nations people from speaking their own language, practicing their traditional religion, or wearing their traditional regalia. Potlatches and other cultural ceremonies were outlawed.
What This Means:
If further proof is needed that the Indian Act exists solely as an attempt to eradicate and assimilate Native people and their practices, here it is. The quickest way to ensure assimilation is by outlawing the very things that separate cultures — their beliefs, their languages, and their ceremonies.
Individuals who attended potlatches, performed traditional dances, or wore traditional regalia were considered guilty of a misdemeanor and faced imprisonment. Potlatches were described as “debauchery of the worst kind” by the local missionaries and and officers, and were seen as something that needed to be eradicated.
Potlatches are celebrations that mark important moments in an Indigenous persons life; through outlawing them, these celebrations were driven underground. This lead to ridiculous arrests where people were incarcerated or gift-giving and dancing. On Christmas Day in 1921, a Potlatch ceremony was raided and 45 people were arrested for giving gifts, giving speeches, dancing, and receiving gifts.
The Potlatch ban lasted 75 years and successfully ensured an entire generation of people missed out on their oral history, lost outfits, masks, blankets, and regalia, and as a result — prevented the passing down of traditional beliefs and values.
It left an entire generation without a connection to their ancestors; an integral part of their history and culture was missing. This was strategic — the Canadian government attempted to fill the void created by eradicating these ceremonies with Christianity, forced upon Indigenous youth taken into the residential school system.
The Indian Act denied women status if they married outside of their band.
What This Means:
To begin with, if a First Nations woman married outside of her band, whether to a white man or a non-Status person, they were forced to sever ties to their band and lose their status altogether. This effectively undermined and damaged the women’s role in her community — prior to European contact, women were revered for their ability to birth children and were an integral part of traditional Indigenous communities. Many of these communities were matriarchal, and women had important roles in the governance and spiritual practices of the people.
The Indian Act continues to discriminate against women, even today, despite many amendments. In 2010, Bill C-3 was created in hopes of remedying the damage done by previous clauses. It was meant to return status to those women who had lost it due to marriage outside of a band. Unfortunately, the status is only renewed if the lineage is traced patrilineally — through the father and male ancestors. Any lines traced through female ancestors is still considered meaningless and doesn’t count toward getting status reinstated.
In stark contrast, Native men who married non-status women did not lose their status and were not subjected to the same laws our women were. Once again, this is a strategic attempt to undermine the practices of our people, as most Indigenous communities were traditionally matriarchal.
The Indian Act denied First Nations people the right to vote.
What This Means:
Originally, during Confederation, Indigenous people were given the ability to vote — only if they gave up their status and treaty rights. Basically, if they denied their birthright and denied their ancestry, they were given the right to vote. This is another example of the forced assimilation of Indigenous people, and that only by denying your history and identity could you be considered a worthy member of society.
It was only in 1960 that Diefenbaker recommended First Nations individuals be given the right to vote without giving up their status or treaty rights. Prior to this, it was assumed that Indigenous people wouldn’t understand how the Canadian government worked, due to the stark differences between the type of governance Indigenous people practiced and European settlers. Thus, their votes would be based on uninformed opinions. There was no attempt to educate First Nations people on how government worked; instead, they were prohibited from being involved in any democratic process.
Since I have debunked some common myths and provided some facts about the Indian Act, allow me to paint you a portrait:
Our land was stolen by European settlers, who viewed us as a problem that needed to be eradicated. One of the ways to deal with the “Indian Problem” was to create and implement the Indian Act, which forced our people onto reservations — pockets of our own land sectioned out and given back to us. This land was usually in less-than-desirable areas with little to no resources, often far removed from cities and towns. Once forced onto the reservations, policies were put in place that prevented our people from leaving. We were prohibited from voting, our women were stripped of their power, and our children were stolen from us and forced into institutions that attempted to assimilate and eradicate our culture. We were punished for speaking our language. Our spiritual practices and traditional ceremonies were outlawed and we were imprisoned for practicing them. Our given names were stripped from us. We were prevented from having any say in how the country that was forged with the blood and pain of our people was run. We were promised health care, education, and other treaty rights in exchange for our land and our cooperation. Instead, we faced genocide, cultural eradication, bureaucratic hurdles, and more often than not, we can only rely on ourselves.
We have been left behind by a government that claimed to benefit us. We have fallen victim to wolves in sheep’s clothing, yet the only thing white people seem to care about is the fact that *some* of us don’t have to pay for things Canadians do.
The next time you’re about to open your mouth and speak about the Indian Act, complain about the “free ride” Indigenous people get, or complain about taxation, consider everything we’ve endured so that you can live comfortably on the land that was stolen from us.