A Brief History of Indigenous Rights Infringements by the Canadian Government Under the Indian Act
Canadian kindness and hospitality are attributes celebrated around the globe, many celebrating it as one of the most free, fair, and diverse societies in the Western world today. However, it is one with an ugly secret and an even uglier past. Recently, Canada fell short on a UN Security Council seat for a failure to act abroad on human rights.
New Democratic Party (NDP) foreign affairs critic Jack Harris called the defeat "very disappointing" and said Canada's contributions to developmental assistance, peacekeeping, climate change, and Indigenous rights were likely factors.
"What is more, we have been inconsistent in our support for human rights, going so far as to vote against almost every UN resolution to uphold Palestinian rights and signing a new arms export agreement with Saudi Arabia, despite their egregious human rights abuses," he said. (Harris, 2020)
Furthermore, Canada was one of only four countries to vote no on The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007, with 144 countries voting yes. Canada's co-conspirators in the continued denial of Indigenous rights on the International stage were the United States, Australia and New Zealand. Though the declaration had widespread support from the international community, the Canadian government had this to say:
In his address to the General Assembly before the vote, Canada's UN ambassador, John McNee, said Canada had "significant concerns" over the declaration's wording on provisions addressing lands and resources, as well as another article calling on states to obtain prior informed consent with indigenous groups before enacting new laws or administrative measures.
Article 26 of the UN declaration states: "Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired."
McNee said the provision is "overly broad, unclear and capable of a wide variety of interpretations" that could lead to the reopening of previously settled land claims and existing treaties.
The ironic thing about existing land claims and treaties is that they seem to matter little when a new highway, railway or pipeline is required. Furthermore, under the Indian Act, First Nations people do not own their own land. Instead it is “Vested in the Crown”, meaning owned for us by the Federal government, a little known fact among the public today. For the first half of the 20th century, Canadian law allowed for uncultivated reserve lands to be leased off to settlers at the government’s sole discretion, land that in almost all cases would never find its way back into Indigenous hands. Canadian law also dictated under the Indian Act that Indian Reserves were a nuisance to expanding towns, and thus could be relocated at the government’s sole discretion without the input of the Indian band, should a town grow to a population of more than 8,000 people in the vicinity of the reserve lands.
Recent discoveries of mass unmarked graves at old residential school sites in Canada has led to a recent interest in the history of the schools and, by association, the other forms of legislated cultural, and arguably actual, genocidal acts by the Canadian government. The Indian Act still exists in Canada today. I am a Registered Indian with the Mishkeegogamang band. This comes with an identification card and a registration number, as well as some benefits like access to free dental services and medical prescriptions. Some bands offer free tuition for post-secondary education as well. A common misconception is that Indigenous Canadians do not have to pay tax, but this is only the case if you work on a reserve.
The Canadian government website hosts the Indian Act in its current form, as well as all the amendments dating back to the early 2000's. While the Act itself has been in existence for 154 years, the earlier most atrocious versions of the legislation have seemingly been removed from the official website. It does still exist on some First Nation’s community websites, and it can still be downloaded from here,
Over the next few week we will unpack the over 150-year history of the Indian Act in Canada, and the damage it has caused to generations of Indigenous families across the country, and continues to cause to this day. From genocidal legislation and state- sponsored assimilation, to apologies and attempts at reconciliation, We will attempt to do so in lengths that are not too overwhelming to the reader. Here are just a few of the sections of the Indian Act, or policies that were particularly oppressive and destructive to a people and their culture:
• Ban of religious ceremonies like the Potlatch
• Ban of Indians leaving Reserves without Indian Agent Permission
• Inability of Indians to vote
• Introduction of Mandatory Residential Schools
• Denial of status of Indian women
• Creation of Reserves
• Prohibition of sale of alcohol
• Prohibition of sale of ammunition
• Prohibition of Solicitation of funds for Indian legal claim
These are only a few of the atrocities hidden within the Indian Act over its century and a half long existence, a document that is still the subject of much debate today.
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