Canada’s history of oppressive Indigenous policies

Almost every year the Indian Act was amended to add new measures of control, many of them requested by the government’s agents in the field. In twenty-five pages of its report, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples laid out in detail the “oppressive measures” that were added to the act right up until 1951. They included the power to force bands to use the municipal election model of governance and to police elections so that chiefs and other traditional leaders could be disqualified for office. Indian agents were given the power of justices of the peace, extending their control to the justice system. Enfranchisement, that ticket to white man’s freedom, was forced on Indians who obtained university degrees and later on Indian leaders mobilizing resistance to their people’s oppression. The totalitarian ambition of the Act was manifest in its attack on traditional ceremonies and festivals such as the potlatch and the sun dance. Even dress was regulated when a 1914 amendment prohibited Indians from wearing, without permission, “Aboriginal costume” in any “dance, show, exhibition, stampede or pageant.” The land base of bands was steadily reduced through government pressure to surrender land to real estate developers and municipalities. In 1911 public authorities were given the power to expropriate reserve lands without a surrender. It was a criminal offence for Indian farmers to sell their produce without the Indian agent’s permission. That permission was frequently denied. And to make sure Indians did not challenge any of this in the white man’s courts, a 1927 amendment made it a criminal offence to solicit funds for taking claims to court without a license from the superintendent general.

Of all the “oppressive measures,” the one best known and most regretted by non-Aboriginal Canadians is the residential school program. It is the one thing we Canadians did to Aboriginal peoples for which we have made an official apology. Prime Minister Stephen Harper, speaking in the House of Commons on 11 June 2008, said “I stand before you today to offer an apology to former students of Indian residential schools. The treatment of the children in Indian residential schools is a sad chapter in our history. We are sorry.” Justices of Australia’s High Court concluded in the Mabo case that the Aboriginal peoples they encountered were fully human and their insistence for over two centuries that they arrived in a terra nullius (an empty land) “constitute the darkest aspect of the history of this nation.” Canada’s residential school program for Aboriginal children is surely “the darkest aspect” of Canada’s history.

Russell, Peter. Canada’s Odyssey: A Country Based on Incomplete Conquests. University of Toronto Press, 2017. p. 191–2

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

3 thoughts on “Canada’s history of oppressive Indigenous policies”

  1. Canada was not terra nullius, or nobody’s land, as the fiction of the time had it, when Europeans came to live there in the 17th century. An estimated 500,000 inhabitants could trace their roots back at least 10,000 years. The Iroquois Confederacy, which united warring tribes, predated the Dominion of Canada by more than 250 years. The French and British signed peace treaties with the locals, who outnumbered them, and enlisted them in battles with each other and with the United States. “Canada would be American today if not for the Indian allies who fought for the Crown,” says Peter Russell, a historian.

    Once the European population grew, the balance of power shifted. The British ignored land rights and treaties guaranteed by King George in 1763. Indigenous peoples were confined to reserves and their lands taken by the Crown or sold. The reserve at Rapid Lake measures less than a square kilometre, though its Algonquin residents claim a territory 10,000 times that. After the birth of Canada, efforts to assimilate or wipe out indigenous peoples were redoubled. Between the 1870s and 1996 over 150,000 indigenous children were put in residential schools to “kill the Indian in the child”.

    Only when indigenous Canadians began using the courts to defend their legal rights did their situation finally start to improve. In 2008 Stephen Harper, then the prime minister, apologised for the residential schools and set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In 2015 it said that the schools were part of an organised effort to wipe out aboriginal culture. It has paid more than C$3bn ($2.4bn) to settle abuse claims, and C$1.6bn to former residents still living in 2005. Last year Mr Trudeau started an inquiry into the estimated 1,017 indigenous women and girls who were murdered and the 164 who have gone missing since 1980. He recently handed the former American embassy building, which faces parliament, to indigenous groups and removed from his own office the name of Hector-Louis Langevin, an architect of the residential school system.


    With respect to Indigenous issues, as MOJAG, I have publicly expressed my opinions in various venues about the ongoing challenges in transforming what the Prime Minister has stated is the “most important” relationship, that between Canada and Indigenous peoples. One of my main motivations for seeking public office was to see the work of reconciliation accelerate and advance in real and tangible ways.

    The work that must be done is well known. We have the solutions. Indigenous peoples have advocated and brought forward what must be done for decades. Countless Commissions, studies, reports, and analyses have reiterated the work we must do together to reconcile.

    The foundation for moving forward is understanding that the dire social and economic realities that Indigenous peoples continue to face – including lack of clean drinking water, over representation in the criminal justice system, inadequate housing, high rates of poverty, and violence against Indigenous women and girls – are directly linked to legislative and policy regimes that have disempowered and divided Indigenous peoples, eroded their systems of governance, laws, and responsibilities, harmed their economies, and denied their basic rights and systems. Long overdue legislative and policy changes based on the recognition of title and rights, including historic treaties, are urgently needed, so that Indigenous peoples can accelerate and lead the work of re-building their Nations and governments, and a new climate of co-operative relations can emerge.

    While our government has taken some very important steps, and hard work is being done, the necessary shifts have not yet been fully achieved. Rather, a number of the proposals that our government has been pursuing so far require substantial work in co-operation and collaboration with Indigenous peoples to reset the new foundations for this most important relationship.

  3. It’s hard to think of any other liberal democracy with something akin to Canada’s Indian Act: An openly racist document hated by everybody that nevertheless continues to define a major swath of federal policy. It’s eminently clear by this point that no conventional federal government would ever have the conviction, courage or political savvy to comprehensively reform the Indian Act the way it so desperately requires. When it comes to Indigenous policy, Canada can’t even deliver on the absolute barest minimum of expectations: Ensuring that the first peoples within its borders don’t have to boil their water before drinking it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *