First Nations refers to Canada’s indigenous or the aboriginal peoples, the original inhabitants also known as the Indian peoples. The term “Indian” is used in the context of the Indian Act to refer to any of the Aboriginal peoples of the Western Hemisphere (excluding the Inuit and the Métis). First Nations refer only to Indian peoples. The term attempts to elevate Aboriginal peoples to a status of first among equals in their quest for self-determination and self-government alongside the English and French founding nations in Canada (Gadacz, 2014). The term is not used by Aboriginal peoples outside Canada.
Aboriginal people consider themselves as minority peoples. In Canada until the 1980s, they were peoples of the Fourth World – indigenous minorities who look at themselves as powerless, colonized and exploited in First, Second and Third World countries (Gadacz, 2014). The latter of course would be the industrialized, capitalist, democratic, socialist and communist, developing and emerging nation-states of the world. Considered as belonging to the Fourth World are the Aborigines of Australia, the Maoris of New Zealand, the Ainu of Japan, the Saami of Scandinavia and the Indian peoples of Central and South America.
Profile: First Nations of Ontario
As a profile of the First Nations, we look at the First Nations in Ontario. In 2006, there were 158,395 First Nations people representing about 65% of the total Aboriginal population in Ontario. This represented an increase of 20% from 2001 population and is attributed to higher birth rate and more people self-identifying as First Nations (Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs, 2006).
Most First Nations in Ontario lived off-reserve, of whom 57% or about 90,000 live in the urban areas. 30% or about 47,000 First Nations people lived on reserves. Ontario First Nations are composed of young people; about 29% were under 15 years old in 2006. Also, compared to Métis and Inuit, First Nations in Ontario did not complete high school as often. The high school completion rate was only 58% compared to 70% for the Métis and 59% for the Inuit. First Nations people were also less likely than Métis or Unit to complete an undergraduate degree.
Average income in 2006 was also lower at $24,000 than Métis $29,000 and non-Aboriginals’ average of $38,000. On-reserve First Nations people earned an average personal income of $17,000. Unemployment was also higher at 14% while Métis and non-Aboriginal had 10% and 6% unemployment rates respectively.
The Control of the Indian Act
The Indian Act has had a long history. From the creation of Canada in 1867, aboriginal affairs were under the charge of the federal government. Enacted in 1876 and since amended over the years, the Indian Act allows the government control of most aspects of Aboriginal life, including granting of Indian status and its entitlements, land, resources, wills, education and band administration. Only First Nations are governed by this law. The Inuit and Métis peoples do not fall under the scope of the Indian Act.
Assimilation was the goal of the Indian Act in its early versions. For instance, First Nations people who became doctors or lawyers or university graduates lost their Indian status, as would status women who married non-status men. The Indian Act also prohibited some traditional practices such as the Sun Dance and the Potlatch, barred Aboriginal communities from hiring lawyers to pursue claims against the government, made public meetings for discussion of indigenous affairs illegal, and established pass systems which allowed Indian Agents to regulate the movement of people on and off reserves (Coates, 2008). Some of the offending provisions of the Act were removed during major amendments in 1951 but others such as those on voting and alcohol consumption remained until the 1960s (Coates, 2008).
The Indian Act embodied how the dominant Euro-Canadian society during those times considered the indigenous peoples of Canada. Providing for their civilization, protection and assimilation, the Indian Act sought to designate Aboriginal peoples as “wards”. Aboriginal communities and governments were considered as incapable of managing their affairs. While the Indian Act sought to integrate indigenous cultures into mainstream Canadian society, the First Nations were first to be separated from Canadian society until they were ready for the transition (Coates, 2008). The Indian Act has been a powerful program of the federal government which allowed federal civil servants to manage band affairs, supervise indigenous lands and trust funds, direct the personal and family lives of individual Aboriginal people and deny basic Canadian civil and personal rights to hundreds and thousands of these wards of the federal government (Coates, 2008).
The Indian Act defines the eligibility for Indian registration or status, and the Indian Register is the official record which identifies all status Indians in Canada (AADNC, 2014). It is said to be the centerpiece of Aboriginal anger over federal attempts to control Aboriginal identity and membership (Coates, 2008). Important amendments to the Indian Act were adopted in 1985 when Parliament passed Bill C-31 which brought the Indian Act in line with the provisions of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (AADNC, 2014). Three guiding principles were built in that amendment: removal of discrimination against women, restoring status and membership rights and increasing control of Indian bands over their own membership (AADNC, 2014).
Under the Indian Act, from 1879 to 1996, tens and thousands of First Nations children attended residential schools designed to make them forget their language and culture and where many suffered from abuse. So much so that in 2008 and on behalf of Canadians, Prime Minister Stephen Harper made a public apology to Canada’s Aboriginal peoples for this policy that sought to “kill” the Indian in the child (Montpetit, 2011).
Even then, there were some provisions of the Indian Act that sought to protect the native Canadian population. This included invoking the federal government’s fiduciary obligation to protect Aboriginal communities, their interests and their reserved lands (Montpetit, 2011).
Attitudes of Aboriginal Peoples
Some aboriginal peoples denounce the Act as paternalistic and colonial and yet are reluctant to give up its protections such as tax exemptions in the reserves (Montpetit, 2011). Others have looked at the elimination of the Indian Act as a move to eliminate all special provisions and rights for status Indians and strip them of significant legal and political rights and government obligations. At the very least, with its imperfect provisions and implementation, the Indian Act is still seen as a commitment of the Government of Canada to recognize the special legal status of Aboriginal peoples.
Leading the vocal critics of the Indian Act is the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples (CAP) which represents off-reserve Indians and Métis across Canada and whose membership is generally excluded from the voting and administrative activities of Indian Act governments. CAP National Chief Patrick Brazeau has proposed the adoption of a new Aboriginal Peoples Act that recognizes the rights and responsibilities of off-reserve status Indians, non-status Indians and Métis. He maintains that because of the Indian Act, Aboriginal politicians defend a system that undermines the autonomy and independence of indigenous peoples in Canada, most especially through the reservation system (Coates, 2008). It should also be underscored that Métis, who do not fall under First Nations and are not covered by the Indian Act, as well as non-status Aboriginal peoples, have long sought for formal recognition of indigenous rights and self-government authority. The Indian Act has accorded self-government rights of some Aboriginal peoples while yet ignoring those of others who equally consider themselves as Aboriginal (Coates, 2008).
Some aboriginal communities went a step further by signing treaties to form their own government and manage their own affairs. Still others have signed on the First Nations Land Management Act enacted in Ottawa in 1999 while remaining subject to the Indian Act. This gave them certain powers in the management of reserve lands, resources and the environment. The repeal of the Indian Act in 2010 was pushed during the annual meeting of the Assembly of First Nations by National Chief Shawn Atleo. He proposed to replace the law with a new arrangement that would allow all parties to proceed with derailed land claims and resource sharing.
The Future of the Indian Act
While still providing the legitimate backbone for Aboriginal politics in Canada to this day, the influence of the Indian Act is seen to be slowly eroding as Aboriginal governments and communities replace it with agreements with the federal government that are more reflective of their needs and interests. This is manifested by modern treaties signed in northern districts, in the Yukon Territory, Nisga’a settlement and in British Columbia, that have served as models for future similar treaties. More importantly, while the Indian Act was largely unilateral and intrusive to Aboriginal communities, the new emerging treaties negotiated between the federal government and Aboriginal governments have been ratified by the respective Aboriginal communities (Coates, 2008).
Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada. (2014). How Do the New Legislative Changes to the Indian Act Affect Me? Retrieved from https://www.aadnc-aandc.gc.ca/eng/1100100032501/1100100032506
Coates, K. (2008, May). The Indian Act and the Future of Aboriginal Governance in Canada. Retrieved from http://fngovernance.org/ncfng_research/coates.pdf
Gadacz, R. R. (2014). First Nations - The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/first-nations/
Montpetit, I. (2011, May 30). Background: The Indian Act - Canada - CBC News. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/background-the-indian-act-1.1056988