Since Canada was created in 1867, the federal government has been in charge of aboriginal affairs. The Indian Act, which was enacted in 1876 and has since been amended, allows the government to control most aspects of aboriginal life: Indian status, land, resources, wills, education, band administration and so on.
Inuit and Métis are not governed by this law.
In its previous versions, the Indian Act clearly aimed to assimilate First Nations. People who earned a university degree would automatically lose their Indian status, as would status women who married non-status men. Some traditional practices were prohibited.
Between 1879 and 1996, tens of thousands of First Nations children attended residential schools designed to make them forget their language and culture, where many suffered abuse. On behalf of Canadians, Prime Minister Stephen Harper made a formal apology in 2008 to Canada's Aboriginal Peoples for this policy that sought to "kill the Indian in the child."
Some provisions of the Indian Act, however, were designed to protect the native population.
"The government, and formerly the Crown, had a fiduciary obligation to protect aboriginal interests and the lands reserved for their use during the process of colonization," explains anthropologist Pierre Trudel, an expert on aboriginal issues.
Two sides to relationship
Many aboriginal people have an ambivalent relationship with the Indian Act. They denounce its paternalism, but are at the same time reluctant to give up its protections, such as tax exemptions in the reserves.
Some aboriginal communities have chosen to throw off the yoke of this law by signing treaties to form their own governments and manage their own affairs.
Others have signed onto the First Nations Land Management Act, enacted by Ottawa in 1999, while remaining subject to the Indian Act. They have thus acquired certain powers in the management of reserve lands, resources and the environment.
At the 2010 annual meeting of the Assembly of First Nations, National Chief Shawn Atleo called on Ottawa to repeal the Indian Act within five years. He proposed replacing the law with a new arrangement that would allow all parties to move forward on land claims and resource sharing.