Indian Act turns 140, but few celebrating

One of the most maligned pieces of legislation in Canadian history turns 140 today, but few First Nations are celebrating, chiefs say.

Time to abolish 'racist, oppressive' legislation, chiefs say

First introduced in 1876, the Indian Act is seen by many as oppressive and racist legislation. (CBC)

One of the most maligned pieces of legislation in Canadian history turns 140 this week, but few First Nations are celebrating, chiefs say.

First passed in 1876, the Indian Act received royal assent on April 12, 1876, under a Liberal government headed by Prime Minister Alexander McKenzie. 

The Indian Act ("An Act respecting Indians"), is the primary legislation used by the federal government to administer everything from laws to membership and elections in First Nation communities. It's still in force in the majority of First Nation communities across the country.

"The Indian Act has been amended over the years, but it still remains an oppressive, racist piece of legislation that continues to inflict irreparable damage upon our peoples," said Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day. 

Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day says the Indian Act created 'poverty and despair' for First Nations. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)
When it was first introduced, many First Nations replaced their traditional governments with the chief and council system most common today. The Act also enforced where First Nation people could and couldn't go in Canada, which led to the end of traditional livelihoods for some and the beginning of dependence on welfare.

"The suicide crisis in Attawapiskat and far too many other ongoing crises across the country are rooted in the poverty and despair that was created by the Indian Act," Day said.

The Act has been amended multiple times, most recently in 2002 with a private member's bill introduced by Conservative MP Rob Clarke. Those amendments repealed long-outdated references to residential schools and removed a reference to restricting certain people on reserves from trade.

"I thought it would be better for a First Nations person to take this forward and create some substantial change, but also to create some dialogue between government and First Nations," Clarke said.

Some chiefs, however, feel that the Act should be scrapped altogether - replaced with a relationship built on treaties which see First Nations and Canada as partners.

The head of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs recently announced that he's been given a mandate to do just that.

"Once the Indian Act is done away with, only then will First Nations have control of our own destiny to become self sufficient and self-governing," said Grand Chief Derek Nepinak.

Nepinak says the issue will be discussed at a meeting in Manitoba in May 2016, with more talks taking place in Niagara Falls when the Assembly of First Nations gathers for their annual meeting in the summer.