Secret Life of Canada

What do you really know about The Indian Act? 

How and why did The Indian Act come to be? And why is it still on the books? (Hint: something this deeply rooted is hard to exhume without changing the foundation.) 

The Secret Life of Canada explores the federal law that overhauled settler-Indigenous relations

The Indian Act laid the foundation for residential schools across Canada, like this school at Cross Lake Indian Residential School in Cross Lake, Man. (1940 archive photo.) (Library and Archives Canada)

In 1876, the young country of Canada passed a set of laws intended to govern First Nations people in Canada. 

Decades later, those laws still exist and are largely unchanged — as you may be able to tell from the outdated term in the title of the Act. 

So, how and why did this act of Parliament come to be? And why is it still on the books? (Hint: something this deeply rooted is hard to exhume without changing the foundation.) 

In the newest episode of The Secret Life of Canada, co-hosts Falen Johnson and Leah Simone-Bowen look into the various forces that led Canada to the creation of the Indian Act, and the various ways it has defined and controlled Indigenous lives over the span of several generations. 

Falen found this copy of the Indian Act among her great grandmother's things. (Falen Johnson)

What you'll hear this episode

  • What early agreements looked like between European settlers and Indigenous people. (Spoiler: it wasn't a cool handshake or friendship bracelets.) 
  • Just how the Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs started, and just how far back we can trace precursors to the department (a story that begins well before Confederation). 
  • The importance of the Royal Proclamation, and the last time Falen believes Indigenous and non-Indigenous people had a proper nation-to-nation agreement. 
  • Why treaties mean so much to Indigenous communities. 
  • The steps that gradually led to the creation of the Indian Act, including the Bagot Commission, The Gradual Enfranchisement Act of 1896 and the Gradual Civilization Act. 
  • Leah and Falen discuss branching out and creating a true crime podcast called Confederation.
  • The especially harsh impact of the Indian Act on Indigenous women. 
  • Falen chats with Kaniehtiio Horn, Mohawk actress and host/creator of the great podcast Coffee with my MaThey speak frankly about status lost and gained, and whether there's really any levelling up in this video game. 
  • Falen chats with Teresa Vander Meer-Chasse about her decision to reclaim her Indigenous status after her grandmother lost it by marrying outside the community. 


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