Secret Life of Canada·Point of View

What should I do with my great-grandma's copy of the Indian Act?

Secret Life of Canada's Falen Johnson reflects on the not-so-distant past, a story told through two objects she found at her great-grandmother's house.

Secret Life of Canada's Falen Johnson reflects on club rules that neither she nor her grandma signed up for

Falen Johnson will only ever know how her Grandma Winnie felt about one of these objects. (Fabiola Melendez Carletti/CBC)
Listen to the full episode44:32

One of my earliest memories is of gifting my great-grandmother a doll. 

I can't remember what the occasion was, but I can still picture going to the store and picking out the small figurine. She was the stereotypical "Indian" doll you might find at a trading post off the highway. Her deep brown skin stood out against the bright white rabbit fur of her dress.

I remember holding the doll as we drove to my great-grandma's house, or Grandma Winnie as we called her, excited to give her the gift. I must have been too excited because I took out my markers and scribbled on the base of the doll. My sister told my parents on me, and I remember feeling terrible.

But when I handed Grandma Winnie the doll, she didn't mind my scribbles at all. 

She told me she loved it and that it would be her angel. She promised to keep it by her bedside so it would watch over her. I remember feeling good about that. 

The things we inherit

Falen, as a child, playing in her Grandma Winnie's garden. (Falen Johnson)

In 2007, my great-grandmother passed away. She had lived independently for 100 of her 101 years, only entering hospice for the last year of her life. When my family and I went to her house to begin the process of cleaning it out, it is was full of the things she had collected over the years: carvings, knick-knacks, quilts and dishes as well as kitchen equipment, magazines and books. 

In her living room, the room where we would watch cartoons after church, was a large stack of magazines. I pulled a paper off the top and the stack toppled over. There, at my feet, fell a small blue book, not much more than a pamphlet really. The cover read The Indian Act 1906. 

I had never held a copy of the Indian Act. To be honest, at that time in my life, I had never really thought much about it. 

This was pre-Idle No More, pre-Truth and Reconciliation and pre-MMIWG inquiry

As I flipped through the pages, I couldn't believe my eyes. It said things like, "Any Indian woman who marries any person other than an Indian, or non-treaty Indian, shall cease to be an Indian," and "No half-breed in Manitoba who has shared in the distribution of half-breed lands shall be accounted an Indian." There were sections in Latin and dense legalese that spoke about everything from who was an Indian to who had permission to cut down trees on reserve land.  

It was like reading a list of rules to a club that we never asked to join. 

The things we carry

Grandma Winnie's copy of the Indian Act was issued in 1923. She would have been 17 that year. (Fabiola Melendez Carletti/CBC)

Grandma Winnie was born in 1906. In her lifetime, she would live through two World Wars and witness the invention of the automobile, the television and the internet. She would also live through numerous amendments to the Indian Act. 

In fact, she would have been on the front lines of the act, watching as many of our people lost status for any number of reasons: women who married outside the community; men who entered the service and wanted to receive veterans benefits; and any band member who wanted to receive a post-secondary education. 

She may have heard about the amendments to Bill C-31 of the Indian Act in 1985 that helped many Indigenous women regain status, including people like activist Mary Two-Axe Earley. A lot has happened since Grandma Winnie's 1923 copy was issued. She would have been 17 that year. 

The sheer number of ways this little book still controls Indigenous lives is dizzying. It's why, all these years later, I've spent weeks researching the Act's impact for The Secret Life of Canada, the podcast I co-host, and trying to make sense of it for others. But it still doesn't make sense to me. 

I have moved more times than I can count, and the blue book has come with me. I've read it, looked at it, tried to make sense of it, shown it to people and spent a lot of time wondering what it meant to my great-grandma. 

Why did she keep it? Did she understand it? 

The things we want to keep

That day at my great-grandma's place, I really only wanted to find one thing, the small doll that I had given her. The angel. 

Her house, mid-clearing, was still a bit of a mess — boxes were piled high and papers were everywhere — but I went into her room and found the doll immediately. It was still there, by her bedside, looking down at the empty spot where Grandma Winnie used to sleep. 

Falen Johnson is a dedicated researcher who turns her findings into podcasts and plays. (Soulpepper Theatre Company)

I flipped the angel over and looked at the scribbles. I still felt bad about doing that, but I also felt this pull between then and now and how the moments were connected. 

I missed her the most in that moment. 

The doll ended up in my bag, next to the Indian Act.

I will only ever know how she felt about one of these objects. 

I hope to one day see the post-Indian Act Canada my great-grandmother did not — a place where we won't have to carry around a rule book for a club we never asked to be in. I don't know how to quantify all the things we've lost, but I feel their absence. 

Before we move forward, Canadians have to truly reckon with the history of this Act and everything it has taken from us. Everything it's made space for other people to have. Because we all inherited this legacy. 

So if someone asks you whether the Indian Act affects you, no matter who you are on this land, your answer should be "yes."

All my relations.


 Falen Johnson is a playwright, performer  and the co-host of The Secret Life of Canada — the CBC's irreverent history podcast about the country you know and the stories you don't. She is Mohawk and Tuscarora from Six Nations and now lives in Toronto.