Opinion by Kaitlyn Unitas.
The Indian Act seems a thing of Canada’s past; a long-forgotten, outdated piece of legislation. While the Indian Act is outdated, it remains in Canada even today. However, what Canadians must understand is why the Indian Act needs significant reform, and not repeal.
So, why does eliminating a discriminatory policy seem like such a bad idea? Looking at the 1960s, when socio-economic barriers for the Indigenous community were seemingly at their peak, Pierre Trudeau’s government proposed the White Paper of 1969 to eliminate the Indian Act. The White Paper was a proposal to end the recognized relationship between the Indigenous peoples and the Canadian government by abolishing the Indian Act. Specifically, Trudeau believed: “that removing the unique legal status established by the Indian Act would ‘enable the Indian people to be free—free to develop Indian cultures in an environment of legal, social and economic equality with other Canadians.’”(1) It faced significant opposition by the Indigenous community as they viewed it to be cultural genocide, by means of the elimination of Indian status, dissolving the Department of Indian Affairs, and the termination of existing treaties. Namely, the White Paper ironically favoured the settler society by attempting to ameliorate the socio-economic barriers the Indigenous peoples faced through eradication of identity—as opposed to making amends to the barriers themselves. Some of such socio-economic barriers include a lack of services, medical care, and education. Despite this, there are still heated debates today surrounding the elimination of the Indian Act.
One of the reasons why the Indian Act should be repealed is that it systematically influxes the Indigenous poverty rates. The Canadian Poverty Institute has found, that, “Indigenous peoples in Canada experience the highest levels of poverty: A shocking 1 in 4 Indigenous peoples (Aboriginal, Métis, and Inuit) or 25% are living in poverty and 4 in 10 or 40% of Canada's Indigenous children live in poverty.” (3) Considering that the Indigenous population is far from most of Canada’s population, this statistic concerningly demonstrates how marginalized the Canadian government has allowed for them to become.
But how does the Indian Act directly cause this significant poverty for the Indigenous community, and specifically, for self-identifying Indigenous women? Due to the Indian Act:
"First Nations women also lost their Indian status when they married Métis or non-Indigenous men. All the children in these marriages would not be entitled to Indian Status. Women also lost their status if their husbands died or abandoned them, in which case the woman would: lose the right to live on reserve land and have access to band resources; not necessarily become a member of her previous band again, be involuntarily enfranchised, losing her legal Indian status rights; her children could also be involuntarily enfranchised as a result.” (4)
Although this derogatory section of the legislation has already been annulled in 1982, there are many women today who bear the effects of exile and disconnection from their communities.
Considering all this, would repealing the Indian Act hurt or help the Indigenous peoples? Completely eliminating the Indian Act would result in cultural genocide, as demonstrated through the concern of passing the White Paper in 1969. All of the benefits that ‘Status Indians’ are entitled to would be taken from them, such as, “on-reserve housing, education and exemptions from federal, provincial and territorial taxes in specific situations.” (5)It would also null the policies that made their communities remote from resources and services—and created scarcity and forced self-sufficiency on unsustainable land. The best course of action to make life equitable for Canada’s Indigenous population would be to make rigorous amendments to the Indian Act; specifically, to maintain the rights for those of status and grant rights to those of non-status. Canadians can create momentum behind this issue by petitioning and rallying for the government to reallocate resources, create programs, and create funding for those Indigenous peoples affected by and impoverished due to the Indian Act. Thus, the government must be held accountable, specifically, and investigate cases where Indigenous peoples were affected by the Indian Act and provide aid.
“The White Paper 1969,” Indigenous Foundations (University of British Columbia), accessed November 6, 2021.
“Poverty in Canada,” Canadian Poverty Institute, accessed November 6, 2021, https://www.povertyinstitute.ca/poverty-canada.
Dianne Biin, Colleen Hodgson, and Kory Wilson, “The Indian Act,” Pulling Together Foundations Guide (BCcampus, September 5, 2018), https://opentextbc.ca/indigenizationfoundations/chapter/the-indian-act/.
“What Is Indian Status,” Indigenous Services Canada (Government of Canada, October 15, 2021), https://www.sac-isc.gc.ca/eng/1100100032463/1572459644986.