Historically, various government policies over the last few centuries have been used to control Indigenous peoples in some way—including whether to control access to a resource, restrict movements, or label with a certain legal status. While many of these controls have been removed, such as the pass system, other controls remain in place, such as the legal entity of status.
National Indigenous Peoples Day is an opportunity to recognize and celebrate First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples. This day celebrates not only their diverse cultures, but also their resiliency in the face of various barriers such as the ones included here. Please note that the following information is in no particular order and may use “Indian” for historical accuracy.
While there were restrictions on trading liquor to First Nations peoples during the fur trade, a government ban on First Nations people possessing liquor was not in place until the 1800s. Various sanctions were created between 1868 and 1874, which were consolidated in amendments to the Indian Act in 1876. These sanctions included fining suppliers of liquor and imprisoning Indigenous peoples found intoxicated for one month, with an additional two weeks if they did not reveal the name of the person who gave them alcohol.
A decade later, being drunk or gambling in an Indigenous home was criminalized as well. Additionally, First Nations people were not permitted to enter a licensed establishment. Even First Nations veterans were barred from going into a Royal Canadian Legion branch as Legions served liquor.
In 1951, the Indian Act was amended again. It was an offence for any First Nations person to have an “intoxicant” in their possession. These restrictions remained in place until the passing of Bill C-31 in 1985; however, in their place, band councils were given by-law powers to restrict liquor on reserve.
Joseph, Bob. 2016. “A Look at First Nations Prohibition of Alcohol .” Working Effectively with Indigenous Peoples. Indigenous Corporate Training Inc. https://www.ictinc.ca/blog/first-nations-prohibition-of-alcohol.
Moss, Wendy, and Elaine Gardner-O’Toole. 1991. “Aboriginal People: History of Discriminatory Laws.” Library of Parliament. Government of Canada, Parliamentary Research Branch. http://publications.gc.ca/Collection-R/LoPBdP/BP/bp175-e.htm#A. Liquor Offences(txt).
Until the twentieth century, Inuit had few interactions with outsiders; these encounters were mainly limited to explorers and whalers. However, the fur trade eventually spread to the far north, along with the RCMP, trading posts, missionaries and bureaucracy. Those new to the north had trouble pronouncing and spelling Inuit names. Many could not even figure out Inuit naming systems, which included multiple names which could be changed if it did not reflect their personality or was believed to cause misfortune. Additionally, shared family names or surnames were not used, nor were names gendered.
Missionaries encourages the use of gendered, Christian names in place of traditional names. While some who were afraid of the missionaries took on these names and abandoned their traditional names with emotional difficulty. Others simply adopted these Christian names as additional names, often using them only in the presence of missionaries and government agents. There was an attempt to standardize names, but it increased confusion among those of non-Indigenous descent. There was an attempt to fingerprint Inuit in the 1930s, but missionaries and some federal agents argued against it because fingerprinting is associated with criminal activity.
In 1941, the identification disc system was adopted. Starting in 1944, identification discs were distributed that had numbers and letters indication geographic location and a personal identification number. The Inuit had to keep the tag on their person at all times, with most wearing it as a necklace or sewing it into their jacket.The disc identification system was replaced with Project Surname in 1970, which was argued to be more humane, but more disruptive to traditional naming practices as the Inuit leader hired to register people tended to speak with men and use men’s names as surnames, reinforcing European, paternal naming practices.
Filice, Michelle. 2016. “Project Surname.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. Historica Canada. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/project-surname.
Joseph, Bob. 2016. “Eskimo Identification Tags Replaced Traditional Names.” Working Effectively with Indigenous Peoples. Indigenous Corporate Training Inc. https://www.ictinc.ca/blog/eskimo-identification-tags-replaced-traditional-names.
Following the 1885 Northwest Rebellion, also called the Northwest Resistance, the federal government developed a pass system to control the movement of Indigenous peoples in order to alleviate the fears of homesteaders and prevent future uprisings. While the Métis were key players during the events of 1885, their movements could not be restricted under this system as they had no special legal status similar to First Nations peoples under the Indian Act. While the pass system was never a law, the Indian Act empowered Indian Agents of the Department of Indian Affairs to create such policies.
Under the pass system, the Indian Agent in the area controlled who was allowed to enter and leave reserves. One would have to travel to the Agent’s house to obtain a pass, not knowing whether he was even at home. If the agent was away, people had to either wait or return home. If they left the reserve without a pass, they would be arrested.
Pass delays were troublesome as well. By law, First Nations farmers had to have a permit to sell their produce as well as a pass to leave the reserve. Delays in obtaining either could result in spoiled produce and lost income.
While the pass system was never a law, it did help enforce laws such as the outlawing of ceremonies such as the sun dance. It also made it difficult for parents to visit their children at residential schools, which fulfilled the federal government’s purpose of removing children from the influence of their families.
Joseph, Bob. 2015. “Indian Act and the Pass System.” Working Effectively with Indigenous Peoples. Indigenous Corporate Training Inc. https://www.ictinc.ca/blog/indian-act-and-the-pass-system.
Nestor, Rob. 2018. “Pass System in Canada.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. Historica Canada. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/pass-system-in-canada.
Beginning in the 1870s, scrip was given to Metis people that they could redeem for land or money. While it appeared to be benevolent, its purpose was to extinguish Metis land rights. From 1885 to 1924, scrip commissions were intended to extinguish Metis land rights in the west so that the land could be used for homesteaders and commercial development. The Metis were promised a land grant in the Manitoba Act of 1870, which prompted the scrip system, but the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in March 2013 that this land grant has not been fulfilled.
Metis scrip was a document falling into two categories – money scrip and land scrip. Money scrip was available in increments of $20, $80, $160, and $240; land scrip was issued in allotments of 80, 160, and 240 acres. These scrip certificates were redeemable for its corresponding cash or land value. Under theDominion Lands Act of 1872, land was valued at $1 per acre.
It took until 1876 for government officials to even agree how to distribute scrip and it was never an easy process. To redeem scrip, people had to travel great distances to a lands office at their own cost and the lands they could redeem scrip for were often hundreds of kilometres away from their current communities. Many ended up selling their land scrip for a fraction of its worth, often to land speculators. These speculators would then hire someone to impersonate the Metis person entitled to that certificate, signing an “X” at the Land Titles office to have the land handed over.
Joseph, Bob. 2013. “The Scrip – What Is This and How Did It Affect Métis History?” Working Effectively with Indigenous Peoples. Indigenous Corporate Training Inc. https://www.ictinc.ca/blog/the-scrip-how-did-the-scrip-policy-affect-metis-history.
Robinson, Amanda, and Michelle Filice. 2018. “Métis Scrip in Canada.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. Historica Canada. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/metis-scrip-in-canada.
Treaties are agreements between two or more nations, meaning that they signify that their agreement was made by parties on equal terms. In Canada, treaties are most often referred to when speaking of agreements made between the First Nations and British (later Canadian) representatives. These treaties are the legal justification for land transfers to the Canadian government. The Lac La Biche Region is part of Treaty Six, one of the Numbered Treaties signed in Western Canada.
The Numbered Treaties were mostly signed in the later half of the 1800s, with later adhesions to the treaties as well. These agreements were supposed to be binding legal documents lasting “as long as the sun shines and water flows”; however, Canada has repeatedly been taken to court to ensure that Treaty rights are not infringed upon. It had been ruled that whenever a treaty has unclear text, its clarification must benefit the First Nations.
Filice, Michelle. 2016. “Treaty 6.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. Historica Canada. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/treaty-6.
Holota, Victoria. 2017. “Regional Cultures: Cree.” Lac La Biche Museum. Lakeland Interpretive Society. https://laclabichemuseum.com/regional-cultures-cree/.
The right to vote in federal and provincial elections is often celebrated in the context of women gaining the right to vote in 1918 but what many do not realize is that Indigenous peoples, aside from Metis people, did not have the right to vote in elections until the mid-twentieth century. While the federal government concluded by 1948 that all Indigenous peoples should have the full rights of Canadian citizenship, it would take over a decade for these rights to be extended.
First Nations people with Status gained the right to vote in federal elections in 1960 and provincial elections in Alberta until 1965, with Indigenous veterans of the Great War granted the federal franchise after their service. Inuit became eligible to vote in territorial and provincial elections in the 1950s. Altogether, it took 84 years after Confederation for all Indigenous peoples to gain the franchise.
Metis who met land and age requirements of the voting franchise were able to vote as they were legally considered ordinary citizens. The Inuit also received the franchise earlier than First Nations peoples as they were also considered ordinary citizens, as they did not have treaties or reserves. First Nations people, however, would have to waive Treaty rights in a process called enfranchisement.
Joseph, Bob. 2012. “Indian Act and the Right to Vote.” Working Effectively with Indigenous Peoples. Indigenous Corporate Training Inc. https://www.ictinc.ca/indian-act-and-the-right-to-vote.
Leslie, John F. 2016. “Indigenous Suffrage.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. Historica Canada. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/indigenous-suffrage.
Status & Enfranchisement
In Canadian colonial history, enfranchisement and status go hand in hand. The idea of having status originates from the idea that those with status are “children” of the federal government who require paternalistic control. Enfranchisement is the most common process by which a First Nations person loses status under the Indian Act.
There were advantages with loss of status, including gaining the right to vote. However, in exchange for these supposed advantages, which nearly all other Canadians had anyway, First Nations people would have to give up their status under the Indian Act and all of the rights it entails. In short, by enfranchising, a person was consenting to assimilation and the abandonment of Indigenous identity.
Ways to become enfranchised included the following:
- Voluntary enfranchisement
- Admission to university
- Becoming a Notary Public
- Entering Holy Orders
- Being the wife or child of a man who was enfranchised
- Marrying a man without status (including First Nations men)
- Joining the military – including World War I and II veterans
- Gradual Enfranchisement Act of 1857 – having the ability to read, speak, and write in English or French (among other criteria)
Today, the idea of having Indian Status seems more convoluted than ever. Many First Nations people do not have status as a First Nations person, meaning they are not legally considered “Indian”, nor do they appear on the Indian Register. Until Bill C-31, non-Indigenous women who married a man with status could gain status and Indigenous women who married a non-status man, whether Indigenous or not, would lose her status. After the bill was passed, there were many applying to regain their status. If someone does have status, their status is defined as 6(1) or 6(2). If someone who has 6(1) status has a child with a non-Indigenous person, their child will have status, but if someone with 6(2) status has a child with a non-Indigenous person, their child is ineligible for status. This current system retains the original purpose of removing status from First Nations peoples and creates penalties for First Nations people marrying outside of the community of First Nations people holding status.
Crey, Karrmen. 2019. “Enfranchisement.” Indigenous Foundations. University of British Columbia. Accessed June 19. https://indigenousfoundations.arts.ubc.ca/enfranchisement/.
Crey, Karrmen and Erin Hanson. “Indian Status.” Indigenous Foundations. University of British Columbia. Accessed June 19. https://indigenousfoundations.arts.ubc.ca/indian_status//
Joseph, Bob. 2016. “Indian Act and Enfranchisement of Indigenous Peoples.” Working Effectively with Indigenous Peoples. Indigenous Corporate Training Inc. https://www.ictinc.ca/blog/indian-act-and-enfranchisement-of-indigenous-peoples.
Mccardle, Bennett. 2014. “Enfranchisement.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. Historica Canada. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/enfranchisement.