Understanding the Indian Act: An Interview with Community Partners
Dr. Susan Dion, David Plain, Cecil Isaac, Susie Jones,
Potawatomi-Lenapé Aamjiwnaang First Nation Walpole Island First Nation Walpole Island First Nation
Scholar and Professor Author and Historian Knowledge Keeper Historian and Residential School Survivor
On the April 2019 PD Day, educators across the board had an opportunity to learn from Dr. Susan Dion in her talk to develop an understanding of relationships and perspectives across history to present times. Throughout Dr. Dion’s timeline presentation, educators submitted questions for reflection. We were reminded about the importance of learning within our local context, and we were fortunate to have community partners join us throughout her presentations.
We acknowledge the open dialogue among our community partners and the meaningful relationships we are building. Asking questions, connecting classroom conversations, building relationships, and taking time to learn are all important steps towards reconciliation.
The following are answers to questions around the Indian Act from our community partners.
Why didn’t the Indigenous population fight back against the Indian Act? Why didn’t they fight over their land and rights? Especially once the promises of the treaties were not being kept?
Susan: Indigenous people have always resisted. This question is about power and resistance. And while we have always resisted in many ways since the time of first contact settlers/colonizers have had more power. As I said in my talk the impact of disease, Christianity, weapons impacted Indigenous people's response to new comers as did our worldviews.
Susie: In thinking about worldview, it’s also important to think about the nature of us as a people. As a people, it was not our way.
David: We did try to fight back. In the nineteenth century, we held General Councils that included chiefs from all the reserves in southern Ontario. But like political associations today, such as the Assembly of First Nations, they are only associations and have no legislative power.
When indigenous people signed up for the Canadian armed forces, was there any indication that they would lose status in the documentation provided by government ?
David: I have seen my grandfather’s enlistment papers. They are online. There is nothing in them that speaks of enfranchisement. He enlisted in 1916 and was discharged in 1919. He fought in Europe until the end of the war. He was wounded in action at Arras, France August 28, 1918. When he returned home, he married and they had a daughter born in 1920 (my mother). All three were enfranchised in 1921.
Where is the Indian registration now?
David: The Indian Register is kept in Ottawa by the Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada.
If the Indian Act is still valid are there still Indian agents?
Susie: Walpole Island First Nation was the first to remove the Indian Agent. This happened in 1967.
Cecil: There are elements of this responsibility that requires reporting back to the federal department of Indian Affairs.
David: Today there are no longer Indian Agents, a position was phased out in the 1960s.
Susan: The Indian Act of 1876 with amendments continues to be the primary document which defines how the Government of Canada interacts with the 614 First Nation Bands in Canada and its members. The title is no longer in use although there are still government agents who have a range of responsibilities.
You were saying that the Indian Act gave the people a status number. You have a status number yet your family’s status was removed. Has the status been reinstated over time although the White Paper was rejected?
David: The 1969 White Paper was a policy paper that advocated the doing away with the Department of Indian Affairs and all treaties with their rights forcing total assimilation. Status is reinstated or gained by an application. It is a very complex procedure that has created different types of Status Indians with different rights. For example, how many generations a person can pass on status, two, three or infinite. Not all applicants who apply are successful.
Cecil: The Red Paper also laid out how Indigenous people thought the process should happen. This was in an attempt to be reactionary to what was happening.
Susan: The 1969 White Paper was defeated. The practice of assigning registry numbers to Indigenous people began prior to the Indian Act. The practice started as early as 1851. The current register was created in 1951. My family was reinstated when the Indian Act was amended in 1985.
How did your family get status back after your grandfather's military experience?
Susan: My family was reinstated when the Indian Act was amended in 1985. This was a result of activism and resistance of Indigenous women.
David: My grandparents and mother’s enfranchisement disqualified me from Indian Status although I was raised in a family of 12 siblings all of whom had status. I was able to gain status in 1985 when the Indian Act underwent a major revision and enfranchisement was deemed illegal.
Is there a division among Indigenous groups in terms of repealing the Indian Act and keeping the legislation in place?
David: There is really no desire to keep the Indian Act in place. Both the Crown and First Nations would like to see it gone. But there is currently no process in place now to replace it. As a side note, there is a fringe group advocating separation from Canada taking its cue from Quebec separatists, by taking our unceded land and leaving the federation.
Susan: Just like with all other cultures, Indigenous People do not all agree on politics.
Is there currently any pressure or desire to eliminate or replace the Indian Act? If so, with what?
David: There isn’t any appetite to eliminate the Indian Act by either First Nations or the Crown. Although it is a racist, unconstitutional piece of legislation it provides the only protection to the rights we do have and at this time it is the only legislation that gives a form of governance for First Nations people and our reserves. The Indian Act is such an invasive and suffocating act which has embedded itself into the lives of First Nations for so long that it is extremely difficult to root out.
Cecil: What is desired is a nation to nation relationship.
Do Indigenous people want reserves to continue, or is it a desire to live outside of reserves but have the same rights?
Cecil: The reserve, in the viewpoint of a First Nations person, is that it is not a reserve in the government definition. It is part of the ancestral land.
David: I think the majority want to not only keep their reserves but increase the land base with reserve status land.