Canadian First Nations Policies and Land Loss

A treaty process began in 1819 between certain bands of the Anishinaabe (Chippewa/Ojibway) Nation and the British Government to arrange for the cession of 712,000 acres of land. This process ended up lasting eight years, and by the time it was finalized in 1827, the affected bands were forced to give up 2.8 million acres of land to allow for white settlement. For this land each band member would receive £1,100 annually, which was £275 less than the originally promised annuity. The Aamjiwnaang reserve was one of several created in 1827 on the land that was still remaining.

A residential school in 1951.

In 1857, while territories that now comprise Canada were still British colonies, the British Parliament passed the Gradual Civilization Act to govern Native peoples in their Canadian colonies. This Act required any Native man over the age of 21 to be able to read and write French or English, to be “sufficiently advanced in the elementary branches of education” and to be “of good moral character and free from debt.” He would then be “enfranchised,” meaning that he would be from then on considered a British subject rather than a First Nations member or a member of his band. He would then be given a piece of land from his former band’s reserve, in exchange for revoking all claim to any further land or money from the band, or a voice in band decisions. He would also choose a new legal name and his wife and all his decedents would automatically be enfranchised as well.

Thomas Moore, before and after attending the Regina Indian Industrial School, 1897.

Then, shortly after the colonies were formed into the Dominion of Canada (in 1867), the new Canadian Parliament passed the Indian Act in 1876, which compiled many of the old British policies and introduced new ones as well. One new policy that was established by the Indian Act was the introduction of mandatory residential schools. Children were forcibly removed from their families and brought to boarding schools for the purpose of being assimilated into the dominant white Christian culture. These schools were a combined effort of the Church and the Canadian Government. The government provided the facilities, the funding, and the maintenance for the schools, while the Church provided the education, including the teachers. At these schools Indigenous children were prohibited from speaking their native language or practicing their own faith. There was often overcrowding, which combined with poor sanitation led to extremely high rates of tuberculosis and high death rates in the schools. The hope behind these schools was that after several generations of forced assimilation, Indigenous cultures would fade away, thus eliminating the “Indian problem.” The Indian Residential School System continued in Canada until the 1960’s.

Another policy that was enacted by the Indian Act of 1876 was the creation of the Indian Agent. This made an agent from the Department of Indian Affairs into the most powerful person on each reserve. The Indian Agent had the power to veto any decision made by the Band Council, and no decision was valid unless the Agent gave it to the Department of Indian Affairs for their approval. Band Council meetings were not allowed to happen without the Agent, and residents were restricted from leaving the reserve without the permission of the Indian Agent. In addition, all official interactions between the reserve and the outside world (such as land sales for example) were handled through the Indian Agent, so the two sides never actually interacted with each other. It was based on the advice of Aamjiwnaang’s Indian Agent that the band leaders sold reserve land which was then sold to various petrochemical industries in the 1960’s. This advice included false information about how much the Aamjiwnaang reserve would be paid for the land; since, however, the people living on the reserve could only interact with the outside world through the agent, they had no way of knowing this was false and no way of following up on it afterwards. When the Aamjiwnaang reserve was established in 1827, it comprised of the 10,028 acres; today, only 2,700 acres of land remain, and even this small plot is interwoven with industry.

References:

  • “A Collective Step Forward.” Canadian Indian Residential School System. Stevens & Company Law Firm, 2010. Web. 3 Apr. 2012. . Website.
  • Jackson, Deborah D. “Scents of Place: The Dysplacement of a First Nations Community in Canada.” American Anthropologist 113.4 (2011): 606-18. Web. 5 Apr. 2012. Journal Article.
  • Plain, David D. The Plains of Aamjiwnaang: Our History. Victoria, BC: Trafford, 2007. Print. Book.
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