3:2 – Dehumanization in The Indian Act of 1876

by VictoriaWoo

Question 2

In this lesson I say that it should be clear that the discourse on nationalism is also about ethnicity and ideologies of “race.” If you trace the historical overview of nationalism in Canada in the CanLit guide, you will find many examples of state legislation and policies that excluded and discriminated against certain peoples based on ideas about racial inferiority and capacities to assimilate. – and in turn, state legislation and policies that worked to try to rectify early policies of exclusion and racial discrimination. As the guide points out, the nation is an imagined community, whereas the state is a “governed group of people.” For this blog assignment, I would like you to research and summarize one of the state or governing activities, such as The Royal Proclamation 1763, the Indian Act 1876, Immigration Act 1910, or the Multiculturalism Act 1989 – you choose the legislation or policy or commission you find most interesting. Write a blog about your findings and in your conclusion comment on whether or not your findings support Coleman’s argument about the project of white civility.

Nationalism, or as Benedict Anderson calls it, the belief in an imagined community, has had severe consequences throughout history— particularly for racial minorities. Despite state legislation/policies to rectify said consequences, many of them have ironically perpetuated racial discrimination and exclusion further. The Indian Act, which I will discuss in this blog post, is just one of the many pieces of legislation which has perpetuated these ideas. 

The Indian Act is something many of us may be only vaguely familiar with (as I mentioned in my very first blog post, many of the atrocities committed against Indigenous peoples have been and continue to be swept under the rug). While it is widely regarded as an abominable piece of legislation, I had not actually read the official document up until now. To my surprise, its contents are even more horrific than I imagined.

Perhaps one of the most shocking things about The Indian Act (and there are many), is the fact that it claims to be “an act to amend and consolidate the laws respecting Indians” (The Indian Act, 1). Respecting Indians. I couldn’t help but notice the sheer lack of self-awareness in this very declaration. It is virtually impossible to suppose that such an act could be considered respectful of Indians, especially when its terms and conditions include the following (not exhaustive):

  • Denial of women status
  • Residential schools
  • Creation of reserves
  • Restriction of First Nations from leaving reserves without permission
  • Deeming of the potlatch and other cultural ceremonies as illegal

Equally shocking is the language with which The Indian Act uses to dehumanize Indigenous peoples. For example, the act states that “half-breeds” are not considered Indians unless “under very special circumstances” and are “not entitled to be admitted into any Indian treaty” (The Indian Act, 2). Even more blatantly, the act asserts that “the term person means an individual other than an Indian,” quite literally denying the personhood of Indigenous peoples (The Indian Act, 3). The possible implications of this are unnerving— if the act doesn’t consider Indians persons, what do they consider them to be? Less than human? The act also states that it itself was formed out of expediency… “whereas it is expedient to amend and consolidate the laws respecting Indians” (The Indian Act, 1). It is baffling and demoralizing to consider that each of the conditions in this act were put forth simply because it was convenient to do so.

The Indian Act ultimately exists and hides behind the pretense of helping Indigenous peoples adapt and assimilate, but it actually serves to sort them into what Coleman would call “White Civility.” In blatantly disregarding customs such as the potlatch and imposing Eurocentric and patriarchal notions of family on Indigenous populations, the act actually functions as a segregating and discriminatory piece of legislation under the guise of “respecting Indians.” It is important to note that this document does not mark the first (or the last, for that matter) instance of discrimination against Indigenous peoples. It is also worthy to note the very real and pervasive effects these acts of discrimination can and do have on Indigenous populations.

Works Cited

Boyden, Joseph. “The hurting: What can even begin to stem the tide of brutal loss?” Macleans. Rogers Media. 1 July 2010. Web. 7 July 2016.

 Jacobs, Beverley. “Marginalization of Aboriginal Women: A Brief History of the Marginalization of Aboriginal Women in Canada.” Indigenous Foundations UBC. First Nations and Indigenous Studies. n.d. Web. 7 July 2016.