An Exploration into the nature of Stories and Canada

3:2 – The Indian Act: A Short Cut to Assimilation


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.

The Indian Act of 1876 is something that I think most Canadians are familiar with. We might not remember the year, or know anything about what the legislation actually says, but I think most Canadians have at least an emotional reaction to the act, if not an intellectual one. Be it guilt, anger, shame, or sadness; talk of The Indian Act evokes some sort of emotion.

The Indian Act seems to have become a focal point for discussing the tension between European and Indigenous Canadians, highlighting in particular the atrocities imposed upon the Indigenous peoples. This concentration on this particular document appears justified, contributing as it did to what has been termed the country’s “cultural genocide” against Indigenous peoples. But it is important to remember that the Indian Act didn’t come from nowhere. Indigenous peoples had not been well treated prior to 1876. 1876 did not mark the start of the genocide.

Rather, the Indian Act was just a continuation and formalization of previous mistreatment of Indigenous peoples. The opening sentence of the act makes this perpetuation of prior attitudes abundantly clear: “Whereas it is expedient to amend and consolidate the laws respecting Indians” (1). The Indian Act was expedient. It was convenient. It wasn’t anything new. And it is the intense casualness of this language that hits me the hardest.

Residential schools were expedient. Defining a “person” as “an individual other than an Indian” (The Indian Act, 3) was expedient. Requiring an ‘Indian’ to prove their “degree of civilization… and the character for integrity, morality and sobriety which he or she bears” before they can own land was expedient (The Indian Act, 27).

As well as glossing over the atrocities contained within the legislation, the language of expediency also raises questions about the goals of the Indian Act of 1876. What exactly was being expedited? I think Coleman provides an answer to this question when he writes about the attempt to “formulate and elaborate a specific form of [Canadian] whiteness based on the British model of civility” (5). It is this project that the Indian Act attempted to hasten.

It appears to me that the goals of the Indian Act of 1876 were two-fold. Primarily the legislation attempted to bring Indigenous culture and society into alignment with what Coleman would call ‘White Civility’. However, the act also attempted to distance Indigenous individuals from their own culture (through such actions like the loss of Indian Status for many women and making residential schools mandatory). These two goals were aimed at reaching the same outcome: the assimilation of Indigenous peoples into European-Canadian society.


While the racism and drive towards assimilation is apparent throughout the Indian Act and many other historical legislations, there is also a hidden (or maybe not so hidden) undercurrent of sexism. In reading the Indian Act it becomes clear that what is recorded within the text is a conversation between European and Indigenous men. Yes, Indigenous peoples were marginalized by the legislation, but Indigenous women were even more disenfranchised. For example, the Indian Act imposed patrilineal systems onto Indigenous societies, regardless of whether they were in fact patrilineal to begin with. This process can be seen in how the Indian Act stated that only “male members of the band of the full age of twenty-one years” would be eligible to vote in the election of a chief (19).

While many Canadians are familiar with The Indian Act, in reading it I was shocked by the extent of the racism, and the casualness with which it is discussed. Unfortunately, I’m sure the Indian Act just scratches the surface of the cultural genocide that defines Canada’s colonial history.


Works Cited

“Canada’s Top Judge Says Country Committed ‘cultural Genocide’ against Indigenous Peoples” APTN National News. N.p., 29 May 2015. Web. 07 July 2016.

Coleman, Daniel. (2006). White Civility: The Literary Project of English Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Government of Canada. “The Indian Act, 1876.” (1876): 1-31. Web. 07 July 2016.

“The Residential School System.” The Residential School System. UBC, n.d. Web. 07 July 2016.


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