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The Indian Act: Teaching apartheid in Canada

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/4/2014 (1213 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

As a teacher of high school history, I am repeatedly asked why I hit upon Canada’s colonial history frequently, rather than more contemporary topics and issues facing our land and people. For me, that’s simple: I believe that Canada’s history, specifically its past as a colonial power and relationship with First Nations people, is key to understanding this country today.

In fact, much of this narrative about Canada’s relationship with Great Britain, its changing role in the world through the Second World War, the development of social democracy and its subsequent destruction, and constitutional issues in the 1980s, can be introduced and illustrated by reviewing the Indian Act, a racist, paternalistic document that has just turned 138 years old. If we fail to teach how Canada has fundamentally and deliberately dominated a certain population of its citizenry, then we omit the reality that this country is based on the exploitation of resources — both natural and human.

What if we taught learners that the Indian Act affects all of us?

This idea that one group of people, through a legislative process, can forcibly confine another group of people to pitiful land, trickle in barely enough resources to keep said people alive, and ultimately marginalize and demoralize generations to come, might seem like an un-Canadian experience. Images of South Africa, Gaza, ghettos in the United States or Brazil come to mind — where the undesirables are violently lumped together and left to dangle. Those who resist this practice are labelled rebels, extremists, or terrorists — as was Mandela.

The Indian Act of 2014 still largely looks the same as it did in 1876, save from some adjustments made in the 60s and 80s. International organizations are appalled by the Act, and only recently were First Nations under the Act able to make human rights complaints to the Canadian Human Rights Commission. What started out in 1876 as an official apartheid movement, remains in the form of marginalization, ghettoization, and societal exclusion.

The Indian Act of 1876 was a solution to two pieces of previous legislation in 1857 and 1869 designed to assimilate indigenous people in this country. John A. Macdonald certainly was on the prowl for land, and the numbered treaties, signed under ultimate duress due to starvation, were messy and applied to diverse groups. The Indian Act was and is designed to sweep people under the rug in the hopes that would simply disappear or some how become "Canadian."

According to an annual report from the Department of the Interior in 1876, "Our Indian legislation generally rests on the principle, that the aborigines are to be kept in a condition of tutelage and treated as wards or children of the State.… the true interests of the aborigines and of the State alike require that every effort should be made to aid the Red man in lifting himself out of his condition of tutelage and dependence, and that is clearly our wisdom and our duty, through education and every other means, to prepare him for a higher civilization by encouraging him to assume the privileges and responsibilities of full citizenship."

We know where this system of education led. The amendments to the Act between 1876 and 1951 took away ceremonial, legal, mobility, and human rights away from those living on reserve. The Act treated women as second class, and it excluded numerous people who were not determined to be "Indian."

Unfortunately, most Canadians are unaware of the implications of the Act or have huge misconceptions of it.

This is where education comes in. If we look at other examples of apartheid, we can see that the process of reconciliation is difficult, often painful, and that sacrifice is warranted. In South Africa, those who were marginalized are still so economically. Throughout the colonized world - Africa, the Americas, and Asia — the most vulnerable are still those who were conquered — including those who we see on our way to Jets games downtown. In Winnipeg, we unofficially ghettoize First Nations people in certain neighbourhoods.

When we study the relationship of Canada and indigenous people over the past 138 years, we are able to investigate big ideas like Confederation, the welfare state, global conflict, constitutional stress — all through the context of our colonial relationships in the 20th and 21st centuries. Ignoring this piece of legislation and the treaties signed with Canada only galvanizes this idea that Canada is a European state and foreign to oppressive practices. Young people need to understand this history in order to become empathetic citizens and agents for social change. By asking all students how we reconcile the relationship between Canada and First Nations, we can begin a conversation that brings all closer together.

Canada is less a story about rags-to-riches and more of a story of exploitation of resources and people. It is critical that teachers, be it in schools, in the home, or on the bus, to create a lens for this exploration. If not, we are destined to be a country based on a continued practice apartheid.


Matt Henderson teaches Canadian history at St. John’s-Ravenscourt School. He can be reached on Twitter at @henderson204


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Updated on Wednesday, April 23, 2014 at 2:17 PM CDT: Clarifies that the quote, “Our Indian legislation generally rests on the principle, that the aborigines are to be kept in a condition of tutelage and treated as wards or children of the State.… " was from an annual report from the Department of the Interior in 1976.

April 24, 2014 at 9:15 AM: Corrects that quote from an annual report from the Department of the Interior was from 1876

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