Revising Indian Policy

The First World War brought a new set of challenges to Aboriginal people in Canada as a series of policy decisions indicated that, once again, the interests of First Nations were clearly secondary to the perceived national interest. Although some 4,000 Status Indians (and an unknown number of non-Status and Métis) enlisted for war service, Canadians continued to see Aboriginal people as primitives in need of protection and felt no need to offer particular thanks for wartime contributions.

Native volunteers from File Hills Indian Colony, First World War

File Hills Natives Prepare to Go to War, n.d.

Almost the entire male population of the File Hills Indian Colony volunteered for military service during the First World War (1914-1918). These Native members of the 68th Battalion are shown with their Fathers and Mr. W.M. Graham, Commissioner for the Department of Indian Affairs.

1914-1918 - Native Participation in the First World War

The First World War affected Native communities in much the same way it did non-Native communities. Approximately 35 per cent of Native men eligible for service enlisted, with the commensurate casualty rate that resulted from the carnage in the European trenches. Approximately 4,000 Natives served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, many finding enlistment an appropriate expression of the warrior spirit of their forefathers. While serving, Natives benefited from all of the privileges of Canadian citizenship, including voting rights, but after returning home found that these rights were once again unavailable to them. Many veterans also found reserve lands substantially reduced, if only temporarily, as the government expropriated considerable farm acreage to enhance production to aid the war effort. Several bands raised substantial funds for the Red Cross, in spite of having band money used to purchase equipment for the "Greater Production" farms carved out of Prairie reserve lands.

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In 1918, the government of Robert Borden (acting on the advice of Superintendent-General of Indian Affairs Arthur Meighen) amended The Indian Act to permit the lease of any reserve lands not under cultivation so that they could be turned over to non-Native farmers for the war effort’s “Greater Production” campaign. Furthermore, as part of a program to provide homesteads for returning war veterans, over 24,000 hectares of lands from various Western reserves were expropriated on the basis of the argument that these lands would never be required or used by Native peoples. To add insult to injury, returning Indian veterans were excluded from the Soldiers’ Settlement program on the grounds that they could farm reserve lands and therefore had no need for separate homesteads.

1917 - Soldiers' Settlement Act

Inaugurated in 1917, and expanded in 1919, the Soldiers' Settlement Act was an effort to accommodate returning war veterans by offering either grants or loans for agricultural lands. Where Native veterans were concerned, the department preferred they receive such lands from existing reserve property, rather than from other Crown or Crown-acquired lands that were the source for non-Native veterans. The Act had other repercussions for Native rights. Under one section of the legislation, the deputy superintendent general acquired the power to grant location tickets to Native war veterans. The distribution of such tickets, previously an exclusive band council prerogative, now had passed in part to a government official, a move that weakened band autonomy and local government. The Act also allowed for surrendered reserve lands to be distributed to non-Native veterans. Between 1919 and 1922, some 68,000 acres of Prairie reserve lands were surrendered and sold to non-Natives, resulting in an erosion of reserves.

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1918 - Greater Production Program

In an effort to expand Canadian agricultural production in support of the First World War, the government introduced the Greater Production program. When officials realized that reserve farm lands were not producing at their full potential, a 1918 amendment to the Indian Act addressed the problem. It allowed reserve lands to be appropriated or leased for farming purposes without band permission. The program, which involved the creation of three "Greater Production" farms on reserve land encompassing some 62,000 acres, was also paid for out of band funds, again without band permission. Natives gained little if anything from the program, although this part of it operated largely at their expense. Protests were raised, but without effect. The development of ranching on the Blood reserve, in particular, was set back considerably as a result of the program. The Greater Production program did not involve a permanent loss of lands, but it did underline the arbitrary attitude Ottawa took toward Indian reserve land rights.

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An Act to Amend the Indian Act, 1918

This amendment allowed the government to lease uncultivated Native lands to non-Native farmers. The government hoped that these lands would become productive and aid the war effort.

8-9 GEORGE V

Statutes of Canada.  8-9 GEORGE V.  Chapter 26.  1918.  Ottawa: Printed by Joseph de Labroquerie Taché, Law Printer to the King's most Excellent Majesty, 1918.  pp. 83-85.

8 - 9  G E O R G E  V.

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CHAP.  26.

An Act to amend the Indian Act.

[Assented to 24th May, 1918.]

HIS Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate and House of Commons of Canada, enacts as follows:—

1.  (1)  Section twenty-five of the Indian Act, chapter eighty-one of the Revised Statutes of Canada, 1906, is amended by striking out the words “no devise or bequest of land in a reserve or of any interest therein unless to the daughter, sister or grandchildren of the testator, shall be made to any one not entitled to reside on such reserve, and that.”

(2)  Section twenty-five of the said Act is further amended by adding thereto the following subsection:—

“(2)  No one who is not entitled to reside on the reserve shall by reason of any devise or bequest or by reason of any intestacy be entitled to hold land in a reserve, but any land in a reserve devised by will or devolving on an intestacy, to some one not entitled to reside on the reserve, shall be sold by the Superintendent General to some member of the band and the proceeds thereof shall be paid to such devisee or heir.”

2.  Subsection three of section forty-nine of the said Act is amended by striking out all of the subsection after the word “before” in the sixth line thereof and substituting therefor the words  “any person having authority to take affidavits and having jurisdiction within the place where the oath is administered.”

3.  (1)  Section sixty-seven of the said Act is amended by inserting the words “or Indian” immediately after the word “person” in the third line thereof.

(2)  Subsection two of section sixty-seven is amended by adding the words “or Indian” immediately after the word “person” in the first and sixth lines thereof.

4.  Section ninety of the said Act is amended by adding thereto the following subsections:—

“(2)  In the event of a band refusing to consent to the expenditure of such capital moneys as the Superintendent General may consider advisable for any of the purposes mentioned in subsection one of this section, and it appearing to the Superintendent General that such refusal is detrimental to the progress or welfare of the band, the Governor in Council may, without the consent of the band, authorize and direct the expenditure of such capital for such of the said purposes as may be considered reasonable and proper.

“ (3)  Whenever any land in a reserve whether held in common or by an individual Indian is uncultivated and the band or individual is unable or neglects to cultivate the same, the Superintendent General, notwithstanding anything in this Act to the contrary, may, without a surrender, grant a lease of such lands for agricultural or grazing purposes for the benefit of the band or individual, or may employ such persons as may be considered necessary to improve or cultivate such lands during the pleasure of the Superintendent General, and may authorize and direct the expenditure of so much of the capital funds of the band as may be considered necessary for the improvements of such land, or for the purchase of such stock, machinery, material or labour as may be considered necessary for the cultivation or grazing of the same,  and in such case all the proceeds derived from such lands, except a reasonable rent to be paid for any individual holding, shall be placed to the credit of the band:  Provided that in the event of improvements being made on the lands of an individual the Superintendent General may deduct the value of such improvements from the rental payable for such lands.”

5.  (1)  Section ninety-two of the said Act, as amended by section six of chapter thirty-five of the statutes of 1914, is amended by adding thereto the following paragraph:—

“(f)  May make by-laws for the taxation, control and destruction of dogs and for the protection of sheep, and such by-laws may be applied to such reserves or parts thereof from time to time as the Superintendent General may direct.” 

(2)  The said section is further amended by adding thereto the following subsection:—

“(3)  In any regulations or by-laws made under the provisions of this section, the Superintendent General may provide for the imposition of a fine not exceeding thirty dollars or imprisonment not exceeding thirty days, for the violation of any of the provisions thereof.”

6.  The following section is inserted immediately after section one hundred and twenty-two:—

122A.  (1)  If an Indian who holds no land in a reserve, does not reside on a reserve and does not follow the Indian mode of life, makes application to be enfranchised, and satisfies the Superintendent General that he is self-supporting and fit to be enfranchised, and surrenders all claims whatsoever to any interest in the lands of the band to which he belongs, and accepts his share of the funds at the credit of the band including the principal of the annuities of the band, to which share he would have been entitled had he been enfranchised under the foregoing sections of the Act, in full of all claims to the property of the band, or in case the band to which he belongs has no funds or principal of annuities, surrenders all claim whatsoever to any property of the band, the Governor in Council may order that such Indian be enfranchised and paid his said share if any, and from the date of such order such Indian, together with his wife and unmarried minor children, shall be held to be enfranchised.

“(2)  Any unmarried Indian woman of the age of twenty-one years, and any Indian widow and her minor unmarried children, may be enfranchised in the like manner in every respect as a male Indian and his said children.

“(3)  This section shall apply to the Indians in any part of Canada.”

7.  Section one hundred and forty-nine of the said Act is amended by striking out the word “indictable” in the tenth line thereof, and by inserting after the word “liable” in the eleventh line the words “ on summary conviction.”

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An Act to Amend the Indian Act, Statutes of Canada 1918, c. 26.

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Meanwhile, in British Columbia, land issues had reached a critical stage. The dispute between the province and the Dominion over reserve allocation was put before a royal commission in 1913. Its report in 1916 recommended that some existing reserves be recognized, about 17,000 hectares of new reserves be created, and just over 9,000 hectares of old reserves be removed. Squamish leader Andrew Paull and Haida clergyman Peter Kelly organized the Allied Tribes of British Columbia to challenge the commission’s findings. They argued that, because no treaties had been signed, the Crown did not possess the right to distribute the land. The government went ahead anyway, although it took until 1924 to begin the process, and the Aboriginal peoples continued to protest. A joint committee of Parliament in 1927 ruled against the Aboriginal claim yet again; the final lands were not conveyed from the province to the Canadian government until 1938. Meanwhile, in response to the Allied Tribes’ campaign, the government amended The Indian Act in 1927, making it illegal for bands to raise outside funds for pursuing such actions without departmental permission.

Land issues were not only a problem in British Columbia. In southern Ontario, a series of treaties had been made between 1783 and 1850 by which the Mississauga and Chippewa inhabitants agreed to surrender their ownership of land. Because much of the land had not been surveyed, however, descriptions of the tracts of land in question were vague, and disputes had arisen over the exact boundaries. Several bands began to petition the Department of Indian Affairs in the 1870s to address the problems, but the Department of Justice did not commission an inquiry until 1914. Yet more delays followed; the inquiry’s report was submitted in 1916 but, in spite of Native protests over the slow pace, there was no official response until 1920. The Dominion government then approached the government of Ontario to begin negotiations.

Map of Select Reserves and Treaties with Native Peoples

Select Reserves and Treaties with Native Peoples

Paul Hackett

By 1923, the two levels of government had agreed only to hold another inquiry. This time, however, events moved a little more quickly. The dominion-provincial commission concluded that the Aboriginal claims were valid, and the Dominion drafted two treaties that same year to settle the question. One treaty settled with the Chippewa bands between Lake Simcoe and Georgian Bay, and the second with the four Mississauga bands along Lake Ontario in the vicinity of Toronto. Each treaty promised $250,000 compensation for the lands, some of which was to be paid as a grant of $25 per person. Unlike the numbered treaties of the Prairies, these “Williams Treaties” did not set aside reserve lands (because these had already been allocated) and did not deal with the question of hunting and fishing rights.

Map of

Williams Treaties, Ontario, 1923.

Paul Hackett

An Act to Amend the Indian Act, 1920

This amendment stipulated that the government could deem a Native person fit for enfranchisement. Once enfranchised, however, the Native would lose any rights he had possessed under the Indian Act.

10-11 GEORGE V

Statutes of Canada.  10-11 GEORGE V.  Chapter 50.  Ottawa: Printed by Thomas Mulvey, Law Printer to the King's most Excellent Majesty, 1920.  pp. 307-312.

1 0 – 1 1  G E O R G E  V.

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CHAP.  50.

 An Act to amend the Indian Act.

[Assented to 1st July, 1920.]

HIS Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate and House of Commons of Canada, enacts as follows:—

1.  Sections nine and eleven of the Indian Act, Revised Statutes of Canada, 1906, chapter eighty-one, and section ten of the said Act as enacted by chapter thirty-five of the statutes of 1914, are repealed and the following are substituted therefor:—

9. (1)  The Governor in Council may establish,—

( a )  day schools in any Indian reserve for the children of such reserve ;

( b )  industrial or boarding schools for the Indian children of any reserve or reserves or any district or territory designated by the Superintendent General.

“(2)  Any school or institution the managing authorities of which have entered into a written agreement with the Superintendent General to admit Indian children and provide them with board, lodging and instruction may be declared by the Governor in Council to be an industrial school or a boarding school for the purposes of this Act.

“(3)  The Superintendent General may provide for the transport of Indian children to and from the boarding or industrial schools to which they are assigned, including transportation to and from such schools for the annual vacations.

“(4)  The Superintendent General shall have power to make regulations prescribing a standard for the buildings, equipment, teaching and discipline of and in all schools, and for the inspection of such schools.

“(5)  The chief and council of any band that has children in a school shall have the right to inspect such school at such reasonable times as may be agreed upon by the Indian agent and the principal of the school.

“(6)  The Superintendent General may apply the whole or any part of the annuities and interest moneys of Indian children attending an industrial or boarding school to the maintenance of such school or to the maintenance of the children themselves.

10.  (1)  Every Indian child between the ages of seven and fifteen years who is physically able shall attend such day, industrial or boarding school as may be designated by the Superintendent General for the full periods during which such school is open each year.  Provided, however, that such school shall be the nearest available school of the kind required, and that no Protestant child shall be assigned to a Roman Catholic school or a school conducted under Roman Catholic auspices, and no Roman Catholic child shall be assigned to a Protestant school or a school conducted under Protestant auspices.

“(2)  The Superintendent General may appoint any officer or person to be a truant officer to enforce the attendance of Indian children at school, and for such purpose a truant officer shall be vested with the powers of a peace officer, and shall have authority to enter any place where he has reason to believe there are Indian children between the ages of seven and fifteen years, and when requested by the Indian agent, a school teacher or the chief of a band shall examine into any case of truancy, shall warn the truants, their parents or guardians or the person with whom any Indian child resides, of the consequences of truancy, and notify the parent, guardian or such person in writing to cause the child to attend school.

“(3)  Any parent, guardian or person with whom an Indian child is residing who fails to cause such child, being between the ages aforesaid, to attend school as required by this section after having received three days’ notice so to do by a truant officer shall, on the complaint of the truant officer, be liable on summary conviction before a justice of the peace or Indian agent to a fine of not more than two dollars and costs, or imprisonment for a period not exceeding ten days or both, and such child may be arrested without a warrant and conveyed to school by the truant officer:  Provided that no parent or other person shall be liable to such penalties if such child, ( a ) is unable to attend school by reason of sickness or other unavoidable cause; ( b ) has passed the entrance examination for high schools;  or, ( c ) has been excused in writing by the Indian agent or teacher for temporary absence to assist in husbandry or urgent and necessary household duties.”

2.  Section fourteen of the said Act is repealed and the following is substituted therefor:—

14.  Any Indian woman who marries any person other than an Indian, or a non-treaty Indian, shall cease to be an Indian in every respect within the meaning of this Act, except that she shall be entitled to share equally with the members of the band to which she formerly belonged, in the annual or semi-annual distribution of their annuities, interest moneys and rents:  Provided that such income may be commuted to her at any time at ten years’ purchase, with the approval of the Superintendent General.”

3.  Paragraph  ( h ) of section two, and sections one hundred and seven to one hundred and twenty-three, both inclusive, of the said Act are repealed and the following are substituted therefor:—

107.  (1)  The Superintendent General may appoint a Board to consist of two officers of the Department of Indian Affairs and a member of the Band to which the Indian or Indians under investigation belongs, to make enquiry and report as to the fitness of any Indian or Indians to be enfranchised.  The Indian member of the Board shall be nominated by the council of the Band, within thirty days after the date of notice having been given to the council, and in default of such nomination, the appointment shall be made by the Superintendent General.  In the course of such enquiry it shall be the duty of the Board to take into consideration and report upon the attitude of any such Indian towards his enfranchisement, which attitude shall be a factor in determining the question of fitness.  Such report shall contain a description of the land occupied by each Indian, the amount thereof and the improvements thereon, the names, ages and sex of every Indian whose interests it is anticipated will be affected, and such other information as the Superintendent General may direct such Board to obtain.

“(2)  On the report of the Superintendent General that any Indian, male or female, over the age of twenty-one years is fit for enfranchisement, the Governor in Council may by order direct that such Indians shall be and become enfranchised at the expiration of two years from the date of such order or earlier if requested by such Indian, and from the date of such enfranchisement the provisions of the Indian Act and of any other Act or law making any distinction between the legal rights, privileges, disabilities and liabilities of Indians and those of His Majesty’s other subjects, shall cease to apply to such Indian or to his or her minor unmarried children, or, in the case of a married male Indian, to the wife of such Indian, and every such Indian and child and wife shall thereafter have, possess and enjoy all the legal powers, rights and privileges of His Majesty’s other subjects, and shall no longer be deemed to be Indians within the meaning of any laws relating to Indians.

“(3)  An Indian over the age of twenty-one years shall have the right to choose the christian name and surname by which he or she wishes to be enfranchised and thereafter known, and from the date of the order of enfranchisement such Indian shall thereafter be known by such names, and if no such choice is made such Indian shall be enfranchised by and bear the name or names by which he or she has been theretofore commonly known.

“(4)  Upon the issue of an order of enfranchisement the Superintendent General shall, if any Indian enfranchised holds any land on a reserve, cause letters patent to be issued to such Indian for such land:  Provided that such Indian shall pay to the funds of the band such amount per acre for the land he holds as the Superintendent General considers to be the value of the common interest of the band in such land, and such payment shall be a charge against the share of such Indian in the funds of the band.  The Superintendent General shall also pay to each Indian upon enfranchisement his or her share of the funds to the credit of the band, including such amount as the Superintendent General determines to be his or her share of the value of the common interest of the band in the lands of the reserve or reserves, or share of the principal of the annuities of the band capitalized at five per centum, out of such moneys as are provided by Parliament for the purpose or which may be otherwise available for such purpose.  The land and money of any minor, unmarried children may be held for the benefit of such minor or may be granted or paid in whole or in part to the father, or, if the father is dead, to the mother, or in either case to such person as the Superintendent General may select for such purpose for the maintenance of such minor, and the land and money of the wife shall be granted and paid to the husband, unless in any case the Superintendent General shall direct that the whole or any part thereof be granted or paid to the wife herself, in which case the same shall be granted or paid to the wife.

“(5)  If such Indian holds no land in a reserve he or she shall be paid from the funds of the band such amount as the Superintendent General determines to be his or her share of the value of the common interest of the band in the lands of the reserve or reserves, and shall also be paid his or her share of the funds or annuities of the band capitalized as aforesaid.

“(6)  Every Indian who is not a member of the band and every non-treaty Indian who, with the acquiescence of the band and approval of the Superintendent General, has been permitted to reside on the reserve or to obtain a holding or location thereon, may be enfranchised and given letters patent for such land as a member of the band, provided that such Indian or non-treaty Indian shall pay to the credit of the band the value of the common interest of the band in the land for which he receives a patent.

“(7)  On the issue of the letters patent to any enfranchised Indian for any land he may be entitled to, or the payment from the capital funds or annuities of the band, as above provided, such Indian and his or her minor unmarried children and, in the case of a male married Indian, the wife of such Indian shall cease to have any further claims whatsoever against any common property or funds of the band.

108.  Where an Indian is undergoing a period of probation in accordance with the provisions of sections one hundred and seven to one hundred and twenty-two, inclusive, heretofore in force, such Indian may on the recommendation of the Superintendent General be enfranchised by order of the Governor in Council, and given letters patent for the lands held by such Indian under location ticket issued to him or her in respect of such enfranchisement, and paid his or her share of the capital funds at the credit of the band or share of the principal of the annuities of the band capitalized at five per centum as aforesaid, out of such moneys as are provided for the purpose by Parliament or which may be otherwise available for such purpose.

109.  When a majority of the members of a band is enfranchised, the common land or other public property of the band shall be equitably allotted to members of the band, and thereafter the residue, if any, of such land or public property may be sold by the Superintendent General and the proceeds of such sale placed to the credit of the funds of the band to be divided as provided in section one hundred and seven:  Provided, however, that the Governor in Council may reserve and set apart from the funds of the band such sum as the Superintendent General may consider necessary for the perpetual care and protection of any Indian cemetery or burial plot belonging to such Indians, and any other common property which in the opinion of the Superintendent General should be preserved as such.  And provided also that no part of such land or other property shall be sold to any person other than a member of the band except by public auction after three months’ advertisement in the public press.

110.  The Governor in Council shall have power to make regulations for the carrying out of the provisions of the three sections immediately preceding this section, and subject to the provisions of this Act for determining how the land, capital moneys and other property of a band, or any part thereof, shall be divided, granted and paid, upon the enfranchisement of any Indian or Indians belonging to such band or having any interest in any of the property of such band, and to decide any questions arising under the said sections, and the decision of the Governor in Council thereon shall be final and conclusive.

“111.  The Minister shall, within fifteen days after the opening of each session of Parliament, submit to both Houses of Parliament a list of the Indians enfranchised under this Act during the previous fiscal year, and the amount of land and money granted and paid to each Indian so enfranchised.”

4.  Section one hundred and thirty-nine of the said Act is amended by adding thereto the following subsection :—

“(2)  Any person or Indian who has been gambling or has been drunk on an Indian reserve, or has had liquor in his possession on an Indian reserve, shall be liable on summary conviction to imprisonment for any term not exceeding three months, or to a penalty not exceeding fifty dollars and not less than ten dollars, with costs of prosecution, half of which pecuniary penalty shall belong to the informer.”

5.  Subsection two of section one hundred and ninety-four of the said Act is amended by inserting the following paragraph immediately after paragraph ( g ) thereof :—

( gg )  the construction, maintenance and improvement of water, sewerage and lighting works and systems.”

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An Act to Amend the Indian Act, Statutes of Canada 1920 (Second Session), c. 50.

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In the Prairie provinces, the problem of federal-provincial jurisdiction over Indian lands had not arisen initially because the agreements that created the Prairie provinces did not give their governments control over Crown lands and natural resources. Of course, the provincial governments of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba chafed under the restriction and began to agitate for the same control of lands that the other provinces enjoyed. Finally in 1930, the Natural Resources Transfer Agreement did just that. Lands that had already been reserved for Indians remained a federal responsibility. The question of natural resources was more problematic, however. Now that the three Prairie provincial governments controlled the resources, could they legislate restrictions on Aboriginal access to those resources even though the Natives remained a federal responsibility?

In part to address that question, a clause was inserted into the 1930 agreement stating that "the said Indians shall have the right, which the province hereby assures them, of hunting, trapping and fishing game and fish for food at all seasons of the year on all unoccupied Crown lands and on any other lands to which the said Indians may have a right of access." However, in attempting to address one problem, this clause introduced another. The Prairie treaties refer to the right to hunt and fish on certain lands, but the Natural Resources Transfer Agreement appeared to limit these rights to hunting and fishing for food only, thereby ruling out commercial resource use. The issue would come to be a thorny one in later years.

While these issues of lands and resources were being debated, the federal government continued to use legislation to pursue its assimilationist policy. Departmental administrators understood very clearly that First Nations were not assimilating; indeed, they were becoming better organized and more vocal than ever in opposing many aspects of government policy. Rather than abandon the policy as unworkable, however, the government decided to try to strengthen the legal component of it and step up the enforcement. Duncan Campbell Scott, Deputy Superintendent-General of Indian Affairs, made these goals plain in a 1920 speech: “I want to get rid of the Indian problem. I do not think as a matter of fact, that this country ought to continuously protect a class of people who are able to stand alone... after one hundred years, after being in close contact with civilization it is enervating to the individual or to a band to continue in that state of tutelage, when he or they are able to take their position as British citizens or Canadian citizens, to support themselves, and stand alone... Our object is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department..."

Accordingly, in 1920, The Indian Act was revised to introduce what was called "involuntary enfranchisement." If the superintendent-general determined that a particular Indian was "fit" to vote and take on full Canadian citizenship, the government could order that he be enfranchised within a two-year period. Of course, the enfranchised Indian also lost all his special status under the terms of The Indian Act. A furious debate ensued, with the Six Nations of southern Ontario and Quebec being particularly vociferous opponents of the changes. Some non-Natives also opposed the amendment on the grounds that the new law clearly interfered with privileges that had previously been offered to First Nations. Others, interestingly enough, argued against it on the grounds that Indians were not yet "ready" for full citizenship. The old racist assumptions were still firmly entrenched. In 1933, the government yielded slightly to this pressure and modified the section on compulsory enfranchisement, imposing the stipulation that enfranchisement could not take place if it violated a treaty or some other agreement between the government and the band in question.

While the government was extending and reworking its Indian policy, it was also restructuring the body that was responsible for administering and implementing its programs. Although a Department of Indian Affairs had been created in 1880, it was not a separate department in the modern sense but rather reported to the Minister of the Interior, who continued to hold the title, Superintendent-General of Indian Affairs. In 1936, the Liberal government decided to reorganize this administration and created what was called the Indian Affairs Branch within a new Department of Mines and Resources. The position of superintendent-general was abolished. Indian Affairs remained under Mines and Resources until it was transferred to the Department of Citizenship and Immigration in 1950. Clearly the state did not give Native issues high priority.

Inuit Policy

If the Canadian government gave relatively little attention to the issue of Indian policy in the early years of the twentieth century, it gave even less to the Inuit of the Arctic. Officials apparently felt no need to extend treaties beyond regions that were required for resource development or settlement purposes, and The Indian Act made no specific references to the Inuit. From time to time, Ottawa had provided relief assistance (food and hunting supplies) to Inuit in need and the Northwest Territories and Yukon Branch of the Department of the Interior experimented with reindeer-herding as an economic development opportunity for the Inuit. But no clear Inuit policy existed.

photo of Charles Stewart, who expanded federal control over Inuit land resources

Charles Stewart, 1918

During his time as a federal cabinet minister in the 1920s, Stewart attempted to extend the Indian Act both to include the Inuit and to give the government control of their land and resources.

Then in 1924, the Minister of the Interior, Charles Stewart, proposed that The Indian Act be amended to extend its provisions to the Inuit and give the government control over Inuit lands and property. This proposal was entirely one-sided; no Inuit had requested such a move or been consulted about it. However, Leader of the Opposition Arthur Meighen (who had once been superintendent-general of Indian affairs) objected strongly to the proposal. In his view, the Indian Act had made the Indians wards of the state and rendered them helpless and dependent. Since few Canadians were likely to ever live in the Arctic, Meighen argued, the Inuit would be better off pursuing an independent livelihood. In response, the proposal was changed to read simply that “the Superintendent General of Indian Affairs shall have charge of Eskimo affairs.” Four years later, responsibility was transferred to the Northwest Territories and Yukon Branch of the Department of the Interior.

Photo of Inuit spear fishing

Inuit Fishing, n.d.

Of course, not all Inuit lived in the Northwest Territories and Yukon; there were also significant numbers in northern Quebec. These people seem to have been ignored initially by both the federal and provincial governments. But in the late 1920s, serious game shortages and the threat of starvation in the region made the question of assistance urgent. In 1929, an agreement was signed whereby the federal government would provide relief supplies to the Inuit and the Quebec government would reimburse Ottawa. As expenses mounted, however, the Quebec government began to argue that it was not legally responsible for the Inuit and thus should not have to pay the costs.

1939 - Inuit Deemed a Federal Responsibility

A funding dispute between the province of Quebec and the federal government ended uncertainty about the status of the Inuit at least in administrative terms. Ottawa had resisted taking full responsibility for the Inuit. In 1920, the Indian Act had been amended to include them, but there was a reluctance, voiced by Conservative prime minister Arthur Meighen, to impose upon them the regime that had so obviously undermined other Native peoples. Control was transferred to the Northwest Territories council in 1927, but this did not resolve the troubling question. Indeed, when faced with the support of the Inuit in its north, Quebec resorted to the courts to get Ottawa to take up its responsibilities. In a case called Reference re Eskimos, decided in 1939, the Supreme Court determined that the Inuit were, for administrative purposes at least, to be considered as Indians under the British North America Act. (This decision was based on the understanding of how they were viewed at the time of Confederation.) This did not result in the application of the Indian Act to them, but did resolve the question as to who was ultimately responsible for their welfare.

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The question went to the Supreme Court, which finally ruled in 1939 that the Inuit were Indians under the terms of the BNA Act—and hence the responsibility of the federal government, no matter where in Canada they lived. What the ruling would actually mean in practice was not to be worked out until after the Second World War.

Metis Policy

Meanwhile, economic conditions were becoming unbearable for Native people in many other parts of the country. Doubly hit were Métis and non-Status Indians, many of whom continued to see themselves as Indian but were not recognized as such under the Indian Act and so were not considered eligible for government assistance under the paternalistic provisions of that Act. With the Natural Resources Transfer Agreement of 1930, many of these people in Alberta and Saskatchewan became concerned that the provincial governments would not respect their interests in the lands they occupied. As had happened in 1869 and 1885, they were afraid that these governments would simply turn their lands over to non-Native settlers.

1930 - Natural Resources Transfer Agreement

By federal legislation in 1930, the Prairie provinces gained jurisdiction over Crown lands within their borders, a privilege reserved to the federal government since the acquisition of Rupert's Land in 1870. In establishing the Natural Resources Transfer Act, the federal government required the provinces to honour treaties guaranteeing Native fishing, hunting, and trapping rights in all seasons on unoccupied Crown lands. However, the terms confirming these rights were augmented by the words "for food," thus implying a limitation of these Native practices in a way not consistent with the original treaties. The provinces subsequently applied a narrow definition to this commitment in an attempt to enforce provincial game and fishing regulations and prosecute Native offenders of these laws.

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Map of Métis Settlements, Alberta.

Métis Settlements, Alberta.

Paul Hackett

Concern over the issue led to the formation of the Métis Association of Alberta in 1932, which lobbied the Department of Indian Affairs for attention to these problems. But the government in Ottawa reiterated its policy that it considered the Métis to be fully assimilated citizens with no special rights. So the Métis turned to the provincial level and succeeded in getting an official investigation into their living conditions launched in 1934. The report was issued in 1936; two years later, the Alberta government passed the Metis Betterment Act, which paved the way for the establishment of farm colonies for the exclusive use of the Métis. People could apply for membership in a settlement association by proving that they had at least one-quarter Indian blood (that is, that at least one grandparent was Indian) and that they were not registered (or entitled to be registered) under the terms of the Indian Act. Settlements of various sizes were established across the province, some of which remain today.

The Saskatchewan government of Tommy Douglas watched the discussion with interest and decided in 1944 to introduce its own program for the Métis. However, in keeping with the philosophy of Douglas’s party, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (forerunner of the New Democratic Party), the Saskatchewan settlements were to be run along a rather different line. They would be collectives, with co-operative marketing and management. The Saskatchewan experiment, unlike the Alberta one, was relatively brief.

Native volunteers from File Hills Indian Colony, First World War

File Hills Natives Prepare to Go to War, n.d.

Almost the entire male population of the File Hills Indian Colony volunteered for military service during the First World War (1914-1918). These Native members of the 68th Battalion are shown with their Fathers and Mr. W.M. Graham, Commissioner for the Department of Indian Affairs.

Written By

Kerry Abel
Adjunct Professor
Carleton University
This is a brief description of Kerry Abel

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