Since the early twentieth century, many Aboriginal communities in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island had been struggling with desperate poverty. A smallpox epidemic in the 1890s and a major migration to the United States had reduced the population dramatically, while high infant mortality rates, malnutrition, and widespread tuberculosis severely challenged those who remained.

Photo of Native family housing, New Brunswick, ca. 1890s

Native Family Home, New Brunswick, ca. 1890s

PANB (P5-535)
Photo of Native children from St. Mary's reserve, New Brunswick, ca. 1890

Indian Children, St. Mary's Reserve, ca. 1890

The photos was taken near the eastern end of Fredericton bridge, ca. 1890
PANB (P5-81)
The old hunting economy had collapsed, and most settlements did not have sufficient productive land to develop a new agricultural economic base. Indeed, several reserves had been surrendered to the Crown, so the already small land base was shrinking. And clearly, the Great Depression was compounding the situation.

In the mid-1930s officials began to discuss the idea of relocating Mi’kmaq and Maliseet communities to central locations. The idea was promoted as a means to acquire more and better lands to revitalize the economy, but it was also clearly designed for administrative convenience and to reduce costs.


Inuit Girls and Woman Doing Laundry, Nain, NF, ca. 1946

After 1945, the federal government relocated some Innu from communities in northern Labrador to Nain on the Labrador coast.
NAC (PA-178249).
There was no consultation with the Aboriginal people affected. The centralization policy was officially recognized in 1942. In Nova Scotia, as an example, plans were made to expropriate existing reserves and move all the people to two agencies at Eskasoni and Shubenacadie.

The program was widely resisted. Ben Christmas, President of the United General Indian Council of Nova Scotia, took a particularly important lead in organizing the opposition. Far fewer families than the government had hoped agreed to move to the designated reserves, and those who had moved found themselves with the same problems as before. By 1949, the government had essentially abandoned the experiment. But the centralization policy left a lasting legacy of bitterness among the Aboriginal people of the Maritimes, some of whom have come to see it as an attempt at "cultural genocide."

1949 - Newfoundland Enters Confederation

When Newfoundland entered Confederation in 1949, the federal government, in accordance with its practice elsewhere, accepted responsibility for the Native peoples in the new province. However, no attempts were made to register individuals or bands, and no reserves were established initially. Only in 1984 were the members of the Miawpukek Band of Conne River recognized as Status Indians, the first in the province. The Terms of Union, through which Newfoundland became a province, made no reference to Aboriginal peoples.

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Meanwhile, important changes were taking place in Newfoundland. Before Newfoundland joined Confederation in 1949, Indian affairs had been administered in different ways in different parts of the colony. Some agreements had been signed with the Mi’kmaq on the island of Newfoundland, and land set aside for their hunting purposes. In Labrador, because of an ongoing dispute about the border with Canada, the Innu’s legal status was unclear. Further north, the Inuit had been considered the responsibility of the Moravian missionaries, who had been granted lands for settlement purposes beginning in 1769.

The 1949 terms of union that brought Newfoundland into Canada stated that the lands that had been reserved for Indians would be transferred to federal government jurisdiction to be consistent with the British North America Act. The discussions preceeding the union established that Indians and Inuit would be brought into programs administered by the Department of Indian Affairs like Aboriginal people elsewhere in Canada. However, no action was taken for some time. Status Indians were not registered or added to the official band lists, and no federal programs were initiated until 1954, when the department began to provide funds to the Newfoundland government as reimbursement for Native health care costs.

The most dramatic effect of Indian policy on the people of Newfoundland instead came through a provincial initiative. In the1950s, a number of Inuit from northern Labrador were moved to the communities of Nain and Makkovik. Then, in the 1960s, the provincial government resettled Innu families from their lands to the communities of North West River (now called Shesatshit) and Davis Inlet. Problems associated with this relocation program would come to have a devastating impact on the Innu in the 1980s.

While these administrative changes were taking place, the old Canadian policy of assimilation through education was also being scrutinized. Continuing complaints that the residential school system was failing to draw Aboriginal children into full Canadian citizenship were coupled with equally old complaints that the system was too expensive, too dominated by religious interests, and generally offered inferior education. By 1945, the government had decided on a new policy. Native children would be integrated wherever possible into the provincial school system. The fundamental goal was still assimilation; the theory was now that this process would proceed more efficiently through integration rather than segregation. By 1960, about 10,000 Aboriginal children were attending provincial schools.

Residential schools were not entirely eliminated, however. In the Northwest Territories and Yukon, for example, there were very few non-Native schools to which Aboriginal children could be sent, so residential schools continued to operate. Nor were the churches entirely removed from their participation in the system. Religious groups continued to operate student residences (called hostels) for students attending school away from home.

Photo shows a school drill at the Indian Industrial School, Brandon, Man., 1946

School Drill, Indian Industrial School, Brandon, Man., 1946

Native children participate in a school drill at the Indian Industrial School, Brandon, Man., 1946. Residential schools continued to operate in Canada well after the Second World War, with the last ones closing in 1996.
NAC (PA-048570)

Meanwhile, changes were taking place in Canadian society and new ideas about public policy were being debated from coast to coast. The government of William Lyon Mackenzie King decided to make major revisions to The Indian Act, and in 1946 a joint committee of the Senate and House of Commons was established to begin the process. Initially, the committee does not appear to have planned to consult Aboriginal organizations, but it soon changed its mind and, for the first time since Confederation, Native interests were represented at the table.

Photo of David Crowchild and Teddy Yellowfly heading to Ottawa to participate in Joint Committee on Indian Affairs hearings

David Crowchild and Teddy Yellowfly

David Crowchild and Teddy Yellowfly, delegates en route to Ottawa for Joint Committee on Indian Affairs hearings, 1947. Photo taken at White River railway station.
GA (NA-4212-42)

Indian Act, 1951

Despite calls for change from Native organizations, the 1951 Indian Act did not substantially revise the inveterate assimilationist bent of Indian legislation. The Act did, however, lift bans on the Sun Dance and Potlatch and eliminated the involuntary enfranchisement clause (loss of Treaty status without consent).

1 5  G E O R G E  V I .

CHAP. 29

An Act respecting Indians.

[Assented to 20th June, 1951.]

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


1. This Act may be cited as The Indian Act. [131]



108. (1) On the report of the Minister that an Indian has applied for enfranchisement and that in his opinion the Indian

(a) is of the full age of twenty-one years,

(b) is capable of assuming the duties and responsibilities of citizenship, and

(c) when enfranchised, will be capable of supporting himself and his dependants, the Governor in Council may by order declare that the Indian and his wife and minor unmarried children are enfranchised.

(2) On the report of the Minister that an Indian woman married a person who is not an Indian, the Governor in Council may by order declare that the woman is enfranchised as of the date of her marriage.

(3) Where, in the opinion of the Minister, the wife of an Indian is living apart from her husband, the names of his wife and his minor children who are living with the wife shall not be included in an order under subsection one that enfranchises the Indian unless the wife has applied for enfranchisement, but where the Governor in Council is satisfied that such wife is no longer living apart from her husband, the Governor in Council may by order declare that the wife and the minor children are enfranchised.

(4) A person is not enfranchised unless his name appears in an order of enfranchisement made by the Governor in Council.

109. A person with respect to whom an order for enfranchisement is made under section one hundred and eight shall, from the date thereof, be deemed not to be an Indian within the meaning of this Act or any other statue or law.

111.(1) Where the Minister reports that a band has applied for enfranchisement, and has submitted a plan for the disposal or division of the funds of the band and the lands in the reserve, and in his opinion the band is capable of managing its own affairs as a municipality or part of a municipality, the Governor in Council may by order approve the plan, declare that all the members of the band are enfranchised, either as of the date of the order or such later date as may be fixed in the order, and may make regulations for carrying the plan and the provisions of this section into effect.

(2) An order for enfranchisement may not be made under subsection one unless more than fifty per cent of the electors of the band signify, at the meeting of the band called for the purpose, their willingness to become enfranchised under this section, and their approval of the plan.

(3) The Governor in Council may, for the purpose of giving effect to this section, authorize the Minister to enter into an agreement with a province or a municipality, or both, upon such terms as may be agreed upon by the Minister and the province or municipality, or both.

(4) Without res tricting the generality of subsection three, an agreement made thereunder may provide for financial assistance to be given to the province or the municipality or both to assist in the support of indigent, infirm or aged persons to whom the agreement applies, and such financial assistance, or any part thereof, shall, if the Minister so directs, be paid out of moneys of the band, and any such financial assistance not paid out of moneys of the band shall be paid out of moneys appropriated by Parliament.

The Indian Act, Statutes of Canada 1951, c. 29.

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1951 - Revised Indian Act

The revisions to the Indian Act passed in 1951 encompassed something of a revolution in the treatment of Natives by the Canadian government. Full privileges of citizenship, including voting rights under qualification, were conferred upon the Native population. Band councils acquired considerable authority over reserve lands, including the administration of funds and local by-laws. The election of band councils was to be by secret ballot, with Native women participating for the first time since the imposition of the original Indian Act. Restrictions upon political organizations and Native religious and cultural life, such as community dances and Potlatch ceremonies, were lifted. Although the Indian Act remained imperfect, and the supervisory role of the minister remained in effect with minor curtailments, Native bands now had the power to seek the funds and legal expertise necessary to pursue claims through the courts and to press for further reforms in the provincial and federal legislatures.

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The process was a lengthy one, and a new draft bill was not ready until 1950, when it was introduced to the House of Commons by Louis St. Laurent’s government. An immediate outcry from Native organizations followed; many objected strongly to the continuing assimilationist intent of the bill, including involuntary enfranchisement. The bill was withdrawn, redrafted, and resubmitted; it was finally passed by Parliament in 1951.

Even the new law, however, did not reflect truly fundamental change. Regulations against the performance of the Sun Dance and potlatch were omitted, as was the involuntary enfranchisement clause. It was no longer illegal for Aboriginal organizations to raise funds or hire lawyers for their causes. The responsible minister now had slightly less power and band councils had slightly more. But overall, the document was still firmly rooted in the 1876 Act that was designed to protect Aboriginal peoples until they integrated into Canadian society without special status.

1960 - Voting Rights for Indians

The Native experience with voting rights in Canada presents a complex and frequently changing picture. In 1885, the right to vote in federal elections was extended to Natives in Eastern Canada who met the requirements of being male and owning at least $50 of real property, a qualification that could be met by reserve lands held individually by a location ticket. This practice did not apply to the Natives in Western Canada, who, officials believed, were not developed enough for the responsibility. The 1885 legislation was repealed in 1898, depriving the Natives of Eastern Canada of the franchise once more. The right to vote in a federal election was restored to these people in 1920, but it was restricted to those Natives who lived off-reserve and to men who had served in the Canadian army, navy, or air force in the First World War. In 1944, the federal franchise was extended to all Natives who had served or were serving in the Second World War and also to their spouses. A 1950 amendment to the Indian Act gave the vote to on-reserve Natives but required them to relinquish their tax-exempt status on personal property. Only in 1960, under the government of John Diefenbaker, was the federal franchise extended unconditionally to all Natives. Provincial voting rights came even more slowly.

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Key to that program was the concept of enfranchisement. Involuntary enfranchisement had been eliminated, but if Status Indians wanted to vote, they would have to give up their legal status as Indians. Clearly, however, public opinion was changing. In 1958, John Diefenbaker proposed that Natives should be permitted to vote in federal elections without giving up their special status. And, in 1960, that proposal finally became law.

The relationship of The Indian Act to the Inuit (Eskimo) was finally clarified in the 1951 revisions. A section in the definitions at the beginning of the Act asserted that any reference to "an Indian" in the Act did not include any "Eskimos." An Order-in-Council of the previous year gave authority for Inuit affairs instead to the Department of Resources and Development, which was responsible for northern affairs more generally. There was to be no " Eskimo Act" or Inuit policy like the federal Indian policy.

Photo shows and Inuit woman receiving Family allowance in the form of powdered milk in Cape Smith, N.W.T., 1948

Receiving Family Allowance Cape Smith, N.W.T., 1948

Mr. and Mrs. Sigvaldasson issuing Family Allowance in the form of powdered milk. Cape Smith, N.W.T.. 1948.
NAC (PA-167630)

Although the general public was enthusiastic about what it saw as progress in Indian policy through the 1950s and early 1960s, it was also becoming aware that profound socio-economic problems were affecting many Aboriginal communities and that recent policy changes would do nothing to address those problems. Between 1963 and 1966, a group of social scientists was commissioned by the government to study the situation. Their report, issued in 1966, was entitled “A Survey of the Contemporary Indians of Canada”; it became known popularly as the Hawthorn Report, after its principal author. The report chronicled dismal statistics about poverty, unemployment, alcoholism, low educational attainment, and the marginalization of Aboriginal peoples from Canadian society as a whole.

Hawthorn Report, 1966

The report established that the government was not only to give Native people full rights as Canadian citizens but also to accord them special status in law. Natives were to be considered "citizens plus" because they were the founding peoples of Canada.




(1)Integration or assimilation are not objectives which anyone else can properly hold for the Indian. The effort of the Indian Affairs Branch should be concentrated on a series of specific middle range objectives, such as increasing the educational attainments of the Indian people, increasing their real income, and adding to their life expectancy.

(2)The economic development of Indians should be based on a comprehensive program on many fronts besides the purely economic.

(3)The main emphasis on economic development should be on education, vocational training and techniques of mobility to enable Indians to take employment in wage and salaried jobs. Development of locally available resources should be viewed as playing a secondary role for those who do not choose to seek outside employment.

(4)Special facilities will be needed to ease the process of social adjustment as the tempo of off-reserve movement increases. Where possible these should be provided by agencies other than the Indian Affairs Branch. However, if other agencies prove inadequate, either due to incapacity or unwillingness, the Indian affairs Branch must step in itself regardless of whether the situations requiring special attention are on or off the reserve.

(5)As long as Indians are deficient in the capacity for self-defence in a society of large and powerful private and public organizations they must be given supplemental consideration by government.

(6) The Indian Affairs Branch should act as a national conscience to see that social and economic equality is achieved between Indians and Whites. This role includes the persistent advocacy of Indian needs, the persistent exposure of the shortcomings in the governmental treatment that Indians receive, and persistent removal of ethnic tension between Indians and Whites.

(7) Indians should be regarded as ‘citizens plus’; in addition to the normal rights and duties of citizenship, Indians possess certain additional rights as charter members of the Canadian community.

(8)The Indian Affairs Branch has special responsibility to see that the ‘plus’ aspects of Indian citizenship are respected, and that governments and the Canadian people are educated in the acceptance of their existence. [13]

Economic Development

(11)Larger expenditures than hitherto will have to be made on reserves in order to bring their standards of housing and other facilities and services closer to White norms.

(12)A working blueprint for a viable economic development program for Indians will require a more detailed cross-country survey to provide an inventory in terms of job aptitudes and capabilities, potential income-yielding resources, job opportunities locally available, and numbers in each community requiring special training and migration to other areas… 

(13)An adequate program for economic development of Indians will require public expenditures on their behalf in the hundreds of millions of dollars per annum over the foreseeable future…

(14)The Indian Affairs Branch should be given every support in its announced objective of providing Indians with maximum educational and training opportunities and services. Inseparable from education and training, job placement should play a major role in a viable economic development program for Indians. [14]

(27)The main emphasis for economic development of the more depressed and underdeveloped reserves located within, or close to, urban or industrial centres offering many potential job opportunities should focus on expanded social work programs for rehabilitation of disorganized house-holds, intensive training programs for potential workers, and counselling work among women and mothers to assist them in complexities of urban living. [15]

H.B. Hawthorn, ed., A Survey of the Contemporary Indians of Canada: A Report on Economic, Political, Educational Needs and Policies, vol. 1 (Ottawa: Indian Affairs Branch, 1966), 13.

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1966 - Hawthorn Report

Canadian awareness of the plight of Native peoples was not widespread before a public investigation was undertaken into the lives of the nation's Aboriginals. In 1963, anthropologist Harry B. Hawthorn was appointed to head the commission, which tabled its report three years later. The results of Hawthorn's comprehensive examination of the economic and social conditions under which Natives lived revealed some shocking statistics. For example, he noted that Native communities experienced high school dropout rates as high as 94 per cent. Among the recommendations that Hawthorn made to address this specific problem was that Aboriginal peoples be taught in their own languages. The most significant point that Hawthorn made, however, focused on the empowerment of local band government. In most regions, the Indian Department still held veto power over band council decisions, and many bands did not control a significant proportion of the revenues generated from the lease of reserve property and resources. This lack of autonomy led many Native people to withdraw from the official structures dictated by Ottawa and to emphasize more personal kinship and friendship ties within the community. The consequence was the frequent absence of effective local government on reserves. Native groups across Canada applauded the findings of the Hawthorn Report and its recommendations that the Indian Act be changed to encourage more autonomous local government. The report also focused public attention on the unacceptable social conditions in which many Natives lived and, in so doing, forced Canadians to address a situation out of keeping with how they generally viewed themselves and their country. The Hawthorn Report introduced a new description of Aboriginal rights in Canada, arguing that Indians deserved better treatment from their government than did most Canadians since their Aboriginal title and treaty rights made them "citizens plus."

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The Hawthorn report proposed that not only should Canada’s Native peoples enjoy full rights as citizens, but they should also be regarded as citizens with special rights because they were here before European settlers. The idea of "citizens plus" was received with mixed feelings. Many Canadians argued that aboriginality did not confer special status, while some Native groups (notably the Six Nations of southern Ontario and Quebec) had long argued that they had never been Canadian citizens in the first place. They were members of an independent nation and would never concede sovereignty. Other Native groups were ambivalent about some of the report’s proposals to bring Native communities into the mainstream of Canadian life because these proposals sounded suspiciously like the old assimilation policy dressed up in the guise of a new social concern.

Written By

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


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