The late 1840s and 1850s were a time of significant constitutional reform in British North America. Ideas of free trade and liberalism were becoming widely accepted in Great Britain, challenging older ideas about an empire based on the economic theory of mercantilism. So a push began in Great Britain to liberate the country from some of the expense of empire, especially in those parts of the Crown's imperial domains dominated by European immigrants and their descendants.
Politically, one of the major changes that resulted was a widening of the sphere of colonial self-government through a devolution of powers from the mother country, a process that eventually led to a form of governance generally described as "responsible government." In this scheme, the Queen's representative, the governor general, began to take direction and choose executives from the caucus of the political party that could command the majority of legislative seats in local elections.
At the same time, the colonial legislatures were expected to take responsibility for more of the costs of administering their jurisdictions. One of the obvious means to finance this new approach to government was to transform Indian lands into public lands and sell them to non-Indian settlers as private property. This approach to fiscal relations between different levels of government was bound to increase the tensions and acrimony between Aboriginal peoples and local governments in British North America. "Indians" were increasingly seen as barriers to progress rather than as partners in an economic enterprise.
Thus, one of the great ironies of the coming of responsible government to the British North American colonies is that, as the colonial population widened its sphere of self-government, Indigenous peoples faced a diminished sphere. Indeed, this phenomenon applies almost universally to jurisdictions such as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the United States. Whenever powers were passed from old imperial centres in Europe to settler populations, those settler governments were provided with new means to widen the sphere of their own fortunes and liberties. In this process, Indigenous peoples generally found themselves subjugated and displaced from their lands and resources.
The primary goal of the government of the Province of Canada regarding its Aboriginal population was eventual assimilation. Attempts to "civilize" the Indians had met with little success, however, and John A. Macdonald introduced to the legislature An Act for the Gradual Civilization of the Indian Tribes as a means of accelerating that process. The Act spelled out the requirements for extending British citizenship to Indians. Successful applicants had to be male, 21 years of age, literate in English or French, with some education, no debts, and a good moral character. As an incentive to achieve these requirements, the Act stipulated that a successful applicant would receive 20 hectares of reserve land in freehold tenure, i.e. individual title. The drawback of the Act was that the applicant had to surrender his Indian status, and the land grant was carved out of the communally held land set aside for his people. Although the government assumed that enfranchisement and free land would be highly desirable to Natives, the recipients of these efforts saw the Act as an attempt to undermine their communal way of life and traditional values. The Gradual Civilization Act was a miserable failure. Only one man, Elias Hill, sought enfranchisement and even he was denied the requisite land grant when his band refused to allow the expropriation of their land.
In 1857, when constitutional responsibility for Indian affairs effectively passed from London to the local legislature, the province of Canada provided almost a textbook example of this phenomenon. The first thing the local government did was to pass a statute known as An Act for the Gradual Civilization of the Indian Tribes in Canada. Through the legislation, the parent of all subsequent Indian Acts in the future Dominion of Canada, the local government asserted the power to assimilate the Aboriginal population through political, economic, and social means. Essentially, the Act created a procedure through which a Registered Indian could apply to become a citizen. If a man could prove, among other things, that he was free of debt, could read and write English (or French), and was "of good moral character," he could be given a piece of land suitable for family farming.
After a year of proving he was capable of living as a "White" man, he would be considered "civilized" and granted ownership of his parcel of land and the vote as a full citizen in a process known as "enfranchisement." The ownership of land as private property was the key to becoming an enfranchised citizen, that is, a person with the capacity to vote, hold public office and enter into binding contracts. This legal capacity to possess land in freehold tenure was denied to Registered Indians, who were, at that time, considered wards of the state under the trusteeship of the Crown. Their legal status was thus akin to that of minors, women, or mental incompetents. This approach to the enfranchisement of Indian people was calculated to entice them to sever their ties with their home communities and to enter the capitalistic individualism of the marketplace.
Indian people actively protested and resisted the Gradual Civilization Act, which, in their eyes, ominously implied the transfer of constitutional responsibility for Indian affairs from the imperial government to the government of the province of Canada. At the core of this protest was a major assembly that gathered at the Onondaga Council House on the Six Nations reserve in southern Ontario in the early autumn of 1858. Iroquois delegations attended from Kahnawake, Akwesasne, the Oneida reserve, and the Mohawk reserve in the Bay of Quinte. Among the Anishinabek communities represented were Walpole Island, Rice Lake, and Alnwick.
The delegates implored the imperial government not to hand Aboriginal peoples over to the authority of a local legislature dominated by railway interests and land speculators. The new regime, they asserted, would "blast their dearest hopes as a race." The legislation was designed to "break them to pieces." It would make the White wampums of good treaty relations "black" with the odium of broken promises. Through its spokesperson, John Smoke Johnson, the council declared their "unanimous" rejection of the decision to subjugate their nations under the power of the local legislature and its enfranchisement legislation.
The sharp lines of distinction that the state was now attempting to draw between citizens and Indians became the subject of an especially determined critic named Nah-nee-ba-we-quay, a woman whose English name was Mrs. Catherine Sutton. This Mississauga woman from the Credit Indian mission near Toronto had married a Methodist clergyman. Together, the two of them had built up a family farm in the Owen Sound area, which had been ceded to the Crown in a dubious treaty negotiation in 1858. Then Nah-nee-ba-we-quay found herself legally blocked from purchasing her farm back again. In her campaign, she sought allies among Quaker activists on both sides of the Atlantic. Her protest was also assisted by members of the Aborigines' Protection Society, a coalition of evangelical Christians who acted as a sort of lobby group defending what they believed to be the interests of Aboriginal peoples throughout the British Empire.
Nah-nee-ba-we-quay eventually received an audience with Queen Victoria, and the issue was covered widely in the newspapers of Canada and Great Britain. Her grievances anticipated many of the issues that the Native Women's Association would carry forward in the 1980s and 1990s. Nah-nee-ba-we-quay pointed out that because individual Indians were excluded from Canadian citizenship, there was no basis upon which to recognize their rights. The small amount of discretionary power left to First Nations was concentrated in the hands of a few chiefs, all males, who were subject to all manner of bribery and intimidation to gain their sanction for the ceding of the remaining Indian lands.
Nah-nee-ba-we-quay's well-honed argument was that because reserve land was held by tribal tenure, individual members were vulnerable. If the chief could be persuaded to sell reserve land, the individual members had no redress. She further argued that since Registered Indians were treated in law as minors, they had no legal powers of action and were subject to disabilities that applied to no other class of persons.
When the Prince of Wales visited the province of Canada in 1860, Nah-nee-ba-we-quay attempted to take her grievances directly to him. However, the actions of both Indian Department officials and a delegation of chiefs who, for different reasons, were resentful of her message denied her this meeting. The leader of the chiefs' delegation was David Wawanosh. His group maintained that the major issues to be raised with the heir to the British throne were the encroachment on Indian fishing rights, the need for firm legal protections for unceded Indian lands, and allegations of theft concerning Indian monies held in trust by officials of the local Indian Department. The Indian Department intervened to deny both Nah-nee-ba-we-quay and the Wawanosh group access to the Prince of Wales, claiming that these matters were the responsibility of the colonial legislature. The department asserted that the recently established principle of responsible government had to be protected.