The nature of the fascist enemy faced by Allied forces in the Second World War necessitated some change in Native policy. Certainly an effort had to be made to exorcise from Canadian Indian policy those elements that seemed rooted in ideological soil similar to that which had given sustenance and growth to Nazism. In particular, clear problems were entailed in calling on Native soldiers to fight the Third Reich and its allies in the name of freedom, then subjecting those same individuals to the dictatorial domination of the Indian Department once they returned to their reserves.

Photo of Native Delegation, Ottawa, ON, Feb. 1951.

Native Delegation, Ottawa, ON, Feb. 1951.

These representatives of Canada's Native peoples met to discuss the provisions of the proposed Indian Bill as well as the consolidation and clarification of aspects of the Indian Act.
NAC (PA-184376, image by Gar Lunney).

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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1958 - (31 January) Appointment of James Gladstone to the Senate

Before becoming prime minister, Conservative leader John Diefenbaker frequently spoke of the need to address the absence of Native political representation in a nation where the vast majority of the Native population could not vote. When the Conservative Party formed the government in 1957, Diefenbaker had the opportunity to do something about the problem. On 31 January 1958, Diefenbaker appointed James Gladstone, a Blood Indian from Alberta, to the Senate, making him the first Native senator. Gladstone, seen by Diefenbaker as someone who could give the Native peoples of Canada an official voice at the national level, was a good choice for the post. Gladstone had long been active in Native organizations at the reserve and provincial level, had served as the president of the Alberta Indian Association, and had been sent to Ottawa three times as a delegate to discuss Indian problems and grievances. Gladstone had also contributed to the 1947 Joint Committee of the Senate and House of Commons studying the Indian Act. In these roles, Gladstone took up the cause of better education for Indians and opposed the residential school system in favour of integration in order to help reduce Indian marginalization. He was also a vocal advocate of treaty rights and of the need to encourage Native participation in and control of their own administration. Gladstone was a staunch supporter of the Conservative Party, although, like other Status Indians, he did not receive full voting rights until 1960. Gladstone took seriously Diefenbaker's vision of his role as national spokesmen for all Indians, and he travelled widely to visit and become acquainted with the situation of Indians across Canada. Gladstone also used his office to address issues relevant to his constituency. In his first speech in the Senate, he broke parliamentary practice by speaking in Blackfoot rather than in one of the country's two "official" languages. He did so in order that a language of the nation's first peoples would be placed in the official records of governance.

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The government's first response was to give Indian war veterans the right to vote in Canadian elections as recognition for their services. Then the government turned to the process of overhauling the Indian Act. Aboriginal representatives were invited to make submissions to the committees that were preparing the revisions. After a few false starts, the Act was finally amended in 1951 to remove some of its most overtly oppressive provisions. These clauses included the prohibitions on Indian dancing and the potlatch as well as the prohibition on raising money from Registered Indians to advance any Indian claim.

One of the contributors to the parliamentary hearings that led up to the Indian Act amendments of 1951 was an adopted Blood Indian of Cree and Irish ancestry named James Gladstone. When John Diefenbaker became prime minister in 1957, he appointed Gladstone to the Senate, making him the federal government's first Aboriginal parliamentarian. This appointment was meant to signal Diefenbaker's intentions to entrench a Bill of Rights and to extend the federal franchise to Registered Indians. When Canada's election laws were changed to include Indians, some First Nations people (including Albert Lightning of Alberta) objected. They feared that enfranchisement would mean the end to their special status as Indians. The Six Nations provided one of the main bastions for those who remained convinced that their citizenship was vested in the sovereign jurisdiction of their own Aboriginal nations and that the Canadian vote did not apply to them. Looking back over several generations when Indian "enfranchisement" meant being taken off the dominion government's registry of Status Indians, the conservatives among the First Nations held to their traditional position that they were allies of the Crown, not subjects of Canadian law.

Written By

Anthony J. Hall
Professor of Globalization Studies
University of Lethbridge


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