Virtual Help icon Virtual Help

  • Chat with library staff now
  • Contact your library
Skip to Main Content

Discover: The Indian Act (Sub-Module 1 of 8 of Discover Module)

The Indian Act, passed by the federal government in 1876 and still in force today, is the most significant piece of legislation impacting First Nations. The Act is just one of the methods the government used to assimilate First Nations. 

Note: The term Indian is an outdated term and is no longer appropriate to use today. The term is used in this section when referring to the Indian Act and its terms, and when quoting an Indigenous person who has chosen to use this term.


The Indian Act

Video: The Indian Act Explained

Since 1876, the Indian Act has structured the relationship between Canada and Indigenous Peoples with profound repercussions. And though the act is well known, its detailed contents may not be.

The Indian Act, which was passed by the federal government of the new Dominion of Canada in 1876 and is still in place today, is the most important law for First Nations. The Indian Act was another attempt by the Crown to assimilate First Nations people with the rest of Canadian society. This legal document sets the rules for Indian status, reserves, and bands (Wilson and Hodgson). 

Source: Pulling Together: Foundations Guide (Kory Wilson and Colleen Hodgson | Métis Nation British Columbia, CC BY-NC) 

Learn more

The Indian Act & Indian Status

"Status Indians" are individuals who are registered under the Indian Act. As an individual with "Indian status", they get specific benefits and rights, and can be eligible for certain services and programs offered by the Canadian government or other non-government groups (Government of Canada). Under the Indian Act, only First Nations (and not Inuit and Métis) peoples may have Indian status.

Sources: About Indian status (Government of Canada)

Learn more

The Indian Act & Women's Rights

"I have a vision that one day I would be free again. Free to be myself, to be an Indian. I lost that freedom 45 years ago. It was divested by a law. I had a vision that the free fathers of the great citadel for democracy and freedom, a land of 23 million, who form a mosaic of people and cultures known as Canada, would erase forever the diabolical words that have been in conflict with a philosophy that each of you hold dear as Canadians, that each of the people in this great country be free. Please search your hearts and minds, follow the dictates of your conscience. Set my sisters free. " - Mary Two-Axe Earley at 1983 constitutional conference (from Mary Two-Axe Earley: I Am Indian Again)

Since the Indian Act was passed in 1867, it has had considerable impact on Indigenous communities, way of life, and government. The Act's gender discrimination had a huge impact on First Nations women. Until 1985, women with Indian status who married people without status lost their status rights whereas men did not lose their status the same way. The Act discriminated against women by giving priority to male lineage even after Bill C-31 restored many women's status rights in 1985. Amendments from 2011 and 2017 attempted to address these problems. The remainder of Bill S-3, which aims to eliminate persisting sex-based inequities in the Indian Act, was implemented by the federal government in 2019 (The Canadian Encyclopedia).

Source: Women and the Indian Act (Canadian Encyclopedia)

Video: Mary Two-Axe Earley

This video describes Mary Two-Axe Earley’s fight against sex discrimination in the Indian Act. Her 20+ years of advocacy eventually led to the Canadian Government revising the definition of status for women through Bill C-31 in 1985.

Ongoing Impact of the Indian Act

The Indian Act is still in effect today and continues to affect Indigenous Peoples. Impacts of the Indian Act include:  

  • Indian Status. The Act determines who will and who will not be granted Indian Status. This creates status and non-status Indians.
  • Residential School. First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people went through a lot of pain and suffering because of residential schools, and the effects are still being felt by many families and communities today.
  • Reserve System. The Indian Act established the reservation system, which for some First Nations meant the end of their traditional lands and ways of life and set the stage for the government's attempt to strip them of their cultural and racial heritage.
  • Culture. The ban on Indigenous culture and traditions, such as the potlatch ban, prevented oral history and values to be passed down to future generations.
  • Spiritual Beliefs. One factor which may have led to the decline of Indigenous cultures is the government ban of spiritual practices and ceremonies.
  • Language. From the 1880s to early 1960s, Indigenous students were forbidden from speaking their home language. "In oral societies, when the words are gone, so are the histories, the value systems, the spiritual, ecological knowledge, the worldviews, the stories and the songs. It is an irreplaceable loss. The loss of a language severs the connection between a people and their culture."
  • Women. Indigenous women and their children have experienced years of prejudice since the Indian Act was first passed in 1867. Despite modifications, the policies within the Act still treat Indigenous women as unequal to men. For example, women who have Indian status will not be able to retain this status if they marry an individual who is not Indigenous or doesn't have Indian status.. (Bob Joseph)

Source: 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act (Bob Joseph)