150 Years of Impact – The Indian Act

The Indian Act, enacted by the Canadian federal government in 1876, was designed to assimilate Indigenous peoples into Canadian society. Throughout its history, this legislation has exercised significant influence over Indigenous identity, political structures, governance, cultural practices, and education. It was through amendments to the Indian Act, that is became mandatory for every First Nation child between the ages of 7 and 16 years old to attend an Indian Residential School or Indian Day School.  

Before the Indian Act was created, there were many other legislative laws that shaped its development.  The first Indian department was created in 1755 by the British to manage affairs between the colonial government and Indigenous people. After the Confederation of Canada in 1867, the British transferred this responsibility to the Canadian government. 

The Bagot Report of 1844, advocated for centralized control over Indigenous affairs; the report promoted the separation of Indigenous children from their families as a means of assimilation into Euro-Canadian culture. Additionally, it endorsed institutions like the Mohawk Institute Mechanic School (established in 1828) as a model for residential schools across the nation.  

The  Gradual Civilization Act of 1857 furthered this by encouraging enfranchisement of Indians, offering benefits such as land allotments to educated Indigenous individuals deemed morally upright. Enfranchisement, synonymous with the loss of status rights, was aimed to assimilate Indigenous peoples while reducing the financial burden on the federal government. 

With the British North American Act of 1867 granting exclusive jurisdiction over “Indians and the lands reserved for Indians” to the federal government, the groundwork was laid for the consolidation of regulations into the Indian Act a few years later.  

For nearly 150 years, this Indian Act has profoundly shaped the experiences of Indigenous peoples in Canada introducing a complex and often regulatory set of laws that have impacted virtually every aspect of Indigenous life and culture. Below, you’ll find a high-level timeline providing an overview of key moments and amendments throughout its history. 

Indian Act Timeline (please note not all amendments to the Indian Act are listed below):

1869: The Indian Act is created. Any existing Indigenous self-government structures are extinguished, replacing traditional Hereditary Chiefs structures of governance with band council elections.  

1880: Indigenous farmers need permits to sell or buy goods, making it harder for them to run their farms. They must also have a permit to buy groceries and clothes off-reserve. 

1884: Amendments to the Indian Act introduce the system of residential schools, which were government-sponsored, and church-run institutions designed to assimilate Indigenous children into Euro-Canadian culture. 

1885: Indigenous ceremonies such as potlatch, ghost dance and sun dance are banned, and a pass system is set up to restrict Indigenous peoples from leaving their reserve without permission.  

1918: The government can take land from Indigenous communities without consent, breaking promises made in several treaties. They could also lease out land to settlers without the band’s agreement. 

1920: Amendments to the Indian Act made it mandatory for every First Nation child between the ages of 7 and 16 years old to attend an Indian Residential School or Indian Day School.  

1951: Amendments to the Indian Act remove certain prohibitions on Indigenous cultural practices, such as the potlatch and sun dance ceremonies.  

1960-1961: The Indian Act is amended to grant Indigenous peoples the right to vote in federal elections without losing their “Indian” status. Compulsory enfranchisement is removed. 

1969-1970: The government proposes the White Paper Act ,a policy document that aims to eliminate the Indian Act and dissolve all treaties between the Canadian Government and Indigenous peoples. One year later, the White Paper is withdrawn due to a widespread opposition from Indigenous communities across Canada.  

1985:  Bill C-31 was passed, amending the Indian Act to address gender-based discrimination, allowing Indigenous women who married non-Indigenous men to retain their status and pass it on to their children.  

2000: Further amendments to the Indian Act focus on governance and accountability, granting First Nations communities’ greater control over their own affairs. 

2019: Bill S-3, an amendment to the Indian Act, comes into force, eliminating remaining gender-based discrimination in the Act and restoring status to individuals and their descendants who were previously excluded. 


Despite numerous amendments, the Indian Act remains largely unchanged from its original framework. Efforts to reform or repeal aspects of the Act have been met with challenges, reflecting the ongoing complexities of Canadian Indigenous relations. 

Amnesty International, and the United Nations have criticized the Indian Act as a violation of Indigenous rights. They argue that the Canadian government should not have the power to take away Indigenous rights, as it did in the past through enfranchisement until 1985 and still does through Indian status limitations. 

Despite controversy, the Indian Act is legally significant for Indigenous peoples of Canada. It acknowledges the historical and legal relationship between both parties. For this reason, efforts to terminate the Indian Act, such as the White Paper Act have been met with widespread resistance.  

“We do not want the Indian Act retained because it is a good piece of legislation. It isn’t. It is discriminatory from start to finish. But it is a lever in our hands and an embarrassment to the government, as it should be. No just society and no society with even pretensions to being just can long tolerate such a piece of legislation, but we would rather continue to live in bondage under the inequitable Indian Act than surrender our sacred rights. Any time the government wants to honour its obligations to us we are more than happy to help devise new Indian legislation.” - Harold Cardinal, Cree Writer & Lawyer, 1969

The complex and controversial nature of the Indian Act has sparked ongoing criticism and debate highlighting continued challenges for Indigenous self-determination, human rights and respect. Understanding the history and effects of the Indian Act is crucial for creating a fair and inclusive society.  

By recognizing its impact and role in shaping Indigenous people’s experience and advocating for positive change, we can work towards supporting Indigenous self-determination and strengthen relationships of Indigenous and Non-Indigenous peoples based on mutual understanding, respect and collaboration.