The Indian Act

The Inuit situation

The Inuits, who constitute a distinct Amerindian culture, were also assimilated along with the Indians in 1939, under the Canadian Constitution in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling. This decision required the federal government to assume responsibility for the “Inuits and the Inuit reserved land”. But nevertheless, the Inuits would be specifically excluded from the application of the Indian Act.

The Indian Act and the origin of a different and inferior status

In the original Indian Act, Amerindians were established as minors, second class citizens the State needed to care for. This discriminatory law based on racial and administrative criteria was unique in the colonial world because it imposed a control over the daily lives of Indian peoples that was unprecedented anywhere else.

Among other things, this law of social exclusion restricted the movement of Amerindians off reserve. It also allowed the Canadian government to restrict or deny voting rights to Inuits, until 1950, and to Amerindians, until 1960.

Until the 1960s, agents from the Department of Indian Affairs, who were present in each of the reserves, exercised absolute power, regulating almost every aspect of the daily lives of the Aboriginal people, from birth to death, from the creation of a band to the handover of reserves.

This left Indians with only two options: permanent guardianship or assimilation. Retaining their collective identity amounted to the acceptance of guardianship and living on the reserve. The Indian Act became a genuinely paternalistic process that inexorably led to the loss of autonomy and the government dependence of First Nations.


From 1868 to 1951, the implementation of the Indian Act resulted in the forced imposition of western religious and cultural values with the admitted aim of “civilising” and “assimilating” Amerindians, considered “savages”.

Christian boarding schools played a major role is this mission to civilize and assimilate. Canadian law required Aboriginal parents, under threat of prosecution, to send their children to these institutions that banned the use of their languages and the practice of Aboriginal traditions and customs. Children who refused to obey were punished, often physically.