The Reserve

The reserve: a place for deculturation with the aim of assimilation

From its inception, the reserve system would be used for the dispossession of Amerindian culture. This would seriously affect community cohesion. The gradual occupation of Canada by immigrants, with or without a treaty, would persist for nearly 400 years and would reduce Aboriginals to the rank of a small minority within an industrialized nation.

Indian status was considered a transitional state that protected Amerindians until they could be set up on lands and acquire European farming skills. Reserves were therefore set aside for the exclusive use of registered Amerindians, meaning those who were recognized as such by the Indian Act. Only the latter could “own” land on as reserve.

The old world vanished and the new one heralded nothing positive in light of brutal changes. With the advent of colonisation, Amerindians and Métis would experience greater and greater hardships in trying to maintain their lifestyle and customs. In some cases, bands who concluded treaties lost any authority they had within their reserve lands; in other cases, the reserve lands that were promised to them by the treaties were either unclaimed or not granted.

The Aboriginals, many of whom were nomads, often found themselves isolated on reserves with insufficient wildlife, no money, jobs, or proper access to the natural resources that would allow them to subsist. As for the Amerindians, Inuits and Métis who had not signed treaties or taken possession of reserve land and found themselves surrounded or invaded by farming, industry, cities and “foreign” institutions, the radical transformation of almost every aspect of their lives and ancestral land was every bit as traumatizing as the plight of Aboriginals who had signed treaties.

For the government of Canada, who created the specialized Department of Indian Affairs, it was a simple case of assimilating the Amerindians and turning them into ordinary Canadian citizens, leading them through the passage from assisted minority to full citizenship.

A proposal by Duncan Campbell Scott, Head of the Department of Indian Affairs (1913-1932), clearly illustrates this will: “[…]to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department […]”.

From 1885, the year of the Métis uprising led by Louis Riel in Western Canada, until 1960, the forced guardianship of Amerindians was absolute:

  • Control of every aspects of Indian life on reserves by the Ministry’s agents (drafting of wills, commerce, distribution of food aid, supervised application of all administrative regulations);
  • A ban on pow-pows, ritual dances, wearing traditional costumes, any kind or traditional ceremony that would encourage a symbolic sense of belonging and cooperation among community members, with the aim of eliminating any vestige of former tribal life;
  • Forced implementation of a modern election system to replace the traditional method of electing band chiefs;
  • Restricted movement off reverses using a pass system;
  • Application of various provincial laws on the reserves including the regulating or banning of hunting and gathering, rights that were moreover guaranteed by ancestral treaties, with the aim of destroying traditional lifestyle;
  • Administrative withdrawal of Indian Status from Amerindians, usually against their will, forcing them to abandon their Indian status to become “Whites”, notably after completion of secondary school studies.
  • Expropriation of some reserve lands by companies or municipalities for the construction of roads, railroads and for various public or commercial needs, mainly during the First World War to satisfy the requirements of war production;
  • Intimidation and police repression of any form of organized politics by Amerindians such as the League of Indians;
  • Banning the right to vote during federal and provincial elections, except for veterans of the First World War;
  • Intensifying the application of regulations, which will result in inequalities for all, including the former Aboriginal soldiers who were recruited in huge numbers by the Canadian Army, more than any other segment of the population;
  • Compulsory registration of children in schools and boarding schools generally located outside of the reserve, and this until adolescence.

In 1987, Amerindians retained 2.6 million acres of reserve land, meaning an average of less than 7 acres per inhabitant, well below the criteria established by the treaties. Fortunately, recent agreements signed under the Land Claims Settlement Act have resulted in a substantial increase of the surface area under Amerindian authority.

Like all Canadians, First Nations members are as adept at living in cities as they are in Amerindian reserves. Only 47% of Amerindians now live on reserves (in Quebec, this figure is up to 65%).

Diverse realities :


A “reserve” is a portion of land where Amerindians live and carry out their daily lives. Today, there are 2,793 Amerindian reserves. This represents less than 1 % of the total surface area of Canada, the majority of which was under Aboriginal control before colonisation!

The Amerindian population continues to increase. In 2007, it reached one million members. Given this expanding population over a territory with its dimensions unchanged, steps have been taken to increase population density per acre on a national basis.

In the North-West Territories and Yukon, where few reserves were created, bands were reunited into communities known as settlements, on land generally retained by the Crown for their benefit, but that didn’t have reserve status. The Inuits of The Great North do not live in reserves but in northern villages headed by mayors and elected officials.

Reserves are found in most regions of southern Canada, but about 64% of the Amerindian population live on reserves located in areas considered “rural” or “remote”. The Indian Act stipulates that only registered Indians can permanently reside on a reserve. But some exceptions exist.

Some reserves are small remote collectives like the ones located in northern Canada. We also find First Nations communities within cities such as Capilano, north of Vancouver, or in Kahnawake, near Montreal. A reserve like Six Nations, in Ontario, has more than 8,000 residents while on other reserves only a dozen or so people may be counted. In addition, some collectives have few resources while others are very wealthy.

The conquest and the creation of reserves:

Unlike what happened elsewhere in the Americas, the conquest of Canadian territory unfolded almost peacefully. The only historical blight was the extinction of Newfoundland’s Beothuks by the spread of new diseases brought over by recent settlers.

It was through established alliances and signed treaties that Aboriginals came to relinquish their land to the European settlers. In the United States, the American term for designating territory reserved for Aboriginals is Indian reservation, while the English term in Canada is generally Indian reserve or native reserve.

Born of the same idea, reserves in Canada and the United States would nevertheless develop in very different ways. Even the origin of reserves within Canada remains poorly understood to this day.

The beginnings

Segregation on reserves seems to have begun in 1636, in Sillery, near Quebec. Land was set aside by the British Crown in accordance with numbered treaties or special agreements made with individual bands in the Maritimes, Lower Canada and Upper Canada (band designates a collectivity).

With the creation of the Canadian Confederation, the notion of “lands reserved for the Indians” was recognized by the Constitution. Incessant colonial development would reduce the role of Aboriginals, who witnessed both their land and culture being threatened.

How a reserve functions

In Amerindian reserves, band councils are responsible for the administration of community services, including health and education. They also have a political function by representing the interests of the community before the federal and provincial governments and by negotiating agreements concerning their rights. These councils are composed of a chief and council members

The reserve: a territory belonging exclusively to the Crown

Though many Amerindians believed that the reserves belonged to them by law, the Indian Act stipulated that the reserve title belonged to the Crown. This same law forbade the “transfer” and sale of reserve lands by an Amerindian or a band to any party except the Crown.

Amerindians occupying individual lots on a reserve could not obtain a property deed or ordinary title, but could obtain certificates conferring a certain degree of protection against claims made by others. This Certificate or “location ticket” could only be transferred between members of a same band. Unassigned reserve lots were considered the common property of the band.

The Amerindians were consequently deprived of land ownership rights. On top of this, reserve goods could not be seized, making it impossible for them to borrow money since they were prohibited from mortgaging any tangible assets.

Poverty on the reserves

Social conditions on most of the reserves reflect the historical and political neglect shown by Canada towards the people of Amerindian descent. For example, only one third of the reserved territory was set aside for agriculture and a sixth for raising livestock.

Canada’s reserves became ripe for the worst conditions related to health, housing and social and medical services, in comparison to the rest of the country. Even today, the remoteness and isolation of most reserves contributes to the high rate of unemployment among Amerindians. Unemployment affects about 25% of the working-age population, and reaches much higher rates in remote reserves where the traditional economies have been eroded. Among the numbers of Amerindians who hold down a job, 75 % work on reserves.

Still, a sense of attachment

In spite of the deplorable conditions that prevail, for many Amerindians reserves are the only tangible evidence that they were once the Nation’s first people. The Oka crisis, in 1990, would attest to the fact.

These reserves foster Indian identity and allow for the practice, or rebirth of spiritual beliefs as well as the existence of common values and dialects. Through their way of life, traditional values and family ties, these communities help to shape Amerindian identity and ensure their well-being.

In spite of the existing hardships, for many Amerindians the reserve is both a spiritual and physical home. Reserve advocates estimate that without these lands set aside, Amerindians would be forced to assimilate into Canadian society and many of their current concerns would no longer be heard.

Overcrowding is a minimal concern on some reserves but one feeling among Amerindians that still prevails to this day is: that the law was imposed upon them and the original injustice done to them by the White Man must be repaired by, among other means, satisfying land claims and assuaging poverty.