Assimilation is the practice of forcing an individual to stop being who he or she is and to become someone else. This is a process that develops over time. Government legislation can promote the assimilation process. Often it is legislation that claims to be “humanitarian.” But, despite claims that equality and the Aboriginal Peoples best interests are the goal, in reality the tools of assimilation have ripped a peoples’ spirit apart.
The first legislation for Indians in Canada came about in 1850, prompted by pressure from European settlers. From then on, two opposing purposes were at work:
- Protection of Aboriginals and their land.
- The assimilation of Aboriginals.
In 1850 two acts for Indians existed, one in Upper Canada and one in Lower Canada. The 1850 Statute for Lower Canada brought the first legal definition of “Indian”. The definition included:
- all persons of Indian blood;
- all persons intermarried with any such Indians residing among them;
- all children of mixed marriages residing among Indians; and
- persons adopted in infancy by any such Indians.
In 1870 another act increased assimilation. The Act to Encourage the Gradual Civilization of the Indian Tribes in the Province and to Amend the Laws Respecting Indians set up a procedure for male Indians to “enfranchise.” In this case the word meant to renounce Indian status and become like other citizens of the province – “if they were found to deserve such encouragement.” Inducements offered were land and/or a lump sum payment of share of monies from treaties and band funds.
The assimilation process began with the erosion of Aboriginal Peoples self-reliance through loss of the land. Next the physical power and health of the people were sapped through disease, alcohol and starvation. The introduction of European religions and social stereotyping further undermined the Aboriginal spirit. In the education system their intellectual capacity was attacked. Once the people were weakened, the Aboriginal leaders and governing institutions were ignored and isolated.
Changes to the Indian Act in 1869 allowed bands to “enfranchise” (drop from the band list) Indian women who married non-native men. That created a process for defining “Indian.” and legitimacy through descent, of the male line only. The Battle of Batoche and the scrip process (payment in exchange for Aboriginal rights) was a direct attack on the Métis Nation.
In 1927, another new restriction involved a response to the Nishga Indians’ pursuit of a land claim. The government passed an amendment forbidding anyone from raising money among Indians for the purpose of pursuing any claim “without the consent of the Superintendent General of Indian Affairs expressed in writing.” This was the beginning of the process that resulted in Métis people being defined as The Forgotten People of Canada.
The concept of “enfranchisement” was a key provision of the government’s policy for the total assimilation of the Indian population. Few Indians opted to become enfranchised, however. An 1880 amendment declared that any Indian obtaining a university degree would automatically be enfranchised. A 1933 amendment enforced enfranchisement even further, empowering the government to order the enfranchisement of Indians meeting the qualifications set out in the act, even without the request of the individuals concerned.
Another outstanding example of how government sought to keep the Indians in a state of wardship, regulating all aspects of existence on and off the reserve, was the amendment of 1884. It banned the celebration of the potlatch on the grounds that it was a corrupt and destructive ceremony. This ban was not dropped until 1951 and resulted in many Indians going to jail. In fact, the potlatch was the social and cultural heart of the Pacific Coast Indians.
It wasn’t until 1982 that the Métis were once again recognized as an Aboriginal People of Canada. However, the damage was done. Laws promoting assimilation legalized a process of dividing and conquering the Aboriginal Peoples. And they still face that large hurdle in modern times.