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Canadian governments made it their responsibility to “define” Aboriginal Peoples. Complex ways to “define” Indians developed over the century and were basically intended to narrow the number of Indians.

The 1850 Statute for Lower Canada first defined “Indian” as all persons of Indian blood, as well as persons intermarried with Indians and all children of mixed marriages residing among Indians.

Next came the Indian Act definitions. The original Indian Act did not define who was an “Indian,” but assumed that government jurisdiction extended to all those individuals who were considered to be “members of a band of Indians.”

Changes to the Indian Act in 1869 allowed bands to enfranchise Indian women who married outside the band. That created a process for defining “Indian” and legitimacy through descent of the male line. The 1871 scrip process, a one-time payment of money or land in exchange for Aboriginal rights, saw the Métis Nation being “enfranchised,” that is dropped, from the Indian Act. Marriage to a person not entitled to be listed as a “member of a band of Indians” under the Indian Act automatically excluded generations of Aboriginal women and their children from Indian status. This was corrected by amending the Indian Act in 1987. To date, some 150,000 women and children have been admitted to the Indian Register.

Subsequent Indian Acts further constrained who could be considered a “member of a band.” The current Indian Act system, with the “Indian Register” and cards as proof of “Indian Status,” was introduced in 1951.

Until the Indian Register was adopted, it was largely a matter of interpretation who was accepted by the Indian agency on to a band list. Before 1951, the Indian Act actually confused the terms for “Treaty” and “Non-Treaty” Indian.

In parts of Canada where there was no treaty making, the distinction between status and non-status Indians has always been clear. But in areas where there are treaties great confusion has arisen because the communities tend to equate treaty Indian with Indian status under the Indian Act. In fact, there is no requirement for a status Indian to be a treaty Indian, or for a treaty Indian to hold Indian status.