The Indian Act (1876-to Present) is the piece of legislation that not only defines the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the Settler Canadian government but also serves to regulate the membership of indigenous communities and access to reserve lands and services by dividing indigenous people into status and non status Indians. The Act, which was designed with the twin goals of controlling and assimilating Indigenous peoples into the Canadian body politic, did so by slowly bleeding indigenous communities of women and their children. This was done in part by imposing patriarchal understandings of family and inheritance on indigenous societies and sidelining traditional governing structures in favour of Bands and Band Councils (which banned women’s participation until 1951 when the Indian Act was amended).
How The Government Decided Who and Who Was Not An ‘Indian’
To qualify as a ‘Status Indian’ under the act you needed to be a man who was believed to have indigenous lineage and belong to a Band, the child of a ‘Status Indian’ or married to a ‘Status Indian’. Under the Indian Act women became entirely dependent of their fathers and husbands for their Status as well as their band membership and made heterosexuality mandatory. If a woman married a man who had ‘Status’ and was a member of a different band she and her decedents would then become members of the husband’s band. If a woman married a ‘Non Status’ indigenous man or a non-indigenous man she and all of her decedents lost their ‘Status’ in perpetuity. A startling number of women and their children were struck off the register and were denied access to their communities and their cultures through these provisions of the Act. Later amendments saw women who had married men belonging to different bands being forcibly enfranchised if they were widowed or abandoned by their spouse. As a woman’s status was intrinsically tied to her husband’s status a severing of that relationship left women without access to their adopted bands and reserves and without the legal standing to rejoin their birth community.