3 The Indian Act, Residential Schools, and the White Paper

Learning Objectives

  • Explain the justification for the White Paper.
  • Identify why the Indian Act was enacted.
  • Consider why Indigenous people opposed the White Paper.

Government-funded residential schools opened in the 1880s and operated until 1996. In this system, Indigenous children across Canada were removed from their parents and taught in Christian-run schools. Residential schools operated in various forms before the Indian Act (1876) came into effect. This is because education provisions in treaties were negotiated so that Indigenous youth could “learn the skills of the newcomer society and help them make a successful transition to a world dominated by the strangers” (Miller, 2020). After the passage of the Indian Act, the goals of government-mandated Indigenous education changed. They became about not just learning the tools to succeed in a modern world, but also the assimilation of Indigenous people into Euro-Canadian culture.

To achieve this goal, Indigenous youth were separated from their parents, transported to remote locations, given a “white man’s name,” and forbidden to speak their native language. They also attended Anglican or Catholic church services (depending on the denomination of the group running the school). The lasting effects of this policy are the destruction of language, culture, senses of group identity, and a discontinuity in tradition that compounded later difficulties in proving claims to Aboriginal title in land (Hanson, Gamez, & Manuel, 2020).

The Indian Act, passed in 1876, unilaterally set out the rules for bands to operate their treaty-created reserves. It also defined who an “Indian” is — a legal definition that has ever caused controversy for the Metis and Inuit.[1] This was also why the federal government chose to consolidate all its laws regarding the Crown’s relationship with Indigenous Peoples into one act. Government decision-makers saw this as necessary due to the hodgepodge of different laws that affected the government’s relationship with Indigenous Peoples (Henderson, 2020). Numerous laws had been passed providing inconsistent policies for different Indigenous groups since the Royal Proclamation of 1763 had become law. However, the Indian Act also had the effect of imposing on Indigenous communities a set of legal procedures that they were to govern themselves with, rather than relying on the individual communities to use their own developed decision-making procedures.

In 1969, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and Minister of Indian Affairs (and future prime minister) Jean Chrétien introduced the White Paper. “White paper” is a term used for an in-depth research document about a specific topic. In this case, the 1969 White Paper was a document introducing numerous recommendations to the federal government about changing its relationship with Indigenous Peoples. The name “White Paper” was ironically noted by Indigenous leadership, as the input of Indigenous people was ignored in its creation.

The policy goal was to eliminate the separate legal status of Indigenous people from Canadian law as a means to achieve Pierre Trudeau’s vision of a “Just Society” (Indigenous Foundations, n.d.). Part of his Just Society ideology was that all Canadians — French, English, Indigenous, and everyone else — would be equal under the law. Jean Chrétien made numerous recommendations to achieve this policy goal: the Indian Act would be eliminated, reserve land would become private property, the Department of Indian Affairs would be abolished, and a commissioner would be appointed to resolve land claims and terminate existing treaties.

These recommendations were dramatic. The Indian Act is legislation that has numerous flaws, including imposing Canadian law unilaterally on Indigenous groups. Still, it at the very least acknowledged the special status of Indigenous Peoples due to their living on the continent first. The White Paper sought to remove that privilege as a means to equalize the status of all Canadians.

The White Paper never became law due to the backlash against it. One of the lasting effects of the White Paper was the formation of Indigenous political groups, including the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs (Indigenous Foundations, 2009b).

  1. Note that “Indian” is the term used in foundational Canadian documents and is a legal term that remains in use to this day. This is no longer an acceptable form of address outside the strict legal usage.


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Indigenous Perspectives on Business Ethics and Business Law in British Columbia Copyright © 2022 by Annette Sorensen and Scott van Dyk is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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