According to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, there are more than 370 million indigenous people spread across 70 countries worldwide. Practicing unique traditions, they retain social, cultural, economic, and political characteristics that are distinct from those of the dominant societies in which they live. The common definition of indigenous peoples refers to groups who inhabited a country or a geographical region at the time when people of different cultures or ethnic origins arrived. Historically, the Canadian government has attempted to control Aboriginal populations through laws and policies aimed at assimilation. There is also evidence that Aboriginal people were disproportionately targeted for eugenic sterilization in Alberta and British Columbia between 1928 and 1972.
In Canada, “Aboriginal Peoples” is the collective term used for all of the original peoples and their descendants. Section 35 of the Constitution Act of 1982 specifies that the Aboriginal Peoples in Canada consist of three groups – Indian (First Nations), Inuit, and Métis.
The Indian Act is a Canadian federal law that governs in matters pertaining to Indian status, bands, and Indian reserves. Throughout history, it has been considered highly invasive and paternalistic, as it authorizes the Canadian federal government to regulate and administer the affairs and day-to-day lives of registered Indians and reserve communities. This authority has ranged from overarching political control, such as imposing governing structures on Aboriginal communities in the form of band councils, to control over the rights of Indians to practice their culture and traditions. The Indian Act has also enabled the government to determine the land base of these groups in the form of reserves and even to define who qualifies as Indian in the form of Indian status. While the Indian Act has undergone numerous amendments since it was first passed in 1876, it largely retains its original form today.
The term Indian collectively describes all the Indigenous People in Canada who are not Inuit or Métis, which can be further broken down into three categories: Status Indians, Non-Status Indians, and Treaty Indians. Status Indians are people who are entitled to have their names included on the Indian Register, an official list maintained by the federal government. Certain criteria determine who can be registered as a Status Indian. Only Status Indians are recognized as Indians under the Indian Act and are entitled to certain rights and benefits under the law. Non-Status Indians are people who consider themselves Indians or members of a First Nation, but whom the Government of Canada does not recognize as Indians under the Indian Act (1859), either because they are unable to prove their Indian status or have lost their status rights. Non-Status Indians are not entitled to the same rights and benefits available to Status Indians. Treaty Indians are descendants of Indians who signed treaties with Canada and who have a contemporary connection with a treaty band.
Inuit live primarily in the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, the northern parts of Quebec, and coastal Labrador, but share a common culture and language with other circumpolar people in Russia, Alaska, and Greenland.
Historically, Métis refers to individuals of mixed-ethnicity, particularly those born out of intermarriage between French fur traders and Cree women in the Prairies, of English and Scottish traders and Dene women in the North, and Inuit and British in Newfoundland and Labrador. Today, Métis is used broadly to describe people with mixed First Nations and European ancestry.
Although Canada has never enacted any anti-miscegenation laws, some academics claim that the Indian Act was designed to regulate mixing between Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals. More specifically, paragraph 12(1)(b) stipulated that Aboriginal women who married non-Aboriginal men (and any resulting children) would be denied legal Indian status, which would almost certainly result in alienation from the culture into which they were born. Aboriginal men who married non-Aboriginal women would retain their status, which would also be extended to their wives and children, but the crossing of racial boundaries was widely considered socially unacceptable at the time. The expected results were that women who married non-Aboriginal men would have non-Aboriginal children, which would cause rapid assimilation into Euro-Canadian culture. Both anti-miscegenation laws and the Indian Act are striking examples of the state’s regulation of the intimate sphere, which served to legitimize gender inequality. The involuntary enfranchisement for Aboriginal women continued until the Indian Act was finally amended by Bill C-31 in 1985.
More insidious is evidence that Aboriginal people were particularly targeted for eugenic sterilization in Alberta during the period that the Sexual Sterilization Act was in effect (1928-1972). The Act allowed for the sterilization of inmates of mental health institutions if it could be shown that “the patient might safely be discharged if the danger of the procreation with its attendant risk of multiplication of evil by transmission of the disability to progeny were eliminated.” A four-person Eugenics Board was created to determine if sterilization was appropriate for each case considered. Board members had to unanimously agree before sterilization was authorized. In addition, the patient had to give her/his consent, unless they were mentally incapable, in which case the consent of a next of kin had to be obtained. Aboriginal peoples were over-represented among presented cases and among those diagnosed as “mentally defective.” Thus they rarely had the opportunity to object to sterilization. In total, 74% of all Aboriginals presented to the Board were eventually sterilized (compared to 60% of all patients presented).
Aboriginal peoples in Canada and United States made significant steps during the 20th century in terms of reclaiming their traditional cultures and self-determination in order to move beyond this difficult history. In 1999, the Assembly of First Nations (Canada) and the National Congress of American Indians made a joint Declaration of Kinship and Cooperation among the Indigenous People and Nations of North America, which included the following pronouncements:
From time immemorial, the lands that are now known as Canada and the United States of America have been and continue to be the sacred home of Indigenous Peoples and Nations; While our Indigenous Peoples and Nations have distinct identities, cultures, languages and traditions, we have also been guided by many common purposes and beliefs, which have been shaped by many common experiences;
We have all retained the inherent right to self-determination. In shaping our own destinies we will remain faithful to the time honored traditions of our ancestors and we will work to secure the greatest possible freedom, dignity and prosperity for our descendents;
We have all known ourselves as people who live in harmony with our environment and cherish and protect our traditional homelands;
We have all shared a belief that individuals and peoples must address each other in a spirit of respect and tolerance;
We have all experienced outside encroachment upon our traditional homelands and we have striven to co-exist with other peoples and cultures in peace.
United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issue. (n.d.). Who are Indigenous Peoples? Retrieved from: http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/unpfii/documents/5session_factsheet1.pdf">http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/unpfii/documents/5session_factsheet1.pdf.
National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations & President of the National Congress of American Indians. (1999). Declaration of kinship and cooperation among the Indigenous People and Nations of North America. Retrieved from: http://www.afn.ca/index.php/en/about-afn/national-congress-of-american-indians. http://www.afn.ca/index.php/en/about-afn/national-congress-of-american-indians.
National Aboriginal Health Organization. (2012). Terminology. Retrieved from: http://www.naho.ca/publications/topics/terminology/
University of British Columbia. (2009). Indigenous foundations. Retrieved from: http://indigenousfoundations.arts.ubc.ca/?id=9494
Grekul, J., Krahn, H., Odynak, D. (2004). Sterilizing the 'feeble-minded': eugenics in Alberta, Canada, 1929-1972. Journal of Historical Sociology, 17(4), 358-384.
Dyck, E. (2013). Facing eugenics: reproduction, sterilization, and the politics of choice. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.