Gradual Civilization Act

Authors: Katie Iannuzziello & Christina Di Carlo
Editor: Rose Duncan
Fact checked: Jordan Kilgour

Content Warning: Violence against Indigenous peoples, including children.

In 1857, The Gradual Civilization Act was passed in what is currently Canada in an attempt to assimilate Indigenous peoples into settler society by means of enfranchisement (1). Enfranchisement is a legal process in what is currently Canada’s settler governance structure that requires Indigenous peoples to terminate their “Indian status” in order to become a Canadian citizen and obtain various rights, including voting rights (2, 3). The Canadian government and British monarchy further declared that Indigenous males of “good moral character” that were over the age of twenty-one and could read, write and speak in English or French were eligible to be automatically enfranchised by appointed commissioners (4). This Act was unsuccessful, and only one Indigenous person enfranchised in the eyes of the government; this Act was later consolidated to form the Indian Act in 1876 (5).

Importantly, this Act symbolizes a drastic turning point in colonial policy, whereas although this was not the first attempt to assimilate Indigenous peoples into settler society, it was the first to threaten tribal political autonomy which was promised in the Royal Proclamation of 1763 (5). The Gradual Civilization Act exemplifies the longstanding history of Canada’s colonial policies which have attempted to terminate Indigenous peoples’ cultural, societal, economical, and political independence, while also mistreating identity as an Indigenous person as a conditional status (1). This Act has multifaceted, long-lasting impacts on all Indigenous peoples and colonial policy that remains effective today. The act allowed for a high level of control from government officials to determine which individuals were ‘of good moral character’ to deserve rights to property and franchise, speaking to the highly invasive nature of the colonial government’s involvement in Indigenous affairs (1, 4).

To this day, there are communities dealing with the repercussions of the Gradual Civilization Act, where Indigenous communities were forced into surrendering ‘Indian Status’ to obtain the same rights granted to settlers (1). Michel First Nation, located in what is currently ‘Alberta’, enfranchised in 1958. Ernie Callihoo (81) is the only remaining member of this community, and continues to work on having the Michel Band recognized under the Indian Act again (6).

"They were told if they didn't enfranchise, their kids would have to go to residential school. What kind of choice is that? Either your kids go to this school or you have to enfranchise and give up all of your rights so that your kids can go to the school of your choosing." - Celina Loyer (Band Councillor) (6).

References
  1. Hanson E. The Indian Act [Internet]. Indigenous Foundations. [cited 2020 Nov 12]. Available from: https://Indigenousfoundations.arts.ubc.ca/the_indian_act/

  2. Crey K. Enfranchisement [Internet]. Indigenous Foundations. [cited 2020 Nov 12]. Available from: https://Indigenousfoundations.arts.ubc.ca/enfranchisement/

  3. Charette J. Enfranchisement of First Nations peoples [Internet]. Library and Archives Canada Blog. 2019 [cited 2020 Nov 12]. Available from: https://thediscoverblog.com/2019/04/18/enfranchisement-of-first-nations-peoples/

  4. Indian Act and enfranchisement of Indigenous Peoples [Internet]. Indigenous Corporate Training INC. 2016 [cited 2020 Nov 12]. Available from: https://www.ictinc.ca/blog/indian-act-and-enfranchisement-of-Indigenous-peoples

  5. Giokas J. The Indian Act: evolution, overview and options for amendment and transition. Privy Council Office of Canada: Ottawa; 1995 [Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples]. 375p. Available from: https://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2016/bcp-pco/Z1-1991-1-41-130-eng.pdf

  6. Morin B. Last ones standing: Michel Band seeks to regain status as a band under Indian Act [Internet]. CBC News; 2017 [cited 2020 Nov 12]. Available from: https://www.cbc.ca/news/Indigenous/michel-first-nation-recognition-1.4234214