July 2003

Internal Colonialism:

Last month we began an overview of the Indian administration system put in place by Canada. By the 1880s, the Department of Indian Affairs had set out its basic structure of Indian administration in BC. Different regions of the province were named as specific agencies complete with appointed Indian agents to ensure that the Indian Act provisions could be put into practice.

One of the most devastating consequences of the Indian Act was when Native peoples in Canada were stripped of their political sovereignty. This was accomplished in part by outlawing traditional tribal leaders. The traditional forms of leadership across indigenous Canada were often based upon a hereditary system where leadership of clans and tribal groupings were passed down through the family. The resistance and authority of hereditary chiefs were attacked directly by the Department of Indian Affairs.

In addition to the leadership, the traditional social structures within aboriginal communities were changed dramatically with the imposition of the Indian Act. Within communities, the members often held equal standing amongst each another based upon their skills and what they could offer the group. In addition, many aboriginal societies in Canada were matriarchal in nature where the females held significant influence amongst the clans and tribal groupings.

The government officials of the time originated from an English cultural background. Generally, their cultural system was based upon a hierarchal structure where a limited number of individuals were in control. It was also a culture based upon patriarchy where the males in the society reigned supreme over the females and children. The government basically viewed the indigenous ways as being somewhat backward and misguided. In addition, they were proving to be a hindrance to the goal of bringing the Native people under the control of the Indian Act system.

During the 1880s, the Indian Act was amended to allow for the system of indirect rule through the band council system. Under the guise of providing Indian bands with institutions of local self-government, the federal government developed a mechanism through the Indian Act that allowed them to interfere with the traditional leaders who had often blocked their initiatives. These leaders could now be set aside and replaced with elected officials.

The new chief and council structure was fashioned after the typical mayor and council structure of municipalities. With the new and lasting structure, each band in Canada now has a council made up of a chief councillor and 2-12 council members depending on the number of band members. The band chief and council are chosen by election or custom and generally serve for a two-year term.

At first, many First Nations across Canada refused to take up the elected councils and when pressured, they proceeded to elect their hereditary leaders. The elective system was meant to destroy the last trace of the traditional tribal political system. One Indian Commissioner summed up the federal government’s aims succinctly with his statement, “the policy of destroying the tribal system is assailed in every possible way”.

Cathy Narcisse First Published in Bridge River Lillooet News, July 2003
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