Laws and Policies

In this section, you will learn about some of the laws and policies aimed at the assimilation, colonization, and genocide of Indigenous Peoples in Canada. 


Since time immemorial, Indigenous Peoples have had complex systems of law and governance to manage their societies. Indigenous law refers to the distinct systems of customs and traditions that governed  Indigenous societies. These systems varied from Nation to Nation and managed political, economic and social life.1 Until contact, and for some time after, Indigenous law and governance contributed to flourishing Indigenous societies that coexisted with one another and all of Creation. However, the government of Canada outlawed Indigenous governance systems by forcing policies such as the Indian Act upon Indigenous Nations.


The British Crown and, later, the government of Canada created policies and laws that have suppressed Indigenous Peoples. Pamela Palmeter says that “The primary objective of early Indian policy was to ensure the eventual disappearance of Indians — a goal which has not changed in hundreds of years.”2  Policies have been aimed at assimilation, colonization, and genocide. Assimilation is the process of absorbing one cultural group into another.  This concept is closely tied to colonization, which is the process of settling among and establishing control over the Indigenous People of an area. Genocide is defined by the United Nations as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

o Killing members of the group;

o Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

o Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

o Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

o Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”3 


Foreign policies that were designed to control and define Indigenous societies nearly physically, legally and culturally wiped us out in approximately 500 years.4 “…colonization is not just a legacy of the past, but it continues to manifest itself in contemporary society every day. The Eurocentric foundations of colonization are solidly entrenched in the political, social, economic, educational, and spiritual frameworks that continue to marginalize and encroach on FN [First Nations] knowledge, belief systems, and way of life.”5 


Injustice towards Indigenous Peoples of this land began long before Canada became a nation, and it continues today. Laws and policies aimed at assimilation, colonization, and genocide include the Doctrine of DiscoveryTerra Nullius, and the Gradual Civilization Act (1857) which later became the Gradual Enfranchisement Act (1869). The Doctrine of Discovery originated from a series of papal bulls (decrees from the pope) in the 1400s and was based on racial superiority. It was used to justify the taking of land by European explorers by paternalistically ignoring Indigenous Peoples’ inherent rights.6  Indigenous Peoples were viewed by European explorers as non-human because they were non-Christian. As such, Europeans declared the land terra nullius, which means ‘nobody’s land.’7  While Europeans used terra nullius to claim the land now known as Canada, in 2014 the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that terra nullius never applied in Canada. Instead, the Royal Proclamation of 1763 recognized Indigenous title to the land.8 Indigenous Peoples had always occupied the land although Indigenous governance was viewed as inferior by the European newcomers.

The Gradual Civilization Act sought to assimilate Indian people into Canadian settler society by encouraging enfranchisement, which meant Indigenous people would no longer be considered an “Indian” under the eyes of the Crown. The ultimate purpose of enfranchisement (loss of Status Rights) was to encourage Indigenous people to assimilate into Canadian culture. When Indigenous People gave up their Status rights, it reduced the legal and financial obligations the government had agreed to when they signed treaties with Indigenous Nations. Policies were set to coerce and encourage enfranchisement. “To become a British subject — to shed the confines of the Indian Act, embrace full rights of colonial citizenship and become “civilized” — was considered a privilege by the government but not by the Indians.”9 As an “Indian” you could be forcibly enfranchised for serving in the Canadian armed forces, gaining a university education, or leaving your reserve for long periods (for example, for employment). Additionally, if an “Indian” woman married a non-Indian man or if her “Indian” husband died or abandoned her, she would lose her Status.

Paternalistic Policies

The British North America Act (1867) (BNA)established the Dominion of Canada. Without consulting with Indigenous Peoples, the BNA gave power to the Department of Indian Affairs to develop paternalistic national policies that impacted Indigenous Peoples.10 The BNA gave the Parliament of Canada authority over “Indians, and Lands reserved for Indians.”11  This was just the first of many laws and policies designed to force Indigenous People to assimilate. Subsequent laws and policies include the Indian Act (1876)the Pass Systemresidential schools Métis ScripProject Surname, the Inuit Tag Systemforced sterilizationsystemic discriminationChild Welfare,  Sixties Scoop, and forced relocation (see below). This introduction does not go into depth about each example listed above; please use the resource links provided below to gain deeper insights.

Forced Relocation

Forcibly relocating a population from one location to another by way of policies was a common tactic used to control the land and Indigenous Peoples. There are examples of forced relocation across the nation and have been one method used to control and colonize. Reserves are the most common example of forced relocation. The Papaschase Band and Michel Band of what is now Alberta have both been subjected to policies that led to forced relocation from their lands as well as the loss of Indian Status.  

After the Papaschase entered into an adhesion to Treaty 6 in 1877, they moved onto the land set aside for their reserve in what is now south Edmonton. By 1886, many members were enticed to take Métis scrip due to the difficult living conditions, especially starvation, they were facing on reserve. Taking scrip meant that band members lost their status and could no longer live on the reserve. Other members were persuaded by government officials to relocate to Enoch Cree Nation or other reserves. Through extralegal maneuvers by the former Interior Minister Frank Oliver, three members of Papaschase were pressured into a land surrender, and all of what had been the Papaschase reserve was sold off to third parties at cut-rate prices.12 

The Michel Band originally lived on the land northwest of present-day Edmonton. They entered Treaty 6 in 1878 through an adhesion. In 1880, a 40-square-mile reserve was established on the Sturgeon River.  In the early 1900s, the federal government pressured the Michel Band to surrender some of their lands in exchange for agricultural tools — the tools were part of the Treaty 6 agreement that the government did not honour. In 1911, the Crown surrendered 41 acres of the reserve on behalf of the Michel Band without consulting or compensating Band members — the land was sold to European settlers. In 1927, ten Michel Band members enfranchised, reducing the number of Status Band members. In the 1940s many Michel Band members were pressured by government officials to enfranchise so their land could be sold to returning veterans. Some chose to enfranchise in order to gain the same rights as their non-First Nations comrades, as these rights were denied to Status Indians. According to some accounts, in 1958, the Department of Indian Affairs convinced members of the Michel Band that they would be models of enfranchisement for Status Indians across Canada.  At this time, the entire Michel Band was enfranchised. In 1985, under Bill C-31 of the Indian Act, over 750 Michel Band members had their Status reinstated.  The Michel Band continues to fight for land rights and recognition.13   


These laws and policies had and continue to have detrimental mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional effects on Indigenous Peoples. They have caused first-hand and intergenerational trauma. Not only do these laws and policies affect Indigenous Peoples, but they have been normalized into the mental landscapes of Canadian society which contributes to continued racism and injustices towards Indigenous Peoples. “Racism has played a foundational role in the development and maintenance of the Canadian nation state. The colonization of Indigenous lands and peoples was fueled by racist beliefs and ideas about Indigenous Peoples, values, ways of knowing and being, customs and practices. These race-based beliefs served to justify acts of racial discrimination, including violence, cultural genocide, legislated segregation, appropriation of lands, and social and economic oppression enacted through such policies as the Gradual Civilization Act and the Indian Act. Policies and practices emerging from imperialistic and colonial ideologies have been extremely destructive to the health and well-being of Indigenous Peoples, cutting across the broad spectrum of social determinants of health, impacting access to education, housing, food security, employment and health care, and permeating societal systems and institutions that have profoundly impacted the lives and well-being of Indigenous Peoples including the child welfare and criminal justice systems.”14


The Indian Act made it illegal for ‘Indians’ to form political groups or work with lawyers to contest laws and policies being forced upon them. When leaders such as Louis Riel and Chief Poundmaker attempted to assert their people’s rights and stand up for peace and justice, they were imprisoned or hanged. Yet, even decades of the Government of Canada attempting to remove Indigenous Peoples’ inherent rights has not stopped the fight for justice. Most recently the Canadian government exonerated Chief Poundmaker for his role in the Northwest Resistance as an act of reconciliation.14  Yet there is much more that needs to be done for reconciliation to truly be felt by Indigenous People. There are still many laws and policies aimed at demeaning Indigenous Peoples that have been amended and contested throughout our history. The Indian Act has been amended numerous times and First Nations, Metis and Inuit and allies continue to seek justice, peace, and their inherent rights. Examples of some specific cases include the Jordan’s Principle, Shannen’s Dream, McIvor Case, Bill C-31, Bill S-3, Daniels v. Canada (2016), R vs Powley (2003) and The Manitoba Métis Federation vs. Canada (2013).

Acknowledgment and Awareness

Acknowledgment and awareness of attitudes, policies, and laws projected upon Indigenous Peoples at the hands of others’ ideas of prosperity and success need to be made apparent in our educational paradigms at all levels. Educator Yatta Kanu says that “teacher education programs have to address colonialism and racism as well as [Indigenous Knowledge]”.16  Pamela Palmeter goes further when she says, “Permanent and substantive change in Canadian law and policy is needed so that Canada can get on with the business of true reconciliation (redress and restitution) and Indigenous Peoples can move forward with healing, rebuilding their families, communities, and Nations, and enjoying the good life as they themselves defined it — the kind of freedom and liberty that so many Canadians get to take for granted.”17  Negative attitudes, policies, and laws designed to erase Indigenous Peoples’ identity have contributed to our resilience, and as we move forward we will continue to flourish. 

To read more about these laws and policies, please consult the ATA Stepping Stone Concepts and Policies of Assimilation as well as the resources listed below.


  • How does an understanding of some of the laws and policies enacted by the Crown and Canadian government help non-Indigenous Canadians understand the contemporary realities faced by many Indigenous Peoples in Canada today?

  • As a system leader how are you establishing the structures and providing resources for your districts’ staff, students and community to learn the truth about the laws and policies that have and continue to impact Indigenous peoples?

  • What are some of the ongoing legacies of laws and policies such as the Indian Act, forced relocation, the Pass System and residential schools?

  • How do these laws and policies impact education today?

Related Resources

This document is an entry point into learning about the experiences of First Nations People who attended residential schools.

This document is an entry point into learning about the experiences of Métis people who attended residential schools.

This document is an entry point into learning about the experiences of Inuit who attended residential schools.

This document delves into some of the many examples of forced relocation of Indigenous Peoples since contact.

This document explores concepts and policies such as Eurocentrism, genocide, the Indian Act (1876), the Sixties Scoop, and paternalism.

This Stepping Stone summarizes the key points of the Indian Act, a piece of legislation enacted in 1876 that continues to be in force today.

This document delves into the Sixties Scoop, the period of time where thousands of Indigenous children were apprehended from their families and communities and adopted out to largely non-Indigneous families.

These resources are interactive presentations for educators to use in their classrooms to build their own foundational knowledge about the Métis experience in residential schools, as well as a platform to use for teaching their students.

These resources are interactive presentations for educators to use in their classrooms to build their own foundational knowledge about the Métis experience in residential schools, as well as a platform to use for teaching their students.

Chief Calvin Bruneau speaks about the History of Papaschase.

Informative resource on key topics relating to the history, politics, and cultures of the Indigenous Peoples of Canada. A comprehensive overview of policies as well as specific details in relation to the Indian Act, Reserves, Residential School System, the Sixties Scoop, The Royal Proclamation, The White Paper and the Constitution Act are included.

This article tells the story of Johnny Rodgers, who led the Michel Band to dissolve in 1958. Ernie Calihoo, the only remaining member of Michel First Nation who still lives on the land that was a reserve prior to enfranchisement, is also featured in the story.

A brief history of the Michel Callihoo reserve disbanded in the 1950s and their aspirations for the future.

ASBA Indigenous Advisory Circle members explore the acknowledgment of this period of Canadian history and its impact on perceptions and culture.

This workshop will examine core causes of intergenerational trauma, challenge common myths and misconceptions, as well as explore activities to foster effective relationships with First Nations, Métis and Inuit students, families and community….

This blog post provides a quick summary of some of the most outrageous components of the Indian Act.

Based on a viral article, 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act is the essential guide to understanding the legal document and its repercussions on generations of Indigenous Peoples.

Based on a viral article, 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act is the essential guide to understanding the legal document and its repercussions on generations of Indigenous Peoples.

The Pass System illuminates Canada’s hidden history of racial segregation. For over 60 years, the Canadian government often denied Indigenous Peoples the basic freedom to leave their reserves without a pass. Cree, Saulteaux, Dene, Ojibwe and Blackfoot elders of the prairie land where this took place tell their stories of living under and resisting the system, and link their experiences to today.

Celebrated Indigenous artist Alex Janvier recalls facing discrimination under the so-called pass system in the 1950s. The system required First Nations People to have written permission to travel off-reserve.

Canada took thousands of Indigenous children from their parents between the 1960s and the 1980s, and the effects are still being felt today.

This video provides an introduction to the policy of Métis Scrip along with fraudulent practices that occurred.

Canada’s Relationship with Inuit: A History of Policy and Program Development contains many documents for further learning about the Inuit relationship with the crown.


This paper explores the role of racism in the health and well-being of Indigenous Peoples in Canada. It provides an overview of the historical and contemporary contexts of racism which have historically, and continue to, negatively shape the life choices and chances of Indigenous People in this country.

This CBC video provides a brief history of the 60’s scoop. Its harmful intergenerational impact continues today on the survivors and their families.

Learn about the forced relocation of Indigenous Peoples in Canada.


1Val Napoleon. “What is Indigenous Law? A Small Discussion.” University of Victoria Indigenous Law Research Unit. Retrieved from
2Palmater, Pamela. “Genocide, Indian Policy, and Legislated Elimination of Indians in Canada.” Aboriginal Policy Studies. Vol. 3, no. 3, 2014: 28. Retrieved from
3The United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect. “Genocide.”
4Palmater, Pamela. “Genocide, Indian Policy, and Legislated Elimination of Indians in Canada.” Aboriginal Policy Studies. Vol. 3, no. 3, 2014: 28. Retrieved from
5 Battiste, Marie and Sheelagh McLean. “State of First Nations Learning. Prepared for the Canadian Council on Learning (CCL), Ottawa, On, (Sept. 2005), 22. Retrieved from
6United Nations Economic and Social Council. “Study on the impacts of the Doctrine of Discovery on Indigenous peoples, including mechanisms, processes and instruments of redress.” 2014. Retrieved from
7 Indigenous Corporate Training Inc. “Christopher Columbus and the Doctrine of Discovery — 5 Things to Know.”
8Tsilhqot’in Nation V. British Columbia, [2014] 2SCR 257. Retrieved from
9Indigenous Corporate Training Inc. “Indian Act and enfranchisement of Indigenous Peoples.
10 Taylor, J.L., Indigenous Peoples and Government Policy in Canada. The Canadian Encyclopedia. 2016.
11Department of Justice. “British North America Act, 1867 – Enactment no. 1.”
12Stephanie Dubois. “I can feel my ancestors around me. CBC News. Retrieved from
13Michel First Nation. “Our Story.”
14Allan, B. & Smylie, J. (2015). First Peoples, second class treatment: The role of racism in the health and well-being of Indigenous Peoples in Canada. Toronto, ON: the Wellesley Institute.p. 1. Retrieved from
15Trudeau, J., Statement of Exoneration for Chief Poundmaker. 2019.
16 Yatta Kanu. “Decolonizing Indigenous Education: Beyond Culturalism: Toward Post-cultural Strategies. Canadian and International Education Vol. 34 no. 2, Article 2. Retrieved from
17 2 Palmater, Pamela. “Genocide, Indian Policy, and Legislated Elimination of Indians in Canada.” Aboriginal Policy Studies. Vol. 3, no. 3, 2014: 28. Retrieved from