Toronto played a role in dark history of assimilation
On Aug. 28, Justin Trudeau promised Canadians a new nation-to-nation relationship with the Indigenous peoples. The prime minister announced his wish to end the Indian Act of 1876, a complex piece of legislation amended many times since but which still gives the federal government enormous powers over many aspects of Status Indians’ lives.
Toronto’s Carolyn Bennett, the new Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, is now charged to work for its dismantlement. Toronto has a second direct link to this story. The Act for the Gradual Civilization of the Indian Tribes in the Canadas, the precursor of today’s Indian Act, was passed in Toronto a decade before Confederation, 160 years ago.
In May1857, John A. Macdonald made a major intervention in the Assembly of the Canadas. The attorney general of Canada West presented the Act for the Gradual Civilization of the Indian Tribes. Neither he nor any other cabinet member had consulted any chiefs or Indian councils prior to the debate. On account of massive emigration from the British Isles, the First Nations now only numbered 1 per cent of total population of approximately two million. The valued British allies of the War of 1812 no longer merited consultation.
The Parliament Buildings of the Union of the Canadas dominated the waterfront between “John” and “Simcoe” Sts., both named after John Graves Simcoe, Upper Canada’s first lieutenant-governor, and founder of Fort York in 1793.
In the mid-1850s, Toronto, a city with a population of approximately 50,000, served as the capital of Canada West, now Ontario, and Canada East, today’s Quebec. The Canadian capital shifted between Toronto and Quebec City, as nei- ther section of the Union would accept a permanent capital in the other. Only the midway choice of Ottawa resolved the issue in 1865.
The Gradual Civilization Act established the procedures by which Status Indians could become “enfranchised” or full citizens. The Act reflected the views and value of the dominant society in regard to the place and role of the First Nations. Enfranchisement was presented as an honour. Its purpose was to grant Indians the vote, full status as British subjects and ownership of a plot of land of 20 hectares (50 acres) of reserve land.
Any Indian adult male judged by a special board of examiners to be educated, free from debt, and of good moral character, could apply. After a successful threeyear trial period, the applicant gained full ownership of his 50 acres that immediately ceased to be part of the reserve, and could be sold to a non-Indian.
The Canadian legislature quickly passed the bill, in a near unanimous vote. Why is Macdonald singled out for censure for his assimilationist outlook? All the major political leaders supported the legislation: George-Étienne Cartier, his great Conservative Party political ally; as well as his opponents, Liberals George Brown and Antoine Dorion. Assimilation of the First Nations was seen as an instrument of freedom, not of oppression.
The Indigenous response was not long in coming. First Nations leaders denounced the Gradual Civilization Act. They correctly saw it as an attempt to end their land base. It increased control over their lives.
A huge protest meeting was held on the Six Nations Territory near Brantford. They rejected Canada’s invitation to disappear. By 1876, only a single candidate had been enfranchised.
Neither Macdonald nor any other Canadian politician paid any attention to First Nations protests after the bill’s passage. As the distinguished Canadian political scientist Peter Russell has written in Canada’s Odyssey: A Country Based on Incomplete Conquests (2017): “In Canada at this time, there was not an ounce of respect in either the political or judicial branches of government for Indigenous peoples’ right to govern themselves.”
Two years after Confederation, Macdonald cabinet minister Hector Langevin introduced in Parliament the bill that became the new country’s first major piece of legislation relating to Indians. The Gradual Enfranchisement Act built on the 1857 Gradual Civilization Act of the United Province of Canada. It was devised without Indian consent or participation.
The Indian Act of 1876, passed eight years later by the Liberal administration of Alexander Mackenzie, Canada’s second prime minister, completed the legislative framework for assimilation. The passage of the Gradual Civilization Act in Toronto in 1857 set Canada on the wrong road of assimilation, or to use the modern description favoured by some today — cultural genocide.
Why is Macdonald singled out for censure for his assimilationist outlook? All the major political leaders supported the legislation
Don Smith, professor emeritus of history, University of Calgary, is currently writing The Blind Spot, a study of non-Indigenous Canadians’ perspectives of the First Nations, 1867-2017.
It was in Toronto, in 1857, that John A. Macdonald presented the Act for the Gradual Civilization of the Indian Tribes to the Assembly of the Canadas. The act was a precursor to the Indian Act and a policy of cultural assimilation.