Enfranchisement of First Nations peoples

On the left of the graphic, Tatânga Mânî [Chief Walking Buffalo] [George McLean] in traditional regalia on horse. In the middle, Iggi and girl engaging in a “kunik”, a traditional greeting in Inuit culture. On the right, Maxime Marion, a Métis guide stands holding a rifle. In the background, there is a map of Upper and Lower Canada, and text from the Red River Settlement collection.By Jasmine Charette

I have always been interested in the concept of identity in the Canadian context. I enjoy learning about how people tie themselves to identities to connect with their community, or sever those same ties for the benefit of being seen another way. However, this was not always done in fairness or voluntarily. A striking example of this is the enfranchisement of First Nations peoples.

What is enfranchisement?

Enfranchisement meant losing legal identity as an “Indian” in the eyes of the government to become a full Canadian citizen, with all the rights and privileges attached. This process was enshrined in the Indian Act of 1876, which consolidated several pieces of colonial legislation in force at the time.

A black-and-white typed page of a legal statute.

A page from the Indian Act as published in the Statutes of Canada, 1876 (Canadian Research Knowledge Network, Acts of Parliament)

Enfranchisement could be sought by a First Nations person, as long as certain requirements were met, including age, sex and competency in either English or French. Someone outside the band, such as a priest or Indian agent, needed to determine the person’s fitness for becoming enfranchised. Some records show individuals, in their own words or the correspondence of an Indian agent, wanting to enfranchise for the benefits of land titles and band monies. The loss of legal status meant they were no longer subject to the Indian Act.

Many people were enfranchised against their will, some because of employment as lawyers, doctors or clergy. Others were enfranchised because of serving in the First or Second World War, attending university, or simply because an Indian agent thought they were “civilized” enough. Eventually, compulsory enfranchisement expanded to include any First Nations woman who married a non-Status individual (see below for 1985 changes to the Indian Act).

What does this mean for First Nations peoples?

The Indian Act was and is still seen in many ways as restrictive for First Nations individuals. The loss of identity brought repercussions such as becoming ineligible for social services, the loss of hunting and land rights, and for many, becoming both physically and intangibly distant from their homes and cultures. There are examples in the record of Councils of Chiefs refusing the Enfranchisement of individuals because they do not believe the Franchise Act applies to them, noting a fear that lands may be sold off and the community would be lost.

For some, enfranchisement was a direct trespass on previous agreements. A petition from the Mohawk members of the Five Confederated Nations (now Six Nations of the Grand River) notes that a treaty with the British stated the British would never try to make those Indigenous persons British subjects. Enfranchisement involved breaking that promise.

A black-and-white reproduction of a handwritten petition addressed to His Excellency the Governor General of the Dominion of Canada, the Right Honourable Lord Stanley.

Six Nations agency—correspondence regarding a petition from the Six Nations Indians to be exempted from the provisions of the Franchise Act of 1885. (e006183352)

Was it only individuals?

One case exists of an entire band being enfranchised: Michel Band in northern Alberta. An Order-in-Council enfranchised all eligible members of the Michel Band as of March 31, 1958.

A black-and-white typewritten text outlining the disposal of the funds of the Michel Band and the lands of the Michel Indian Reserve No. 132.

Schedule B, “Plan for the disposal of the funds of the Michel Band and of the lands of the Michel Indian Reserve No. 132,” dated March 31, 1958. RG2-A-1-a, Volume 2215, PC 1958-375 (Canadian Research Knowledge Foundation, Orders-in-Council)

This enfranchisement order split the reserve lands among enfranchised individuals, dissolving the band entirely. Only three years later, compulsory enfranchisement was repealed, and some members of the historic Michel Band are still seeking to regain band status today.

Why is this relevant today?

When the Indian Act’s enfranchisement sections were repealed in 1985, they were replaced with what we now know as Indian Status. It became impossible to give up one’s Status, and many who were enfranchised regained Status through various provisions of the 1985 repeal, and subsequent amendments to the Indian Act. The sex-based discrimination in the Act was changed, and Status was returned to people who lost it by marrying a non-Status individual or because of the “double mother” rule of 1951 (Status was lost at age 21 if both the paternal grandmother and the mother had acquired Status through marriage).

Do you have a question about enfranchisement?

Reference Services is available to answer your queries and to help you navigate archival and published materials, including records on enfranchisement. Ask Us a Question; we are always glad to help!

Sources

This blog is part of a series related to the Indigenous Documentary Heritage Initiatives. Learn how Library and Archives Canada (LAC) increases access to First Nations, Inuit and Métis Nation collections and supports communities in the preservation of Indigenous language recordings.


Jasmine Charette is a reference archivist in the Reference Services Division of the Public Services Branch at Library and Archives Canada.