We are not your slaves. These lakes, these woods and mountains were left to us by
our ancestors. They are our inheritance; and we will part with them to none.
– Pontiac or Obwandiyag (c. 1720–1769; Odawa chief, French ally, and resistor of British occupation)
A second tool of colonization used to exert colonial power was through making laws and passing acts of Parliament. Prior to Canada becoming a country in 1867, many laws and acts were made and passed either in the British Parliament or by the colonial governments in North America. In both cases, these laws and acts were made without consultation with the Indigenous Peoples whom they affected. After 1867, the federal and provincial governments of Canada passed acts and laws that were designed to encourage settlement on Indigenous land and to assimilate Indigenous Peoples – encouraging them or coercing them to abandon their culture, languages, and lifeways and to adopt settler culture.
Royal Proclamation, 1763
An important early legal document was the Royal Proclamation issued by George III in 1763. It formally ceded North America to Britain from France. According to the Royal Proclamation, British colonists were forbidden to settle on Indigenous lands, and settler officials were forbidden to grant lands without royal approval. It further stated that Indigenous lands could only be ceded to the Crown and that they could not be sold to the settlers. The Royal Proclamation is significant in law, and it is referenced by the Supreme Court of Canada.
Gradual Civilization Act, 1857
In 1857, the pre-confederation Parliament of the Province of Canada passed the Gradual Civilization Act. It was created with the purpose of terminating First Nations men’s Indian identity and enfranchising them to become British subjects. It was assumed that First Nations men would willingly surrender their legal and ancestral identities for the “privilege” of becoming British. Individuals or entire bands could enfranchise. If a man enfranchised, his wife and children were automatically enfranchised. This contributed to the marginalization of First Nations women.
Under the Gradual Civilization Act, enfranchised men were entitled to “a piece of land not exceeding fifty acres out of the lands reserved or set apart for the use of his tribe.” This land and money would become their property, but by accepting it they would give up “all claim to any further share in the lands or moneys then belonging to or reserved for the use of their tribe, and cease to have a voice in the proceedings thereof.” Often the promises of enfranchisement were not honoured and the First Nation man would not receive what was promised.
Enfranchisement was to remain an important aim of the government after Canada came into existence in 1867. Enfranchisement could occur involuntarily if a First Nations man wanted to go to university, enlist, was “of good moral character,” or spoke English.
Other pre-Confederation laws
During the same period, the Province of Canada introduced other laws that treated First Nations people differently, including:
- consumption laws (banning First Nations people from consuming liquor)
- taxation (exempting some First Nations people from paying certain taxes)
- commercial laws (First Nations people could only sell their land to the Crown)
- different treatment of First Nations men and First Nations women