As indigenous peoples signed treaties, giving up traditional lands and settling on reserves (known as reservations in the United States), their lifestyles changed forever. They were no longer free to settle where they chose, they no longer hunted or fought, and their medicine men could do nothing to stop the spread of the white man’s diseases. The first Indian Act, drafted in 1876, attempted to prepare natives for “European” society, but it ended up only isolating them further.
Those who are registered as members of a band are known as “status” Indians; that is, they have the right to use designated reserve lands and have access to federal funding. Originally, the Indian Act sought to assimilate natives by removing their “status” when they were considered ready to assimilate, such as when they earned a university degree, or in the case of native women, when they married a nonnative man. The Indian Act has been rewritten many times, including as recently as 1985, when many antiquated sections were repealed. The most important recent change freed natives from having to surrender their status to become a Canadian citizen and, therefore, to vote and own property. As a direct result of these changes, many natives who had lost their status, or in fact never had it, have been reclaiming it over the last 15 years. Therefore, the population of status Indians has grown considerably in recent years. Today, 87,000 status Indians live in Alberta, approximately 55,000 of them on reserves. Alberta has 93 reserves covering 6,600 square kilometers (2,550 square miles). The largest is a Blood reserve near Fort Macleod that covers 136,760 hectares (338,000 acres). Other major reserves include the Stoney reserve at Morley, the Sarcee (known officially as the Tsuu T’ina) reserve near Calgary, the Blackfoot reserve at Gleichen, and the Peigan reserve at Brocket. The reserves are administered by Indian and Northern Affairs Canada. The Congress of Aboriginal Peoples represents nonstatus Indians and status Indians living off reserves.
The First Nations are slowly but surely moving toward self-government, and in the process finding ways to have more involvement in decisions that affect their future. Some bands have already achieved self-government, along with a transfer of land ownership. Many reserves generate revenue from natural resources, and some bands have become wealthy by owning factories, housing developments, and, in the case of the Sarcee near Bragg Creek, a golf course. A monthly magazine, Sweetgrass, focuses on native issues in the province. For online articles and subscription information, go to the Aboriginal Multi-media Society website (www.ammsa.com).
Various names are used to describe aboriginal Canadians, and all can be correct in context. The government still uses the term Indian, regardless of its links to Christopher Columbus’s misconception that he had landed in India. Native is generally considered acceptable only when used in conjunction with people, communities, or leaders. Indigenous or aboriginal can have insulting connotations when used in certain contexts. The First Nations people most often refer to themselves and others by none of the above, preferring to use band names.
Alberta’s Métis population established a form of self-government in 1990, with the signing of the Métis Settlement Accord. This accord gave them ownership of more than 1.2 million acres, which included eight existing settlements, while still receiving federal government funding. The Métis Settlements General Council represents these people on a provincial level, while the Canadian Métis Council represents all “mixed-blood, nonstatus Aboriginals” nationally.
© Andrew Hempstead, from Moon Western Canada, 3rd Edition