Canada and Aboriginal peoples continue to struggle with a history of legislation and policy designed to terminate Aboriginal cultural and social distinctiveness in order to assimilate Aboriginal peoples into colonial life and values. These efforts have persistently been resisted and challenged by Aboriginal peoples throughout their history, but because this policy and legislation has been so invasively enforced, it has nonetheless had a profound and frequently devastating impact on Aboriginal peoples.
The development of Canada was greatly facilitated by relations between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. Aboriginal peoples were crucial to early European explorers' survival in unfamiliar territories, and later were valuable military allies in wars between Canada and the United States in the 17th and 18th centuries. When these wars subsided and the United States and Canada worked towards creating and stabilizing unified nations. Greater numbers of settlers began to arrive, outnumbering Aboriginal people and settling in Aboriginal territories, frequently without Aboriginal peoples' foreknowledge or consent despite agreements with colonial authorities guaranteeing their political autonomy and protection of their territories. Aboriginal peoples challenged the Canadian government to address these incursions, and as a result, the 18th and 19th centuries saw an array of legislation and policy around Aboriginal peoples.
This legislation was based on the assumption that in order to function within Canada, Aboriginal peoples needed to adopt a "Canadian" identity and abandon their cultures and traditions. Colonial thinking perceived Aboriginal peoples and cultures as "savage" and "primitive", and ultimately unable to survive contemporary colonial society without the direct intervention and supervision of the Canadian government.
“Our Indian legislation generally rests on the principle, that the aborigines are to be kept in a condition of tutelage and treated as wards or children of the State. ...the true interests of the aborigines and of the State alike require that every effort should be made to aid the Red man in lifting himself out of his condition of tutelage and dependence, and that is clearly our wisdom and our duty, through education and every other means, to prepare him for a higher civilization by encouraging him to assume the privileges and responsibilities of full citizenship.”
Department of the Interior,
Annual Report for the year ended 30th June, 1876
(Parliament, Sessional Papers, No. 11, 1877), p. xiv.
The history of government policy is not strictly a unilateral, top-down relationship—Aboriginal peoples have consistently responded to and actively resisted against it since its inception. In some instances, this resistance has managed to affect and shape some policy.
Regardless, the colonial origins of Aboriginal policy and legislation continue to inform the relationship between the Canadian government and Aboriginal peoples, and the contemporary social realities of Aboriginal people in Canada.