The Gradual Enfranchisement Act of 1869 was a legislative measure passed by the government of the new Dominion of Canada. It attempted to control, regulate and assimilate First Nations people (referred to as “Indians” in the Act) in the country. This legislation followed An Act for the better protection of the Lands and Property of the Indians in Lower Canada of 1850 and the Gradual Civilization Act of 1857, passed by the Province of Canada (formerly Upper and Lower Canada). It preceded the Indian Act of 1876.
When Britain gained possession of New France in 1763 by the Treaty of Paris, British colonial administrators developed laws to decide who could be termed an “Indian.” They did this for various reasons, one of which was to determine who would be able to live on reserves. While First Nations peoples retained their own methods of identifying members of their communities, these were not necessarily recognized formally by the government.
When the colonies of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario and Quebec, united as the Dominion of Canada in 1867, the federal government was granted responsibilities for the affairs of First Nations under the British North America Act. Two years later, the government passed the Gradual Enfranchisement Act in 1869. (The full name of the Act is An Act for the gradual enfranchisement of Indians, the better management of Indian affairs, and to extend the provisions of the Act.)
Gradual Enfranchisement Act
In the Gradual Enfranchisement Act, “enfranchisement” meant the process by which First Nations members lost eligibility to registration and membership in their home communities in exchange for participation in Canadian society as a citizen. The stated purpose of the Act was for “the better management of Indian affairs.” (See also Federal Departments of Indigenous and Northern Affairs.)
Provisions of the Act
The sections below explore the provisions of the Gradual Enfranchisement Act. These include rules about enfranchisement, as well as the responsibilities of elected chiefs, permission to live on reserves, the control and payment of annuities, the distribution of alcohol, and the care of First Nations women, children and the elderly.
Every enfranchised First Nations male had to declare the name and surname by which he was to be known, and his wife and minor, unmarried children were also deemed to be enfranchised. Additionally, they were no longer considered to be "Indian" except for an entitlement to their share of their First Nation’s annuities.
An unenfranchised First Nations male who falsely declared himself enfranchised could be sentenced to imprisonment for up to three months. Any unenfranchised First Nations persons could sue for debts, wrongs inflicted on them or to enforce obligations made to them.
No Indigenous person on any reserve was entitled to reside there unless specifically permitted by the Superintendent General of Indian Affairs. Anyone occupying land without such authority could be ejected.
No one was allowed to provide alcohol to any First Nations person. Those who did so were subject to fines or imprisonment if they defaulted on the fine.
Any government annuities payable to a First Nation could not be distributed to anyone of less than one-quarter First Nations blood.
Widows and unmarried daughters of an enfranchised man would receive two shares of any annuity money to which he was entitled instead of one, as long as they lived on the First Nation and remained unmarried.
Any First Nations persons entitled to part of an annuity and sentenced to prison would lose their money during their time of imprisonment. Costs of legal proceedings for sentencing could be paid out of the annuity.
The Superintendent General had the power to stop annuity payments to a male who deserted his wife or child, and apply that annuity towards the support of the woman and child.
Women and Children
Any First Nations woman who married a non-status man, Indigenous or not, would cease to have Indian status, as would the children of such a marriage. (This rule wouldn’t be amended until 1985; see also Indigenous Women’s Issues in Canada and Women and the Indian Act.)
Additionally, on marriage to a Status Indian man, an Indigenous woman and any children of that marriage would become a member of the man’s First Nation.
Old Age and Death
The Superintendent General could provide for any member of a First Nation who was not cared for by the First Nation because of age, illness or other reasons from funds of that First Nation.
On the death of an First Nations man, his land and property belonged to his children during their lives, providing they looked after their mother. If the man died without children, his land and property belonged to the Crown for the benefit of the First Nation, after providing for any widow.
When an enfranchised First Nations male died leaving a child under 21, the Superintendent General was to appoint a tutor or guardian with regard to property rights for any such children until they reached 21. A widow, who was the mother of such a child, was to receive a share of the estate during the child’s minority and entitled to live on the property.
The chiefs of any First Nation were to be elected by male members over 21 years of age for three years, unless deposed for “dishonesty, intemperance, or immorality.” One chief and two second chiefs were to be elected for every 200 people, although a First Nation of 30 people could have one chief. Any life chiefs could continue until their death or resignation, unless removed for the same reasons as elected chiefs.
Chiefs were required to maintain roads, bridges, ditches and fences on their First Nation. If they did not, the cost of repairs could be taken out of annuities. Subject to government approval, chiefs could establish regulations for public health, order at gatherings, suppression of alcohol abuse and wastefulness, wandering cattle, maintenance of roads, bridges, ditches and fences, construction and maintenance of schools and other public buildings and the establishment of animal pounds.
A First Nations man could be granted life ownership of land allotted to him, providing he had attained a certain “degree of civilization,” “a character of integrity and sobriety” and appeared to be a “safe and suitable person.” Such land could be willed to his children.
If an enfranchised First Nations man who owned land died without children, his land would revert to the Crown for the benefit of his First Nation. If married, his widow would have use of the land until she remarried or died.
The quantity of land allocated to an enfranchised male on a First Nation had to be in proportion to land allocated to other males.
The Gradual Enfranchisement Act was an example of the paternalist attitude colonial authorities displayed towards Indigenous peoples in Canada. The Indian Act of 1876 essentially combined the Gradual Civilization Act and the Gradual Enfranchisement Act into one.