The Reserve System
We the Original Peoples of this land know the Creator put us here. The Creator gave us laws that govern all our relationships to live in harmony with nature and mankind.
The Laws of the Creator defined our rights and responsibilities. The Creator gave us our spiritual beliefs, our languages, our culture, and a place on Mother Earth which provided us with all our needs. We have maintained our Freedom, our Languages, and our Traditions from time immemorial. We continue to exercise the rights and fulfill the responsibilities and obligations given to us by the Creator for the land upon which we were placed.
The Creator has given us the right to govern ourselves and the right to self-determination. The rights and responsibilities given to us by the creator cannot be altered or taken away by any other Nation.
– A Declaration of First Nations from the Assembly of First Nations (1980; Note–The Assembly of First Nations was officially founded in 1982.)
Before colonizers arrived, First Nations people and Inuit had the use of all the land and water in what is now Canada. Their traditional territories were (and are) very large. When Europeans arrived, they and the First Nations people and Inuit came into conflict over who would control these lands and resources.
The Creation of Reserves
Under the Indian Act, the Canadian government defined a reserve as land that has been set aside (not apart) by the government for the use and benefit of an Indian band. Reserve land is still classified as federal land, and First Nations do not have title to reserve land. Reserves were often created on less valuable land and sometimes located outside the traditional territory of the particular First Nation. If the First Nation had lived traditionally by hunting and gathering in a particularly rich area, confinement to a small, uninhabitable place was a very difficult transition. Allotted reserves were always small compared to the First Nations’ traditional territory.
Reserves in the 20th Century
In the early 20th century, there was a rapid increase in poverty on reserves due to imposed laws and policies. Canadian laws made it illegal for First Nations people to use traditional means of resource distribution and limited their ability to fish and hunt. An amendment to the Indian Act in 1927 also made it illegal for them to challenge their situation in court. Many First Nations people living on reserves found that they could not sustain themselves or their families. However, leaving the reserve meant facing discrimination and assimilation in the cities and giving up their rights as Status Indians.
The Reserve System: Important Facts
It is important to know the following facts:
- First Nations people were not consulted when reserves were created. They did not give consent.
- They were not compensated for the lands that were taken from them.
- Since their creation, reserves have been moved and reduced and their resources have been taken—all without compensation for First Nations.
- Until as recently as 1958, people living on reserve needed written permission from the Indian Agent in order to leave the reserve for any reason.
The Reserve System Today
Many First Nations people continue to live on small reserves, which the government still controls. This is a source of much of the conflict between First Nations and the government, at both provincial and federal levels.
Today, First Nations people still live with the problems created by the reserve system:
- There is often not enough land for all members to have housing.
- Some services are provided only to people living on reserve, so people living off reserve do not get the same services.
- Many reserves are very isolated and do not have basic services, such as electricity or running water.
Despite the hardships caused by the reserve system, reserves, as communities, are also a place of cultural survival, where Indigenous languages are spoken and taught in schools and cultural practices are thriving.