Notes on Terminology

The Government of Canada, in section 35(2) of the Constitution Act, 1982, defines three groups of “Aboriginal peoples” (now referred to as Indigenous peoples): Indians (i.e., First Nations), Inuit and Métis.

Historically, departments of Indigenous and Northern affairs often used the word “Indian” to refer to First Nations people. Generally considered outdated and offensive, the term still holds legal significance in Canada. Section 3 of the 1876 Indian Act outlined criteria for who was legally defined as Indian. While later changes to the Act have altered some of the criteria, it is still the main law that the federal government uses to manage matters concerning many First Nations people.

The Indian Act does not apply to Métis people or to the Inuit. At the time the Act was created, the federal government did not consider itself responsible for the management of these communities. Yet, in many cases, the government often treated the Métis and the Inuit as “Indians” in the sense that it supported their assimilation through residential schools and desired the surrender of their traditional territories.

In 1939, a Supreme Court of Canada decision brought the Inuit within the definition of “Indians” under section 91 (24) of the British North America Act. As a result, responsibility for Inuit affairs was assigned to the federal government. Before then, the extent of the federal-Inuit relationship was primarily limited to the fur trade. Even the Northwest Territories Act of 1905 did not make any administrative arrangements for Inuit affairs.

For the Métis, it was only after the Daniels case in 2016 (a legal dispute that began in 1999) that the Supreme Court ruled Parliament has legislative authority for Métis people and non-status Indians. However, federal-Métis relations existed before then, as demonstrated by the signing of the Métis Nation Framework Agreement in 2005 (known since 2008 as the Métis Nation Protocol), which established bilateral processes to address various issues concerning Métis people. In the absence of federal management before then, the policies of various provincial governments included the Métis, such as the Manitoba Act of 1870, which created the province of Manitoba and guaranteed certain Métis rights, as well as Alberta’s Metis Betterment Act of 1938, which provided for Métis land settlements.

Early Departments, 1755 to 1873

During the Seven Years War, the British government created its first Indian Department in the colony, as a means of countering French–Indigenous alliances. The department was split into a northern and southern branch, both reporting to the British military commander. Sir William Johnson, the northern superintendent, made strategic alliances with Britain’s important Indigenous allies, such as the Haudenosaunee.

In 1830, the British transferred the Indian Department from military to civilian government control. This reflected the fact that Indigenous-military alliances were no longer as important to Britain, which had solidified its claim over its remaining North American territories.

For the remaining decades of the colonial era, the Indian Department was somewhat disorganized, as historian Brian Titley has described, “reflecting its relative unimportance.” The British Colonial Office supported a policy of assimilating Indigenous peoples, but left the specifics of this effort largely up to Christian missionaries and put limited resources behind the concept of assimilation. (See also Residential Schools.)

Control of matters concerning First Nations remained the British government’s responsibility until 1860, when the Indian Department was passed into colonial hands and was administered under the Crown Lands Department. At Confederation in 1867, responsibility for “Indians and lands reserved for Indians” was given to the Canadian government through section 91 (24) of the British North America Act.

In 1868, the Indian Branch was placed under the control of the Department of the Secretary of State of Canada until 1869. From then until 1873, it was under the Department of the Secretary of State for the Provinces. The secretary of state became the head of Indian Affairs, a position that was known from 1868 to 1936 as the superintendent general of Indian Affairs. Well-known superintendents include Hector Louis Langevin and Joseph Howe.

Departments of the Interior and of Indian Affairs, 1873 to 1936

In 1873, the federal government created the Department of the Interior and placed the Indian Branch within it. The department’s original mandate was to promote western settlement under the Dominion Lands Policy. Among other strategies, this involved negotiating treaties with Indigenous peoples in the Prairies for access to their territories for settlement and development purposes. (See also Numbered Treaties.) Unlike its predecessors, this department was now also responsible for the portfolio of Northern Affairs (until 1936, when it was transferred to a different department).

In 1880, Indian Affairs was given its own department, but the minister of the Interior continued to fill the post of superintendent general of Indian Affairs (and also maintained the Northern Affairs portfolio). This newly separate Department of Indian Affairs was divided into an outside and inside service: the inside service consisted of officers at headquarters in Ottawa; the outside service comprised the many Indian agents, farm instructors and other employees across the country who dealt directly with Indigenous peoples. The outside service also included Indian superintendents and commissioners for different provinces and the North-West Territories.

While the Department of Indian Affairs was responsible for holding reserve lands “in trust,” multiple scholars have pointed out that this contradicts the role of its predecessor’s — to settle the West. This tension allowed large-scale surrenders of reserve lands, meant to open the way for White settlement, to take place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Clifford Sifton — best known for his aggressive promotion of immigration to settle the Prairie West — was Superintendent General of Indian Affairs from 1896 to 1905. Future Prime Minister Arthur Meighen also held this position from 1917 to 1920.

Overall, the Department of the Interior and the Department of Indian Affairs were closely tied in their mandates and personnel. Except for two brief periods (the first between 1883 and 1887, and the second in 1930), the minister of the Interior held the position of superintendent general of Indian Affairs. During the years 1897 to 1902, the second-in-command (deputy) positions of the two departments were also filled by the same person (James A Smart). From 1878 to 1887, and again briefly in 1888, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald was Superintendent of Indian Affairs.

Pre- and Post-War Restructuring, 1936 to 1966

In 1936, Indian Affairs was made a branch of the Department of Mines and Resources; in 1950, it was again transferred — this time to the Department of Citizenship and Immigration. Ellen Fairclough, the first female cabinet minister, ran the department from 1958 to 1962. It remained there until 1965, when it became a part of the Department of Northern Affairs and Natural Resources.

Northern Affairs was also transferred to the department of Mines and Resources in 1936. In 1950, it was moved to the Department of Resources and Development for three years. From 1953 to 1966, it re-joined Indian Affairs in the Department of Northern Affairs and Natural Resources.

Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, 1966 to 2017

In 1966, the federal government established the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development. This was the first time the two portfolios lived under one department specifically designed to meet the needs of both Indigenous and Northern affairs. Notable past ministers of the department include Jean Chrétien (1968–74) and David Crombie (1984–86).

A reorganization of the department in 1968 created three program areas apart from support services: Indian and Eskimo Affairs (changed to Indian and Inuit Affairs in 1978), the Northern Development Program (changed to the Northern Affairs Program in 1973) and Parks Canada (which became the responsibility of the Minister of the Environment in 1979). As of 2018, Parks Canada is under the Department of Environment and Climate Change. The old Northern Development and Indian Consultation department is roughly equivalent to the modern Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Development, while the former Indian-Inuit Affairs is similar to Indigenous Services today.

In 1974, the federal government also created an Office of Native Claims to represent the government in claims negotiations with Indigenous peoples. Claims negotiations are now handled by the Specific Claims Tribunal established in 2008. (See also Indigenous Land Claims.)

Changes in Name

The department has been renamed a few times since 1966. Most recently, it was called Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (2011–15) and Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (2015–17). Changes in name often reflect the election of new governments and their approaches to Indigenous and Northern affairs, as well as changing perspectives on nationally- and internationally-accepted terms to refer to Indigenous people; for example, changing departmental titles from “Indian” to “Aboriginal” to “Indigenous,” and “Eskimo” to “Inuit.”

Overall however, the general aim of modern versions of this department has been to support steps towards self-government and the implementation of land claims, economic development, improved quality of life in Indigenous communities, better management of Indigenous land, resources and monies, and northern development.

Restructuring under the Justin Trudeau Government, 2017 to 2018

In 2017, the government of Justin Trudeau implemented a recommendation of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1996) by dissolving Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) and replacing it with two new departments: Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs; and Indigenous Services.

Indigenous Services Canada works toward improving the quality of services delivered to Indigenous peoples, with the eventual goal of having these services delivered by Indigenous nations rather than the Crown. This new department absorbed the First Nations and Inuit Health Branch from Health Canada. The federal government described the restructuring of INAC as a “next step” to abolishing the Indian Act.

The Department of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs was renamed on 18 July 2018 to the Department of Crown-Indigenous Relations. It continues to oversee Indigenous-government relations, including matters pertaining to treaty rights and self-government. The Northern affairs portfolio was moved to a new ministry: Intergovernmental and Northern Affairs and Internal Trade.

List of Departments of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, 1763 to present

Departments responsible for Indian/Indigenous Affairs:

British Indian Department (1755-1860)
Secretary of State of Canada (1860-1869)
Secretary of State for the Provinces (1869–1873)
The Interior (1873–1880)
Indian Affairs (1880–1936)
Mines and Resources (1936–1950)
Citizenship and Immigration (1950–1965)
Northern Affairs and National Resources (1966)
Indian Affairs and Northern Development (1966–2017)
Indigenous Services (2017–present)
Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs (2017–2018)
Crown-Indigenous Relations (2018–present)

Departments responsible for Northern Affairs:

The Interior (1873–1936)
Mines and Resources (1936–1950)
Resources and Development (1950–1953)
Northern Affairs and National Resources (1953–1966)
Indian Affairs and Northern Development (1966–2017)
Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs (2017–2018)
Intergovernmental and Northern Affairs and Internal Trade (2018–present)