The first Indian Act came into force in 1868, and was a consolidation of the laws passed in the colonies prior to confederation. Even when the remaining six provinces entered confederation, the Constitution Act, 1867 outlined, and the Indian Act, specified the governance of the Indian peoples. The Indian Act dealt with three broad areas: lands, membership, and local government; and has been revised and amended many times since 1868, but is still the major piece of legislation governing the lives of registered, status and treaty Indian peoples.
The act has treated the Indian peoples it governs as children. Until 1960, Indians could not vote in federal elections. Monetary dealings were nightmarish because financial institutions could not use personal property owned by an Indian on a reserve as security. Indians who sought full legal status under Canadian law were required to renounce their Indian rights and become deregistered. Certain provisions in the act forced many people to become "enfranchised" against their will. Indian women who married non-Indian men, for example, lost their Indian rights. Natives who served in the Canadian armed forces were also forced to give up their status. During the 1980s, however, realizing that Indian people are proud of their heritage and do not no wish to be assimilated into another society, the government attempted to correct this situation.
Although the federal government is directly responsibility for governing Indian people, the Indian Act allows generally applied provincial and territorial laws—in areas such as child welfare, family maintenance, labor relations and liquor control—to apply as well. While these laws supplement federal law, where there is a conflict federal law takes precedence over provincial laws. Provincial and territorial laws cannot affect Indian rights, cannot single out Indians for special treatment, and do not apply to Indian land.
Getting judges to acknowledge the possibilities of conflict has been a problem. This is particularly true of hunting. Indian people covered by treaties and the Natural Resources Transfer Agreements have the right to hunt for food for themselves and their families in regions where they have hunted since time immemorial. Much of this land is not reserve land, but is owned by individuals or by a province and is therefore subject to provincial laws. Many Indians have appeared in court to defend their rights as Indians to hunt on such land; while some have been acquitted, others have been found guilty.