First Notions #3 - Status "Roulette"

First Notions #3 - Status "Roulette"

"The great aim of our legislation has been to do away with the tribal system and assimilate the Indian people in all respects with the other inhabitants of the Dominion as speedily as they are fit to change.” - John A Macdonald, 1887

Well where do I go from here with what defines an Aboriginal, Métis or Inuit person?  All of these are terms set out in the Indian Act. Even the federal government had a problem on what defines who is an Indian.  

In recent years the ministry of Indian Affairs and Northern Development has had to make changes in the Indian Act due to Supreme Court decisions in favour of women and Métis people. The terms of the original Indian Act were exclusionary when it came to women, ‘non-status’ Indians and Métis Nations.

People may wonder why we want ‘status’, when at the same time we talk about how controlling the Indian Act is over Indigenous people. My dear Elder friend said they used to have to sneak onto reserve lands owed by the federal government just to be able to visit their relatives. She still remembers this from when she was a little girl - the fear she felt, and the jeopardy they were in, just so they could be together as a family. This is how much control the Indian Act had over our people.

But ‘status’ was still important because the federal government provided Status Indians with health care, education, and other services that we needed in order to survive, after our land and our systems of sustaining ourselves were all taken away. 

I will explain the term ‘Non-Status’ used by the federal government. Status is held only by Indians as defined in the Indian Act. That’s it. An Indian could lose Status by joining the army, getting a degree,  joining the priesthood, or accepting fee-simple land offered by the government.  The worst situation was when an Indigenous woman married a non-indigenous man, she lost her status and so did her children.  But if an Indigenous man married a non-Indigenous woman, she acquired the status as an Indian and so did their children.  

Wrong, yes. In 1985, the Indian Act was amended, and Bill C-31 allowed an Indian woman to keep her status if she married a non-indigenous man.  But their children still had no status.  It took two decades in the case of Sharon McIvor and Bill C-3: Gender Equity in the Indian Registration Act, for the government to finally grant status to the children of such unions. The bill was finally passed in 2010.

The Métis, who are descendants of marriages between Indigenous and settler peoples, were for a long time the forgotten people because they were not recognized by Canadian laws.  They were not part of the Indian Act and therefore were excluded from any help from federal or provincial services. The Métis  people could not negotiate with the federal government because the government said they had no jurisdiction or responsibility over the Métis  people or non-status people.

The Métis won a significant court decision in the case of Daniels v. Canada (Indian Affairs and Northern Development). In the end the federal government had to deal with all Indigenous people including  Métis Nations. The decision came in April 2016.

There are many short resources you can find on line if you want to read more about the Indian Act. For example you can ‘google’  “21 THINGS YOU MAY NOT HAVE KNOWN ABOUT THE INDIAN ACT,” and that will lead you to Bob Joseph's influential article and many more posts inspired by and related to the article. Or check out this McLean's magazine article: "Why Dismantling the Indian Act will be nearly Impossible."

There is also a lot of information on cases that went before Supreme court for us to fight for equalization of opportunity, and the right to be able to live in Canada as citizens of our own Nation.

Next time I will share some thoughts about our Indigenous identity as we experience it, which is something pretty different from the way we were categorized by the government of Canada.