First Nations Demand Change to Indian Act

Twenty years after Canada’s Indian Act was amended, aboriginal peoples continue to push for the law to be rewritten.

On June 28, about 100 people gathered at the Human Rights Monument in Ottawa to protest the 1985 amendment, added through bill C-31. The legislation changed the criteria for aboriginals to claim Indian status, as well as the amount of control bands have in determining membership.

Status determines who is recognized as an "Indian" by the Canadian government. Without status, a person is not eligible for benefits and legislation applying to recognized First Nations people. These benefits include the right to live on reserve and share in band activities.

According to the protesters, the discriminatory C-31 amendments must be rewritten in order to bring the Indian Act in line with the U.N. Human Rights Commission and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

"We received lots of support; people were driving by and honking their horns," Sonia Mitchell, communications officer for Quebec Native Women Inc. (QNW), commented in a brief phone interview.

A collaborative effort by the QNW and the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC), the protesters marched to Parliament Hill and presented a petition calling for alterations to C-31—specifically so aboriginal women no longer have to declare their child’s paternity for the child to acquire status.

"What is a woman supposed to do if she is in an abusive relationship?" Beverly Jacobs, NWAC president asked about the requirement for both mother and father to sign a child’s status application. "She is forced between going back to that awful person, or for her child to be non status."

Initially passed in 1876, the Indian Act emphasized male lineage and paternity rights in defining who has aboriginal rights. Amendments under bill C-31 were intended to rectify some of the discriminatory tenets—prior to 1985, women who married a non-Native or non-status person automatically lost their own status.

Under C-31, status individuals fall into one of two categories, 6(1) or 6(2). People registered 6(1) are generally those registered as Indians prior to 1985, as well as women reinstated because they had lost status through marriage. This category also includes individuals whose parents are or both entitled to status registration.

Individuals born of one parent eligible for 6(1) status are recognized as 6(2); however, if one parent is 6(2) and the other is non-status, the child is not eligible for status.

If an aboriginal woman does not declare paternity, the father is automatically assumed to be non-status.

"We have a tendency to separate the history of colonialism from the history of sexual discrimination when they are not really all that different," Martin J. Cannon, a professor of sociology at the University of Saskatchewan who spoke at the protest, said in a phone interview.

He said, "Hopefully the protest will get men thinking about how the history of the Indian Act and the history of sexual discrimination are intertwined."

Both aboriginal men and women struggle with C-31’s insistence on patrilineal recognition because many Native cultures trace their heritage matrilineally.

"This legislation goes against our values and our ancestral beliefs," said Ellen Gabriel, QNW president. "The Indian Act is foreign to us … It really dehumanizes us."

Canada’s population of status Indians sharply increased after the amendments were passed, but because many 6(2) individuals marry non-status partners, that population is expected to drop sharply in coming generations. Within the Alderville Nation, for example, firstnationsdating.com reports that more than 80 percent of the population marries non-members.

"By 2010, about one out of every five First Nations children will not qualify for status under the Indian Act. In other words, in the eyes of the government, there will no longer be ‘Indians,’ even though these people will continue to live in their traditional communities," said Maureen Chapman, president of the Women’s Counsel of the Assembly of First Nations.

David Baker, creator of firstnationsdating.com, has approached the problem in his own way. His free dating service helps bring status Indians together, a move he hopes will encourage more marriages between status individuals and increase the status population. He admits his service, which has about 1,700 members, "has a minimal effect," but he was motivated by his own family’s experience with C-31.

"I really hope they change something about this law," Baker said in a phone interview. "My sister has five children, none of whom can be status because she married a non-status person … If we have to keep dealing with this law we need to do something to increase our numbers."

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