‘Status Indians’ face threat of extinction
Many First Nations communities will die out within a few generations, in terms of registered Indians. Because of intermarriage, some communities will see their last status Indian born as soon as 2012.
Leaning against a creamy white war monument on the 1,200-hectare Alderville First Nation reserve north of Cobourg, Wayne Beaver wonders how long his ancestors’ land will remain in his people’s hands.
They’ve survived decimation by disease and discrimination, but now Canada’s native people are facing what Beaver calls “a legislated extinction of status Indians.”
Statistics that show the self-identified aboriginal population is growing fast – a 45 per cent jump over 10 years to 1.2 million – can be deceiving, said Beaver. Under Canadian law, those who “count” are “status Indians” – a group strictly defined by the Indian Act.
Many First Nations communities will die out within a few generations, in terms of registered Indians. That’s because the “two-generation cut-off” created when the Indian Act was revised in 1985 stipulates only children born of two Indian status parents inherit status. Because of intermarriage, some communities will see their last status Indian born as soon as 2012.
“Status matters, because all our funding is tied to how many status Indians we have in our nation,” said Beaver, 69, whose 1,000-member community expects to see its last status Indians born in 2032.
“What happens to the land when there is no more (status) Indians? The reserve would be returned to … the federal government. Eventually, we will lose our land and everything that we call ours now.”
Bill C-31 was passed in response to a formal censure by the United Nations, which decried the old law’s practice of discriminating against Indian women: Women lost their status when they married a non-status person. Men did not.
But instead of opening the doors to the non-status partners of aboriginal women – a move that would have hugely increased Ottawa’s financial obligations – the amendments ensured that men and women suffered equal losses.
The result, warns Six Nations Chief Bill Montour, could be “the biggest land grab of the century.”
Last May, the Anishinabek Nation Grand Council, which represents 47,000 people from 42 nations, appointed Jeannette Corbiere Lavell as its first citizenship commissioner to help establish and define the Nation’s own form of citizenship and issue its own citizenship cards, among other things.
“I can think of no other issue as crucial for our future or as fundamental to our Nation as citizenship,” Grand Council Chief John Beaucage said at the time. ” It is not my (government-issued) status card that tells me I am Anishinabe. The legacy of my forefathers, and my connections with my family, my community and my nation, tell me who I am.”
Corbiere Lavell, 66, lost her status as a citizen of the Wikwemikong Unceded Indian reserve when she married David Lavell in 1970. Three years later, she led a Supreme Court challenge of the status determination system, but it failed.
At a recent community consultation in Toronto, Corbiere Lavell showed photos of her children and grandchildren to illustrate how the system divides her own family. “Three of my five grandchildren do not have legal rights to be members of my community,” she said.
Since 2001, the Assembly of First Nations has passed five resolutions calling on Ottawa to recognize the authority of First Nations to determine citizenship and status. In 2005, it signed an accord with Ottawa for the recognition and implementation of First Nation governments; it includes issues concerning First Nations identity.
Meanwhile, individuals affected by the two-generation cut-off are suing. In April, in the case of Sharon McIvor and her son Charles Grismer, the British Columbia Court of Appeal ruled the Indian Act violates the Charter of Rights and ordered Ottawa to amend the act within a year. The government has 60 days to seek leave to appeal to the Supreme Court.
Kelly LaRocca, of the Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation has followed the citizenship issue closely. The 33-year-old lawyer, a registered “6(2)” Indian with a native mother and an Italian father, is married to a non-status man. Her future children won’t have status.
“My mom married my dad and lost her status (before 1985). It made some of the community members view her differently. She lost her rights. She was not entitled to hold property on the reserve and sometimes treated as an outsider.
“I don’t like that prospect for my future children. …
“However … my mother was Anishinabe-qwe (woman) and she raised me in an Anishinabe way. I, too, will raise my future children as Anishinabe people.”