As an Indigenous woman with mixed ethnicity, the “percentage” of my Indigeneity has been a recurring theme in my life—especially since I didn’t obtain my status until I was 13, as a consequence of laws in the Indian Act.
The Indian Act is a piece of federal legislation published in 1876, outlining federal governance over Indigenous peoples. While it’s been amended and debated over the years, the Indian Act’s sections on gender, marriage, and “status” continue to impact Indigenous families today—including my own.
When the Indian Act came into effect, Indigenous people suddenly found themselves subject to guidelines defining who was—and wasn’t—legally “Indian.”
For example, if you attended university or served in the armed forces, you became a “full Canadian citizen” and lost your Indian status. Historically, neither Inuit or Métis people were recognized as having status.
Having status entitles Indigenous people to the services and privileges outlined in their treaty rights, including treaty and health benefits, and the right to live on their reserve, inherit family property, and be buried on their reserve.
Throughout Canada’s history, Indian status laws disproportionately affected Indigenous women compared to men. Specifically, the Indian Act stripped Indigenous women of their status if they married a non-status man. Men weren’t subject to this law; instead, if a man married a non-status woman, she automatically gained Indian status through their marriage.
Since the government alone determines who can have status, women who “married out” were no longer entitled to the government-run services provided to status Indigenous people.
My grandmother, a status Indigenous woman from the Kwakiutl band on the small island of Alert Bay, B.C., is one of many women who experienced this inequality when she married my grandfather, a non-status man of European descent from Nova Scotia.
As a result, their two children, my aunt and father, didn’t receive their Indigenous status until their early twenties, around the time when the federal government amended the Indian Act and introduced Bill C-31.
Bill C-31 was meant to compensate for the gender inequalities enshrined in the Indian Act, in accordance with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which came into effect three years prior in 1982. The bill ended enfranchisement, or status loss.
Status was returned to the women from whom it had been taken, and non-Indigenous women could no longer gain status through marriage to a status man.
However, for many Indigenous families, including my own, the long-lasting consequences of these laws have prevailed, even after the introduction of Bill C-31.
One of the most controversial aspects of Bill C-31 was the revision of section 6 of the Indian Act, which defines who is entitled to be registered as an Indigenous person.
This section outlined two classes of Indians; those defined by section 6(1) who can pass on status to their children, and those defined by 6(2), who have status themselves, but who had only one status parent, therefore could not pass it on unless their child’s other parent also had status.
One of the critiques of Bill C-31 is that it “[Replaced] discrimination against Indian women with discrimination against their children and grandchildren.”
A grandchild descending from a male line would be automatically eligible for status themselves, even if their grandfather had married a non-status woman before 1985 and regardless of their other parent’s status.
In the years before Bill C-31 was introduced, my grandmother was active in fighting for her status rights. She was extremely aware of the injustice of the status laws at that time—especially as two of her cousins lost their status in the same way and in the same year that she did.
After moving to Ottawa, Ont. from Vancouver, B.C. with her family in 1964, she joined a national advocacy group called Native Rights for Native Women and attended a demonstration on Parliament Hill with Indigenous women from across Canada.
She was also in direct contact with her MP at the time, who called her personally in 1985 when Bill C-31 was passed and she became able to reclaim her status.
Growing up, I was always proud of my mixed background, but it can be hard to navigate your identity when you don’t fall into a concrete category.
In the past, I’ve had classmates make comments that dismissed my Indigeneity because of what “percentage” I was.
“Why do you keep saying you’re Indigenous if you are only a quarter?” they would ask.
On the other hand, friends and extended family have always been interested and supportive of my Indigenous heritage.
I thought it was especially unique to have Indigenous ancestry, since at the time I did not know any other Indigenous students at my school. For a long time, I didn’t even know there was a big difference between a status and a non-status Indigenous person, and I don’t think I grasped the distinction until I was able to get status myself.
Although my father had gotten his Indian status, it couldn’t be passed on to my sisters and me. He fell into the 6(2) category since his father didn’t have status and my mother, an immigrant from Pakistan, didn’t have status, either.
In 2009, a decision by the British Columbia Court of Appeal in the case McIvor v. Canada found there was gender discrimination against Indigenous women in section 6 of the Indian Act since women couldn’t pass down their status to dependents in the same way as a man.
Since section 6 was found to violate equality rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, a further amendment was made, Bill C-3 Gender Equity in Indian Registration Act. It now allowed Indigenous women to pass on 6(1) status to their children and 6(2) to grandchildren.
According to the Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs website, over 37,000 people registered for status between 2011 and 2017 as a result of this decision, including my two sisters and me.
When I was 13, my father told me that I would be able to get my Indian status because grandchildren of Indigenous women were now granted that option. However, I felt unsettled after learning grandchildren of Indigenous men had this status since birth.
Sharon McIver, the Indigenous woman who took the government to court, is still fighting on behalf of Indigenous women and their descendants to ensure all aspects of the law are equal. I’m grateful for people like her who have worked hard on behalf of others to give us the equal opportunities we deserve.
Indigenous peoples, and in this case, Indigenous women, have always led the fight for their equal rights in Canada and are responsible for the progress that has been made on these issues.
Many Canadians are unaware of the intricacies of prejudicial Indigenous laws in Canada, but my hope is that as they gradually become more educated on Indigenous issues in Canada, non-Indigenous people can help carry the burden of fighting for equal treatment.
Unfortunately, despite amendments to the original Indian Act, there are lasting consequences to previous laws.
On top of the difficulty of passing down status through generations, which I’ve personally experienced, women affected by these laws have also faced long-term health issues and inequalities, alienation from their communities, loss of culture within Indigenous bands, resource and financial difficulties, and more.
Indigenous people have struggled with health issues, partially attributed to unfortunate circumstances resulting from the Indian Act and the lack of action with Bill C-31. Some of these concerns include higher rates of suicide, diabetes, and cancer.
On average, Indigenous women are expected to live 5.5 years less than their non-Indigenous counterparts. Young Indigenous girls between the age of 15 and 29 are five times more likely to die by suicide compared to the national average.
Moreover, some clan lines have been lost over time since certain bands pass lineage through the mother. Although women could be granted status for marrying an Indigenous man, they were unable to pass a clan down to their child. Likewise, women who lost their status wouldn’t be able to pass their clan down to their child and have it recognized.
Issues also arose due to the influx of people who regained status. The sudden population growth on reserves prompted a shortfall of resources due to lack of funding, drastically decreasing quality of life for those involved.
Some women reported that services were being given to those who never lost status, while women who regained status were overlooked.
Additionally, funding healthcare and post-secondary education are issues of deep importance. The lack of healthcare explains the health issues many Indigenous people disproportionately face compared to non-Indigenous Canadians. Shortage of funding for post-secondary education is problematic as well because if Indigenous people aren’t given the opportunity to further their education, it becomes difficult to improve their situation.
Not all women were given the opportunity to return to reserves either. When Bill C-31 was enacted, each band had the option to gain control over who would receive status within their communities. This caused tension within communities because some women were not given their status and to this day women continue to lose their status if they marry out. Furthemore, some women were not allowed back on their reserve even after they regained their status.
Over time, colonization has made some Indigenous communities unconsciously reflect the negativity instilled by Canadian colonial society. For this reason, despite Bill C-31, gender equality still isn’t guaranteed.
Some communities continued to hold men in a higher regard while alienating the women who were unrightfully stripped of their status, even after it was restored.
As we approach the fifth anniversary of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Calls to Action, it is important to reflect on the advantages and drawbacks of the report and to acknowledge and help improve on some of the lasting issues.
There are no direct recommendations in the TRC’s Calls to Action regarding the concept of status and retribution for those who have had their status negatively affected by laws in the Indian Act. Having said that, I would like to note Calls to Action that address some of the indirect consequences of these laws.
Recommendations eight and nine address the need for equal educational funding for Indigenous children on and off reserves.
Recommendations 18, 19, and 20 describe the need to acknowledge the health issues Indigenous peoples face, as well as the inequalities that exist between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people as well as those who live on and off reserves.
Calls to Actions 43, 44, and 45 most closely relate to status-specific issues, albeit indirectly.
They call for Canadian governments at all levels to adopt, implement, and concretely work on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP).
Within UNDRIP, some examples of relevant articles include the right not to be subjected to forced assimilation or discrimination, to not be forcibly removed from one’s land, the right to belong to a community in accordance with traditions, and for communities to choose, determine, and select their own identity and membership.
However, most notable to me is Article 44, which states that “all the rights and freedoms recognized herein are equally guaranteed to male and female [Indigenous] individuals.”
The examples I provided from the TRC report and UNDRIP aren’t exhaustive by any means, but they all identify tangible measures that can be taken to improve inequalities between Indigenous men and women, as a result of laws in the Indian Act.
From a personal standpoint, it’s important to me that Indigenous peoples and Canadians are aware of and understand the TRC report and its Calls to Action to keep those in power accountable to their responsibility to implement these recommendations. Particularly in this case, to assist Indigenous women and their descendants harmed by status laws.
Having status can be beneficial in many ways. This includes, but isn’t limited to, healthcare coverage and post-secondary funding, which can open doors for Indigenous people who do not have the same opportunities as others in Canada.
I’ve always been proud and open about my Indigenous background, but compared to people who are “fully” Indigenous, I felt like I couldn’t claim it, especially since I grew up across the country from my other Indigenous family members and didn’t have status myself.
After 13 years, receiving my status card was monumental for me. The card gave me what felt like a tangible connection to my Indigenous heritage and identity.
It meant a lot that I could justify my claims of being Indigenous with proof that the government acknowledged this to be true.
Still, I know each Indigenous person is different. Unlike myself, who grew up in suburban Ottawa, many Indigenous people who I have since met and spoken to grew up within their culture and don’t want or need the government to define their identity through Indian status.
Indigenous identity comes in many forms, and in order to achieve reconciliation there must be an understanding of this—and equal opportunities for Indigenous people to express their identity through status, if they so choose.
I am appreciative that my grandmother was one of many Indigenous women who fought for what was wrongfully stripped from her, paving the way for her children, and now grandchildren, to obtain those equal opportunities we deserve.
Sophia Barkhouse is a recent graduate of Carleton University’s School of Journalism and currently works in the communications field. When writing, Sophia enjoys exploring and learning new topics, particularly in relation to Canadian Indigenous stories. In her free time, Sophia enjoys reading, knitting, and drinking chai lattes.