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These Discriminatory Laws Still Affect Indigenous People Today — Especially Women

Canada’s national Indian Act has had a long and controversial history — and it’s not over yet.

At one time, the Indian Act was responsible for introducing residential schools that forced indigenous Canadians into boarding schools away from their families; creating reserves; renaming Indigenous people with European names; and enforcing the enfranchisement of any First Nation individual admitted to university.

Since its creation in 1876, it has been revised to comply more with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but critics argue the revisions are far from being enough.

On June 22, senators officially deferred their final vote to pass Bill S-3. They say it lacks enough change when it comes to removing sexism from the Indian Act — namely when it comes to the parts making it easier for First Nations men to pass their Indian status onto their children and grandchildren than it is for women to do the same.

Sexism, while currently at the forefront of controversy over the Indian Act, is not the only cause for concern within the act. Indigenous people are still adversely affected by a number of laws found within this outdated piece of legislature — laws that should be amended by the current Canadian government.

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1. Some status Indians living on reserves don’t own their land.

As it stands in the Indian Act, “No Indian is lawfully in possession of land in a reserve unless, with the approval of the Minister, possession of the land has been allotted to him by the council of the band.”

Reserve lands cannot be seized under legal process and because of that, it’s difficult for people living on reserves to borrow money as they cannot list their land as an asset.

2. First Nations men who married non-status women before 1985 will always pass their Indian status to at least their grandchildren — but that’s not the case for women.

First Nations men who married non-status women prior to April 17, 1985 will pass their status to at least their grandchildren (and often to their great-grandchildren), regardless of whether or not their children or grandchildren have children with non-status people.

On the flip side, First Nations women who married non-status men before that same date will only pass their status on to their grandchildren (and further only if the grandchildren have children with other Indigenous people with Indian status).

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3. The Canadian government, through Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, allocates funding to bands only for status Indians, not for other band members.

There were changes made to the Indian Act in 1985 when Bill C-31 was passed. When the bill came into effect, Indian status became separate from band membership and bands were given the responsibility of managing their own membership — making it possible for someone without status to still be a member. But Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development provides funding to bands for status Indians only (and not for band members).

This means that bands could potentially be short on funding needed to provide for their membership due to financial restrictions.

4. Descendants of men with status who were born before Sept. 4, 1951 will be granted Indian status but descendants of women with status who married non-status men will not.

Bill S-3 proposes changes to the Act to address some of the sexist issues with the legislation, but the bill does not revise this provision. Making this change could result in 80,000 to 2 million new status Indians.

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The Act’s name presents an issue it and of itself given that the term Indian is antiquated and offensive.

Justin Trudeau announced his intention to change the name of National Aboriginal Day to National Indigenous Peoples Day last week. He also renamed the Prime Minister’s office from Langevin Block to Office of the Prime Minister and the Privy Council Office. The building was originally named after Hector Louis Langevin, a father of Confederation and a supporter of the residential school system.

The driving force behind the amendments being brought forth in Bill S-3 is a case involving an Odanak man named Stéphane Descheneaux. Descheneaux couldn’t pass on his status to his daughters because his status was passed on to him by his grandmother who lost her status when she married a non-Indigenous man. It’s a clear example of changes needed in the Indian Act — and ideally another step leading towards reconciliation.