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Feds may expand aboriginal status
Northern News Services
Published Monday, March 15, 2010
As a result of a Supreme Court order issued a year ago, the federal government announced Thursday it has proposed amendments to its Indian Act that would restore First Nations status to women who married a non-First Nations man, as well as to their children and grandchildren.
The amendments, brought about because of B.C. lawyer Sharon McIvor's 24-year legal battle to have the discriminatory 1951 Indian Act changed, have to be approved by Parliament by April 6 to meet the Supreme Court of Canada's deadline.
If approved, the changes would apply primarily to people who were born to a First Nations mother and a non-First Nations father before April 17, 1985, when the court first ordered the government to change a sexist stipulation of the old act that stripped women of their status when they married a non-First Nations man. The act did not set out the same rules for men who married a non-First Nations women.
The 1985 changes were not retroactive, however, and that is what these newly announced changes address.
But an NWT aboriginal wellness co-ordinator says the government is not doing enough to support those who are entitled to First Nations status.
"They were ordered to make it right - it wasn't from the goodness of their hearts - so they did the bare minimum," said Lockhart, the aboriginal wellness co-ordinator at Stanton Territorial Hospital and chair of the Public Service Alliance of Canada NWT Aboriginal Peoples committee.
Lockhart, a Cree woman and a member of the Lutsel K'e Dene Band, recognized the work of McIvor and aboriginal women's advocates in pushing these changes forward, and said the new rules will likely affect her granddaughter and future great-grandchildren.
The Department of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada estimates 45,000 people across the country will now be entitled to status, as well as their children. But Lockhart said she is concerned that the government has given no indication of how it will provide the financial benefits owed to these new members under treaty agreements.
"What they've done is they've actually imposed economic hardship on all First Nations," she said. "Not because these people were added. It's because the government failed to accommodate for the economics."
"People really need to understand treaties to understand that it's not costing Canada any more (money). Canada just needs to give up what doesn't belong to them," Lockhart added.
According to the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs, there are about 230 bands in Canada that set their own membership rules. Those bands will decide who can be part of their membership, regardless of whether individuals are granted First Nations status.
The department said new members of First Nations groups that do not control their own membership will be added to the appropriate band list.
All those who are now eligible for First Nations status will be entitled to the same access to government programs as are existing First Nations members.
INAC spokesperson Margot Geduld said Friday that First Nations benefits vary depending on many factors including band membership and on or off-reserve residency.
She said as of yet the government has no new plan to as to how it will provide those benefits to an influx of newly recognized First Nations people.
Neither Dene Nation Chief Bill Erasmus, a longtime proponent of the right for aboriginal people to set their own citizenship rules, nor Sandy Lee, NWT Minister responsible for the status of women, could be reached for comment.
"The numbers are really projected estimates, so they're going to be looking at that as we move forward, depending on who does apply (for status) and all those other elements," Geduld said.
In her speech from the throne in the House of Commons on March 3, Governor-General Michaelle Jean emphasized the contributions aboriginal people have made in Canada and pledged the government's support for aboriginal issues.
"Our government will also work hand-in-hand with aboriginal communities and provinces and territories to reform and strengthen education, and to support student success and provide greater hope and opportunity," Jean read.
Lockhart said she felt the speech promised more than the government delivered with these proposed changes to the act - something she doesn't consider to be "ethical leadership."
"Where's this support? I don't see it," she said. "When they did the throne speech they said, 'We support aboriginal people in their education,' and they also knew they were going to reinstate about 45,000 women and their children and their grandchildren. By not having the money to go with it, it's strategic in the sense that it has the immense potential to be divisive to the First Nations themselves."
Approximately 698,025 people identified themselves as First Nations on the 2006 Statistics Canada census. According to census data, First Nations represent three out of every 10 people living in NWT.