Anishinabek Nation studies replacing federal restrictions with citizenship concept

By Michael Purvis
Sault Star

There’s something troubling to Wayne Beaver about the high rate at which Alderville First Nation members are marrying people from outside the community.

It’s not the fact that youth are looking to outsiders for mates that raises alarm bells – that’s expected in a community of just 300 people, Beaver said.

The problem is, if what the studies say is true, Alderville faces a future without any status Indians as long as the federal government’s definition of Indian status continues to hold sway, he said.

“The government has always used status to control our numbers, and that’s not conjecture, that’s just history,” said Beaver, a band councillor for Alderville, just south of Peterborough, Ont.

The Anishinabek Nation says many, if not all, First Nations face a similar dwindling population problem due to an amendment to the Indian Act in 1985 that was meant to remove discrimination against women, but which created a two-generation status cut-off for native people who marry non-natives.

The Anishinabek Nation took another step on Tuesday in its effort to change that situation. It named a commissioner who will work to create a citizenship law for its 42-member First Nations.

Jeannette Corbiere-Lavell, who led a Supreme Court challenge in the 1970s against the status system when it stripped her of membership in her own community, will hold a series of consultations aimed at creating consensus on how the Anishinabek Nation will take control of its own citizenship.

The law proposes to do several things, chief among them throwing out the concept of status and replacing it with citizenship akin to that of the world’s sovereign nations.

“Under the present definition, the grandchildren of women such as me, who marry non-Indians, will lose their status,” Corbiere-Lavell told a conference on citizenship held in Garden River First Nation on Tuesday.

The way it works now, Corbiere-Lavell was able to pass on what the government considers status to her children. But because she married a non-native, her offspring are unable to pass their treaty rights on to their own children unless they marry other status Indians.

“My grandchildren now have to deal with what I dealt with in the 1970s, which is losing legal right to membership within our community,” said Corbiere-Lavell, a high-school teacher on Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve.

The Anishinabek Nation’s solution is a law that will determine citizenship based on the lineage of at least one grandparent.

Grand Council Chief John Beaucage said it’s time First Nations start looking at citizenship in the same way as nations like Canada do.

“Right now we somewhat buy into the aspect of status with the Indian Act: Our membership clerks fill in the federal government forms and send them in to Ottawa and people get entered into a list,” said Beaucage.

“Well, once we have our citizenship law, we’re not going to do that; we’re not going to fill those forms in and send them in to Ottawa.”

How that affects the relationship between First Nations and the federal government is “more their problem than ours,” said Beaucage. “We will determine who our citizens are, and treaty relationships and treaties will still carry on,” he said. “That’s the basis of our relationship with the Crown: the treaties, not the Indian Act.”

Beaver said his First Nation has a pretty good idea what is in store if the federal government continues to control Indian status.

“You can’t predict the future, but you can do studies and we’ve had two done,” said Beaver.

He said both pointed to 2032 as the date when the last status birth will take place on Alderville First Nation.

“So from that point on, all children born at Alderville will be born without tax immunity, treaty rights such as health and education; they won’t be allowed to take part in the housing program on the First Nation, they won’t be allowed to own land, they won’t be allowed to live on the First Nation, they won’t be able to vote in band elections,” said Beaver.

“A large” number of Alderville youth are in the same position right now, said Beaver. Even if they grow up on the reserve, when those youth turn 21, they lose their legal right to be band members.

“I don’t think our First Nation or any other First Nation would exclude them, but there’s a big difference between relying on somebody’s good graces to accept you and having a right to be there.”