Aboriginal Ancestry but No 'Status'

Who is a real Indian? It's a wince-inducing question. For starters, there's that word - INDIAN.

Aboriginal Ancestry but No 'Status'

Who is a real Indian? It's a wince-inducing question. For starters, there's that word - INDIAN. Replacing it with Aboriginal or First Nations person, though, is hard if the question is asked in the context of Canadian law, since the reply comes down to how the Department of INDIAN AND NORTHERN AFFAIRS interprets the INDIAN ACT provisions on who qualifies as a registered Indian. Beyond the problematic proper noun, there's something deeply troubling about the notion that such a question should be posed at all. Does anyone really have any right to define anybody else's racial identity? Is anybody qualified to offer even a tentative reply?

Yet there's no way to avoid the question in legal and political debates about the future of First Nations in Canada. GOVERNMENT POLICY assumes a definable population of registered or "status" Indians who qualify for federal services and benefits. That makes the growing population of Canadians with Aboriginal ancestry who do not qualify an increasing concern. The scope of the problem comes into clearer focus in the latest detailed population study commissioned by the federal government. It estimates that of registered Indians living off RESERVES who had children between 1985 and 2004, 70 per cent had their kids with non-status partners. Even among registered Indians living on reserves, 35 per cent of those who had children were paired with partners who didn't share their status.

The unpublished draft report, called "Registered Indian Population Projections for Canada and Regions, 2004-2029," recently released to Maclean's by Indian Affairs, leaves no doubt about the far-reaching implications of what's often called "marrying out." It says the predominance of mixed marriages "will result in the loss of registration entitlement to a growing proportion of the descendants of the registered Indian population." Others characterize the outlook more bluntly. "The projection," says Dan Wilson, an Assembly of First Nations adviser on government relations, "is that in some of our communities you could actually wipe out status, which is a grave concern for us."

The report, written by Winnipeg-based demographics expert Stewart Clatworthy, forecasts that the registered Indian population will grow to 1.7 million in 2029, up from 764,000 in 2004. In the same quarter-century, the number of non-status descendants of registered Indians living on reserves will balloon to 99,800, about 22 times the 2004 figures. Meanwhile, the off-reserve population of registered Indians' descendants who don't qualify for status will more than double to 144,800. That adds up to 154,600 descendants of status Indians whose forebears were fully recognized under federal law, but who will not inherit that status - at least, not in the government's eyes.

This looming generational divide stems from Indian Act regulations that dictate status. Those rules were overhauled in 1985 to end discrimination against First Nations women. Status was previously passed down through the male line. The updated rules let children inherit status from either parent, but often made grandchildren ineligible. A child with one registered Indian parent inherits status; if that child, however, grows up and marries a non-status person, their children do not qualify. Last year, for example, Maclean's published the story of John Thunder, the dynamic chief of Manitoba's Buffalo Point First Nation, whose children inherit his status, despite their white mother. But Thunder expects they won't marry registered Indians, which means his grandchildren won't be status Indians.

Unless the rules change. The Assembly of First Nations is working on a reform proposal. The reserves that make up the AFN already decide on who gets to be a band member. Wilson says band councils - not the federal government - should also have the power to confer registered Indian status on their members. But the rival Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, representing off-reserve populations with First Nations backgrounds, argues that individuals should be able to define themselves as Indian.

Either option might greatly increase the number of status Indians, and so would have to be viewed cautiously by federal officials who are quietly exploring the issue. After all, status has its privileges - from a share of band oil and gas royalties, to proceeds from land claims settlements, to free prescription drugs, to tax-free status on reserves. This is a deeply felt matter of identify for anyone with Aboriginal heritage, but a question of real interest for the Canadian taxpayer, too.

Maclean's July 7, 2008