In­dige­nous women gain ground in Canada

Se­nate paves way for fe­male First Na­tion mem­bers to gain tax breaks, right to vote in Na­tive elec­tions and ex­panded health care cov­er­age


Lynn Gehl’s grand­mother be­longed to the Pik­wakana­gan First Na­tion, one of hun­dreds of in­dige­nous groups in Canada whose mem­bers are en­ti­tled to spe­cific ser­vices and le­gal rights. But Gehl, a 55-year-old writer, had to fight 22 years in court to win any of those rights, and can­not pass them on to her chil­dren, be­cause her in­dige­nous lin­eage comes through the fe­male line, and so is not rec­og­nized un­der Cana­dian law.

“I should be able to pass on my sta­tus but I can’t be­cause of gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion,” she said.

Now that may change. The Cana­dian Se­nate last week ap­proved leg­is­la­tion to amend a 141-year-old law that has pre­vented in­dige­nous women and their de­scen­dants from ob­tain­ing the same rights al­lot­ted to in­dige­nous men, in­clud­ing some tax breaks, the abil­ity to vote for in­dige­nous gov­ern­ments, ac­cess to land on re­serves and ex­panded health care cov­er­age.

The House of Com­mons is ex­pected to pass the bill. “Our gov­ern­ment is com­mit­ted to work­ing with First Na­tions, par­lia­men­tar­i­ans, im­pacted in­di­vid­u­als and ex­perts to en­sure all gen­der-based dis­crim­i­na­tion is elim­i­nated from reg­is­tra­tion un­der the In­dian Act,” the of­fice of Carolyn Ben­nett, the min­is­ter for in­dige­nous re­la­tions, said in a state­ment.

The bill would even­tu­ally al­low more than 1 mil­lion peo­ple to gain of­fi­cial sta­tus and the cor­re­spond­ing rights, ac­cord­ing to gov­ern­ment es­ti­mates. But it has stirred con­tro­versy be­cause some rights would be granted only af­ter con­sul­ta­tion with in­dige­nous groups, some of which have ob­jected to the leg­is­la­tion, ar­gu­ing that re­sources are lim­ited.

Also, the process of con­sul­ta­tion may not be com­pleted be­fore the next fed­eral elec­tion in 2019, mean­ing a new gov­ern­ment could sim­ply de­cide to drop the plan. “The prob­lem with any fed­eral gov­ern­ment is their past de­ci­sions are such a hor­ror story of bro­ken prom­ises you can’t take their word that the com­mit­ment will be hon­ored,” said Sen. Serge Joyal from Que­bec, who voted against the bill for not in­clud­ing an ex­plicit dead­line for when rights for in­dige­nous women and their de­scen­dants would take ef­fect.

In­dige­nous groups in Canada, known as First Na­tions, have long been sub­ject to state poli­cies de­signed to erase their cul­tural iden­ti­ties, ap­pro­pri­ate their lands and deny them po­lit­i­cal au­ton­omy un­der treaties and laws like the In­dian Act of 1876.

The law gave the Cana­dian gov­ern­ment the power to reg­u­late so-called In­dian sta­tus — de­ter­min­ing who was of­fi­cially rec­og­nized as a mem­ber of a First Na­tion and who was not — and to re­strict ac­cess of so-called non­sta­tus peo­ple to re­serves, ser­vices and le­gal rights. It re­mains the core of many poli­cies and reg­u­la­tions in ef­fect to­day.

If a sta­tus First Na­tions woman mar­ried a non­sta­tus man, she and her de­scen­dants were per­ma­nently barred from ac­cess­ing their rights and com­mu­ni­ties, a rule that did not ap­ply to sta­tus men.

Since 1985, the Cana­dian gov­ern­ment has re­stored some rights to in­dige­nous women and their de­scen­dants to com­ply with the coun­try’s char­ter of rights and free­doms, which bans gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion. But courts have re­peat­edly found that the In­dian Act con­tin­ues to dis­crim­i­nate based on sex, es­pe­cially by lim­it­ing women’s abil­ity to trans­fer their sta­tus to their de­scen­dants if they mar­ried non­sta­tus men.

The bill passed last week by the Se­nate, re­ferred to as S-3, has a tor­tured leg­isla­tive his­tory. For decades, in­dige­nous women and their de­scen­dants have fought le­gal bat­tles that helped erode gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion from the In­dian Act. But gov­ern­ments re­sisted eras­ing all sex­ism from this law.

The leg­is­la­tion was drafted more than a year ago by the gov­ern­ment of Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau to com­ply with a 2015 court rul­ing that or­dered changes to the In­dian Act to elim­i­nate gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion by De­cem­ber. The gov­ern­ment por­trayed the bill as a ful­fill­ment of Trudeau’s pledge to build a new re­la­tion­ship with Canada’s 1.4 mil­lion abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple, al­though the gov­ern­ment is also fight­ing le­gal bat­tles with some in­dige­nous groups over rights to nat­u­ral re­sources, po­lit­i­cal con­trol and ser­vices.

“This is one of those key mo­ments that tests the sin­cer­ity not only of the cur­rent gov­ern­ment but Canada as a na­tion’s com­mit­ment to rec­on­cil­i­a­tion,” said Craig Ben­jamin, an in­dige­nous rights cam­paigner for Amnesty In­ter­na­tional.

But crit­ics said the orig­i­nal mea­sure did not go far enough. In the spring, the Se­nate, whose mem­bers are ap­pointed, unan­i­mously ap­proved an amend­ment to re­quire the re­moval of all gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion in the act. But Trudeau’s gov­ern­ment ob­jected, cit­ing the fi­nan­cial com­plex­i­ties of grant­ing In­dian sta­tus rights to as many as 2 mil­lion more peo­ple.

The cur­rent ver­sion of the leg­is­la­tion is a com­pro­mise of sorts, though se­na­tors sup­port­ing the gov­ern­ment de­feated an amend­ment to in­clude a dead­line to en­sure such rights are en­acted.

Cana­dian First Na­tions sta­tus hold­ers line up in June to col­lect their $5 an­nual treaty an­nu­ity pay­ment dur­ing Treaty Days at the Forks in Win­nipeg, Canada. The Cana­dian Se­nate in early Novem­ber ap­proved leg­is­la­tion to amend a 141-year-old law that has...

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