Friday, January 22, 2010

What is Aboriginal Identity?

That is both an easy question and a tough one all at the same time. It is an easy question because identity is generally about self-identification - i.e., you are who you say you are. It is also a tough question because one's identity can also be reinforced or damaged by whether one's identity is also legally and/or politically recognized. That is to say, if one identifies as Mi'kmaq, but the Mi'kmaq Nation does not recognize that person, this makes the continued assertion of one's identity more difficult. Similarly, the Indian Act's status provisions have been imposed on Aboriginal peoples for so long that even some Aboriginal people question an individual's Aboriginal identity "credentials", if they don't hold a status card.

Yet, it is important to remember that legal recognition as a status Indian has absolutely nothing to do with Aboriginal culture, heritage, traditions, customs, or practices. It is an administrative tool used by Canada to determine who can have access to their programs and services. It was originally designed to eliminate the "Indian problem" and ensure the eventual assimilation of all Indians. But, if status was only about programs and services, it would not be as significant as it actually is. Because status as an Indian also determines, for the majority of bands in Canada, who can be a member of a band and therefore who can live on reserves; access band programs and services and sometimes cultural activities, then status carries more weight than the government is willing to acknowledge. It is for this reason, that status has such significance in determining Aboriginal identity.

In my opinion, Aboriginal identity should be first and foremost about self-identification. There can be no greater sign of loyalty and pride in one's Aboriginal Nation than to publicly proclaim to the world one's identity as Mohawk, Cayuga, Mi'kmaq, Maliseet and so on. There are a great many people who never give a thought to their identity or who take their identity for granted because it is not threatened in any way. Part of rebuilding our Aboriginal Nations is to rebuild pride in who we are and that includes celebrating those who embrace their Aboriginal identities.
We should also be mindful of the fact that not everyone has the same basis for asserting their Aboriginal identity.

For example, some Aboriginal people who live on reserve are secure in their identity as Aboriginal peoples because they live on the same land as their large extended families and friends who share a common history and culture. These on-reserve Aboriginal may not know how to speak their traditional language, participate in their traditional practices and customs or even know much about their common history. Their connection to their reserve land can be enough for some to be secure in their identity.

There are other Aboriginal people who do not live on a reserve, but who live on their traditional territories. They may also hunt and fish and know a great deal about the history of their vast territories. Their connection to their traditional territory is not limited by reserve boundaries and can be passed on to their families and others who also live on their traditional territories. That connection to their traditional lands that were shared with their ancestors can be all it takes to secure their Aboriginal identities.

There are still other Aboriginal people who, for school, work or otherwise no longer live on a reserve or on their traditional territories. But they may know their culture, can speak their traditional language, partake in traditional practices and ceremonies and honour traditional values. That cultural connection gives supports their identity security despite being off a land-base. They may also contribute to their community through employment or advocacy activities for example. This sense of loyalty and pride in who they are and their community may also add to their identity.

Aboriginal children who were taken away from their parents at a young age and adopted out of the family and even out of their communities may have no ties to their community. They may not know their birth parents, their culture, treaties, land, language or traditions. But they know where they came from and may be determined to learn more and re-establish a connection with their community. They may only have a familial connection to their identity, but for them that might be enough to sustain their identity as an Aboriginal person until they can learn more.

Who is to say that any one of these individuals is "more" Aboriginal than the next? Why can't identification as a Mohawk, Cayuga, Mi'kmaq or Maliseet include any combination of the factors noted above? I would think that given our Nations' need to rebuild, that welcoming all those who are proud to publicly assert their identity and proclaim some degree of loyalty for their Nation is a great deal more valuable than what is offered by those who take their identity and their community for granted. Instead of reducing Aboriginal communities to clubs based on blood quantum or status; we should allow the possibility that our communities are something more than races waiting for inevitable extinction.

If that is the case, and we, as communities of Aboriginal peoples assert our Nationhood and even our right to be self-determining or sovereign nations, don't we also require legal and political recognition as such? If we deny legal and political recognition to our own citizens because they do not fulfill blood quantum levels or they don't have status cards, how can we expect Canada or any other country to see our people as the Nations? Not only does exclusion of our rightful citizens speed up our own legal extinction, we will be excluding the very citizenship base which has shown pride and loyalty in our Nations.

We need proud, loyal, passionate citizens to dedicate their time and energy toward rebuilding our Nations and maintaining our collective identities for our future generations. If we rely on those who take their identity for granted, we create an uncertain future for our children. Perhaps we need to think more objectively about what it means to identify as an Aboriginal person and not be so quick to exclude our own. We may be excluding our future leaders.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

From Frustration to Hope - Balancing Traditional Aboriginal Values with Pressing Social Needs

On Tuesday, January 19, 2010, I attended a breakfast event at the Toronto Board of Trade (BOT). The purpose of the event was to hear Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo speak about how we can partner to improve First Nation economies. The event was hosted by the BOT and emceed by Clint Davis, the President and CEO of the Canadian Centre for Aboriginal Business (CCAB). Clint Davis is from Nunatsiavut (Newfoundland and Labrador) and Chief Atleo is from Ahousaht (British Columbia).

Chief Atleo gave a moving speech that one would not expect given the topic of Aboriginal business. He referred to the many life lessons he received from his family growing up and especially those of his late grandmother. Listening to Chief Atleo make the connections between the traditions, teachings and current issues faced by First Nations, reinforced in my mind the need for Aboriginal communities to not be so quick to abandon traditional values, ethics and lessons for the lure of economic development and quick settlements.

Economic development is important for most, if not all Aboriginal communities, but its importance cannot be seen in isolation from other goals which are important to Aboriginal peoples like: climate change, conservation, protection of traditional territories, community healing and wellness, education, maintaining the integrity of families, the education and security of our children, self-determination, and respect for our treaty relationships, for example. If a singular focus is made on economic development, then there would be no issue with the environmental destruction that comes with oil sand projects, hydro dams, gas lines, and diamond mining because the local Aboriginal people would be employed and this generation might enjoy some financial benefits.

However, given that economic development is only part of a bigger picture for self-determining Aboriginal Nations which are healthy, vibrant and thriving, a proper balance must be made. In my opinion, Chief Atleo is not only aware of these other issues, but he ensures to include those in his priorities which are reflected in his speeches. It is his ability to turn a negative into a positive or to tackle politically sticky issues and offer hope for the future that he makes him a unique leader. When Chief Atleo spoke at the BOT, he didn't focus solely on economic development, he explained that concern and action on the crisis of climate change is also necessary. Similarly, he argued that while education was used in the past to disempower and assimilate our people, we can now use education to empower our people, relearn our languages and traditions, and build capacity within our communities to revitalize our Nations.

In so doing, Chief Atleo was also cognizant of the other pressing social issues that we have to address related to housing, health, treaties, land, murdered and missing women and so on. Overlaid on top of all this are the hurtful divisions which we: both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples alike, have inherited. He told the audience that none of us enacted the Indian Act, but we are left with very real divisions like Status and Non-Status Indians and on and off-reserve people. He acknowledged that these divisions were imposed upon us and that we have to find a way to address these inequities as we move forward. At the same time, he also said that some of things we consider divisions, could actually be considered strengths. For example, having Aboriginal people living, working and succeeding both on and off-reserve can be a significant strength for Aboriginal communities and we should be looking for ways to work together on that basis.

I was at the United Nations headquarters in New York last week at an Indigenous Experts meeting of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. The topic was how state development impacts indigenous identity and culture, what the key issues are and how to resolve some of them. Indigenous peoples from around the world were generally of the mind that economic development can proceed so long as we remember that it is not our sole focus: i.e., increasing our salaries or our bank accounts for this generation can never be more important than protecting our wildlife, our rivers and water sources, and the integrity of of the land within our territories. Chief Atleo appears to be in sync with international indigenous objectives as he balances our social needs (economic development, relations with Canada) with our core values as Aboriginal peoples (protecting the land and natural resources).

Perhaps by refocusing on the traditional values that made us Mi'kmaq, Cree, Nuu-chah-nulth, or Mohawk Nations, and aligning our priorities with rebuilding and revitalizing those Nations, we will have respected what our ancestors fought so hard to protect and leave a strong legacy for our future generations that they will be proud to carry forward. I think Chief Atleo offers just that kind of hope for all Aboriginal peoples - on and off-reserve, and status and non-status alike - and I, for one, will be watching his progress in the coming months/years.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

What is a Non-Status Indian?

What is a Non-Status Indian? People ask me this question nearly everyday. Some people think Non-Status Indians are really just Métis people - those with mixed Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal ancestry. Others think that a Non-Status Indian is any person who is not registered under the Indian Act as an "Indian" - i.e. they are not Aboriginal people. I have even had government officials query whether we can ever know what a Non-Status Indian is as there is no legislative definition for them.

For many years, some Aboriginal political organisations that represent Aboriginal peoples living off-reserve also represented Métis peoples. For example, the New Brunswick Aboriginal Peoples Council (NBAPC) used to be called the New Brunswick Association of Métis and Non-Status Indians. Although the Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) now has responsibility for Status Indians, Non-Status and Métis people, it wasn't always that way. The Minister of INAC used to be responsible for status Indians and there was a Federal Interlocutor who was specifically responsible for Métis and Non-Status Indians. The terms Métis and Non-Status Indian have been used together for so long that there is understandable confusion about the two.

In the most simplest terms - Métis people are those people who have descended from Métis groups across the country. These Métis groups were originally born from unions between Aboriginal peoples (Cree, Ojibway etc) and non-Aboriginal peoples and went on to identify not with their Aboriginal ancestors, nor did they identify with their non-Aboriginal ancestors. Métis peoples saw themselves as distinct from both groups and went on to develop their own practices, customs, traditions, languages and so forth. It is a common misunderstanding to refer to someone with mixed Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal ancestry as Métis, at least without knowing more.

What about Non-Status Indians? Are they not Aboriginal people with mixed ancestries? Sometimes yes and sometimes no. Many Non-Status Indians have no more of a mixed ancestral heritage than do status Indians. So, then what is a Non-Status Indian? INAC's website defines the term Non-Status Indian as follows:

"...commonly refers to people who identify themselves as Indians but who are not entitled to registration on the Indian Registrar pursuant to the Indian Act."

The University of Saskatchewan's Online Encyclopedia defines Non-Status Indians as follows:

"People who are identified as Non-Status Indians in Canada are individuals who are not considered as Registered Indians because either they or their ancestors were refused or lost their Indian status through the mechanisms of the Indian Act, and who do not identify as being Métis. The mechanism by which people lost their status was “enfranchisement.” The most common method of enfranchisement was through intermarriage, whereby a Status Indian woman marrying a non-Indian man lost her Indian status—as did her children; this law existed until the Indian Act was amended in 1985. Other ways in which individuals could be enfranchised was by obtaining the federal right to vote (until 1960), feeing simple title to land, or receiving a university degree (until 1951). "

Professor and lawyer, Joseph Magnet had this to say about Non-Status Indians in his article "Who are the Aboriginal Peoples of Canada?":

"The consistent narrowing of the definition of ‘Indian’ in various amendments to the Indian Act created a large population of Aboriginal people without Indian status, or the rights and entitlements that attach to it – the non-status Indians... The population of non-status Indians is larger than is discerned by considering the legal exceptions in the various Indian Acts, however. It also includes people of Aboriginal ancestry and culture who were never entitled to register in 1876, as well as Aboriginal people entitled to register who chose not to submit themselves to the Department’s control....The non-status population includes the historical Indians and their descendants."

While all of these definitions are accurate, it may be simpler to say that Non-Status Indians are those people who identify as Indian (i.e. Mohawk, Mi'kmaq, Cree, Maliseet, etc) but who by choice or legislative exclusion are not registered under the Indian Act as Indians (i.e. they do not have "status"). For many, the term Non-Status Indian is not so much an identity, but a state of being. For example, I am a Mi'kmaq person and have always identified as such. My larger extended family is Mi'kmaq and we have worked our whole lives towards improving the lives of Mi'kmaq and other Aboriginal peoples who live off-reserve and who are treated differently because they lack a residence on reserve and/or because they do not have status under the Indian Act. I was raised to know the community from which my family originated, the traditions and practices of my Nation as well as the people who share the same Mi'kmaq history.

While I identify as Mi'kmaq, I am also aware that due to gender discrimination in the Indian Act, I am not currently entitled to be a registered (status) Indian, despite the fact that my father was a status Indian and band member at Eel River Bar First Nation in New Brunswick. Therefore, I am a non-status Indian, i.e. a Mi'kmaq who is not registered under the Indian Act. That is my state of being as so decided by a government official at INAC. Some people have asked why I would continue to refer to myself or my situation with such a negative label as Non-Status Indian. My only answer is this: so long as there is a discriminatory federal process that tells me I am a Non-Status Indian, then I have an obligation to use the term, educate people about the term and work towards finally getting rid of the need to even have the term.

Other terms such as First Nations or off-reserve Aboriginal peoples may include both status and Non-Status Indians. However, the saying "out of sight - out of mind" applies especially to this situation. In my opinion, generic terms tend to hide the fact that Non-Status Indians exist and this creates a lack of awareness about their issues. Non-Status Indians are being discriminated against on the basis of their gender, birth/blood status, and/or marital/family status. Some are denied band membership simply because they do not have status. Many do not qualify for federal programs and services because they lack status. Some are even denied the right to call themselves Cree, Mi'kmaq or Mohawk because some Aboriginal communities have come to associate their identities with federal recognition - i.e. status. These issues affect the quality of life of thousands of us across the country. We need to acknowledge the problem and find solutions.

There are Non-Status Indians who live on and off-reserve, who do and don't have band membership, who are and are not welcome in their home communities and those who associate with off-reserve political groups and those who don't. One cannot easily generalize when it comes to Non-Status Indians, but certain demographic facts should be highlighted: Aboriginal women and their children are disproportionately affected by the discrimination of the Indian Act's status provisions and comprise a higher number of Non-Status Indians. Non-Status Indians also suffer from the same poor socio-economic conditions as their status Indian brothers and sisters. Most live off-reserve and receive little assistance from federal and provincial governments or their own Aboriginal communities.

It is time that all Aboriginal people started talking about this situation and included Non-Status Indians of all backgrounds in the discussion. That includes ensuring that Non-Status Indians are at the table when treaties, land claims, self-government and other issues of importance are discussed. As with most issues involving Aboriginal peoples, identity is a complex political, social, historical. cultural and legal issue that requires a deeper conversation amongst ourselves. First and foremost however, it requires a rejection of Canada's presumed jurisdiction over our identity and the discriminatory tools it has used to label and divide us (status). There can be no right more inherent or more integral to one's culture than the right of Aboriginal Nations to be self-defining.

Hopefully, this has helped to answer the questions you have all e-mailed me recently about Non-Status Indians. There is a great deal more information out there regarding Non-Status Indians and I encourage you all to look for it and come up with your own thoughts and ideas about the issues we face and join the discussion. For those who are interested, you can get more information on my website at You can also follow me on Facebook under the name Non Statusindian or on Twitter as Pam_Palmater. At any time, please feel free to e-mail me at