What is a Non-Status Indian?
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 http://www.nonstatusindian.com/. 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 email@example.com