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Indian Act Amendments - Bill C-31

Deanna Wuttunee

Amendments to change The Indian Act, with Bill C-3 1, was passed through the Commons, Wednesday, June 12. This bill could give more than 22,000 men, women and children access to treaty status, federal programs and services for off-reserve Indians.

Federal Minister for Indian Affairs and Northern Development, the Honorable David Crombie, sees the bill as a deviation from the established policy of assimilation. In announcing the press release, February 28, Crombie said: "Recognizing the right of Indian communities and bands to determine their own members marks a historic departure from a century of paternalism. It is also a milestone in the Government's desire to advance towards greater recognition of Indian self-government.

Provincial Premier Grant Devine said in a June 12 interview with The Saskatchewan Indian that there is no moral justification for discrimination, so his government supports the federal position.

"Under our constitution, there is no end of rights for people. (We) can't have more rights for some people if we can help it. I can understand in terms of enumeration and financial implications, how many more thousands (of people) that will mean. That's a process we better be careful with. If you just impose it, natives might not be happy. It has to be something they can deal with, economically and socially," he said.

By virtue of the controversial bill, The Indian Act will conform with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It will eliminate provisions that discriminate against women who marry non-Indians and has changed the facade of Indian band membership on the basis of sex and marriage. Approximately 16,000 women are affected. Indian women were formerly stripped of treaty status and benefits while men accrue these rights to their (non-Indian) wives and children.

Another 8,000 Indians also arbitrarily lost status when they joined the clergy or armed forces, completed university and/or took a job, voted in the federal elections or went abroad for five years. The minister also proposed to restore Indian status to 46,000 first generation descendants of those who lost status unfairly. Those eligible must apply for band membership to the appropriate bands.

In response, Chief Sol Sanderson of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) said, "The federal government has taken the matter as far as they can go. They'll reinstate Indians to Indian status but that won't put them on the band list. The Minister of Indian Affairs has agreed with us to sign an agreement between the FSIN and the federal government to address that whole thing in an orderly way. (We propose to) have the family head sign an adhesion to treaty so that we deal with their legal status fully and that we create new bands and reserves where we have to."

Honourable David Crombie
Honourable David Crombie
Minister for Indian Affairs and Northern Development

In a presentation to the Senate Committee earlier this year, FSIN stated that the regulations and reinstatement of band membership should be applied and established under Indian law. Indian law arises from the historical application of customary law which Chiefs and Headmen enforced. The law has endured the passage of time and governments to culminate in Section 25 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom.

There are several options FSIN is pursuing with the federal government through the bilateral discussions. These options are a treaty adhesion process, creation of new bands under treaty formulae, establishing a citizenship act and band membership codes.

Treaty formulae provide blueprints for the creation of additional bands. In Treaty 6, this is one square mile for a family of five. A citizenship act would spell out the process for status under Indian First Nations Government and the responsibilities ensuing thereof. It would also ascertain a judicial body and an appeal process.

Band membership codes would establish criteria for a band list, a registrar, an appeal procedure and a method for band membership amendments and approval. It will also spell out responsibilities of band members - old and new.

Isabel McNab, President of the Saskatchewan Indian Women Association (SIWA) said that there are mixed feelings towards the amendments of Bill C-31 on the band level.

"(Some) want to bring them in (the treaty women that have lost status) and others think it's going to create a problem according to land base," she said. "I don't know if I'm prepared to bring that many people in. . .I have a waiting list so long, of my own people who've lived on this reserve all these years and made it what it is, and they don't have proper housing."