I have a card in my wallet that says I’m an “Indian”. I was 13 years old when my parents gave me my first status card to carry on my own. I was accumulating other government-issued identification like a health card and my social insurance number, so they figured I was responsible enough to have it all in a wallet on me at all times. It was a proud moment and it was almost like getting a new toy; I’d be able to use my status card at the stores in town to get the tax taken off my purchases. As far as I was concerned in my adolescent naivete, this was a perk of being an Indian from the rez.
The benefits of being a Status Indian didn’t end there, but they really didn’t extend much further. As I got older, the novelty of provincial-sales-tax-exempt CDs quickly wore off as I learned about what the whole status designation was really about. Canada’s Indian Act defines what a Status Indian is and designates who gets to be one. It is both a blessing and a curse, affording Aboriginal people certain rights, while traditionally stripping them of some fundamental human ones. And those of us deemed status are granted the right to carry a card with us that says so, effectively setting us apart from other Canadians in many political, legal, and symbolic ways.
The treaties many First Nations were coerced into signing by British settlers defined land rights and benefits. Once Canada was established as a country, the Indian Act defined what an Indian is in the eyes of the government. If you fit the bill, you were deemed “status”. It’s a complicated definition that continues to stymie both Aboriginal people and the authorities today, but basically if you had a direct connection to a First Nation band (or “reserve”), you were status.
But under the Indian Act, that also meant that you couldn’t leave the reserve without the permission of a federally-appointed Indian Agent. You couldn’t congregate in large groups with other Status Indians. And you definitely couldn’t partake in any traditional ceremonies. These clauses obviously aren’t enforced today, but they were in place just decades ago to ensure First Nations people were a subordinate culture/society.
Fortunately I never had to endure any of those oppressive and racist official measures in my lifetime. And on the plus side, a status right I exercised is access to funding for post-secondary studies. That paid for my tuition and some of my living expenses when I went to university, and without it I wouldn’t have been able to afford my bachelor’s degree. More and more young people from our communities are exercising this right and it’s very inspiring to see them get their education.
However, outside of the education funding and the tax exemption at the till, being a Status Indian has had few other positive impacts on my life. If anything, seeing my status card in my wallet reminds me of some of the obscene inequalities the Indian Act imposed on Canada’s First Nations people. Many of those social imbalances endured through recent generations and continue to polarize Aboriginal people today.
It’s impossible to touch on all of these problems in a short blog post, and there’s much more to explore, like how individuals who left reserves to start careers had to relinquish their status, and how First Nations women who married non-Native men lost theirs. In some cases, status has been recently reinstated for some of these people thanks to new laws introduced by the federal government, but these official practices often pitted families and communities against each other. This colonial legacy of abuse is difficult to overcome, and as long as there’s a “status” designation, there will always be a disconnect between First Nations people and the rest of Canada.
That raises some important questions. Is there a solution to move beyond the “status” system while maintaining the rights it provides? Can First Nations be a distinct culture without it? Is it fair that people with status enjoy rights other Canadiansdon’t? Should the Indian Act be abolished altogether? Are enough Canadians aware of what the Indian Act and status are?