Since its creation in 1876, the Indian Act has given the federal government the power to supervise the economy, politics, education, land and even aspects of the personal lives of Canada’s nearly one million Indian people. But the discrimination against women that is inherent in the act has been a constant source of criticism and controversy. Indeed, one section— 12(l)(b)—divests women of their Indian status when they marry outside their race. These women and their children lose their band membership, their housing, health and education benefits and the right to live or be buried on their reserve. By contrast, the act permits Indian men in parallel situations to both retain their status and extend their own benefits to their non-Indian wives. But next week Indian Affairs and Northern Development Minister David Crombie will table legislation to finally redress a century-old injustice.
Still, eliminating discrimination against Indian women has far-reaching ramifications. Many members of Canada’s 579 Indian bands fear that an unqualified reinstatement of women and children who have lost their status—an estimated 78,000 individuals—will bring thousands back to the reserves. That would severely strain some of the bands’ resources and cost what even Crombie says “could be hundreds of millions of dollars.” In addition, the Assembly of First Nations, which represents over 500 Indian bands, has stated that it will only accept changes to the act if the Indian bands, and not the federal government, make the final decision on who may belong to their band.
It was precisely that demand that sidetracked legislation introduced by the Liberal government last summer. Although Liberal Bill C-47 effectively addressed the discriminatory clauses in the act, it did not give Indian bands the power to decide who could live on band reserves. As a result, the Senate failed to give the bill the unanimous consent needed for passage. But in an interview with Maclean’s, Crombie said that the new legislation will take into account the “inherent rights of Indian bands to control their membership.” He added that it will also be aimed at “rectifying the hurt done to certain women.”
Indian women have specifically asked the minister that the legislation be retroactive to the date when a woman’s status was lost and include a special fund to help women and children make the transition back to reserve life. Said Mary Two-Axe Earley, a Mohawk Indian and longtime crusader for changes in the act: “I feel terrible that it has taken so long for women to be reinstated—I represent a lot of non-status Indian women, and you would not believe what we had to put up with from our own people—our own people!”
The government’s mqst compelling reason to decisively redress the issue this year is the new Charter of Rights and Freedoms. New equality provisions in the charter, which take effect on April 17, will make any kind of sexual discrimination illegal. Although Crombie remains confident that both opposition parties will support a new bill, it still seems destined to fall short of a total victory for Indian women and their children. -TERRY HARGREAVES in Ottawa.
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