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Politics First Nations prepare for influx of new members amid removal of sex-based discrimination from Indian Act

Canada’s largest First Nation is introducing a citizenship code to take control over its membership lists as the federal government prepares to enact legislation that could create tens of thousands of new status Indians while removing the last vestiges of sexism from the Indian Act.

The Six Nations of the Grand River in Southwestern Ontario held a referendum that ended June 1 with two-thirds of the small handful of voters who cast a ballot saying they wanted the new code, which, according to its preamble, preserves the First Nation’s cultural and political integrity as well as its sovereignty.

The concern of the First Nation is that many people who can trace a distant ancestor to the community will turn up after Bill S-3 takes effect to claim a portion of scarce resources such as funds for postsecondary education that are now shared among the reserve’s members.

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Some of the provisions of the bill, which received royal assent in December, 2017, eliminated the sex-based discrimination in the Indian Act going back to 1869, creating the ability for between 28,000 and 35,000 additional people across the country to claim Indian status through a female ancestor.

Putting these elements into force was delayed until the government completed cross-country consultations to determine what effect the provisions would have on First Nations. The results of that outreach is contained in a report tabled in Parliament this week and the government says it is now developing a plan to put the remaining parts of S-3 quickly into force.

The report says there is general support for removal of the remaining sex-based inequities of the Indian Act. It also says there was “a clear and unequivocal message” that First Nations should determine who their people are through control of their membership and citizenship.

But some First Nations, including the Six Nations of the Grand River as well as the Kahnawake Mohawk Territory on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River, still fear they could be inundated with new members.

Ava Hill, the elected Chief of the Six Nations, did not return phone calls this week, possibly because of protests related to other matters that have been taking place on the reserve.

Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer, the elected council Chief of the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake, said in a recent telephone interview, that Bill S-3 poses significant problems for First Nations that demand authority over deciding who is one of their people. Not only will Bill S-3 strain community resources, she said, it will have an impact on the culture, the language and the way of life of the First Nation.

Kahnawake has for years exercised strict control over its membership lists, invoking a “marry out, get out” policy that was declared to be unconstitutional last year by the Quebec Superior Court. To claim membership in the Kahnawake, according to the First Nation’s rules, a person must be able to prove that four of their eight great-grandparents were part of the community.

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“We know there are going to be lawsuits because the federal government is telling an individual, ‘You are a Mohawk of Kahnawake,’ and the community is saying, ‘No, you are not.’ So Canada is creating ridiculous liability for all First Nations across this country," she said.

Shelagh Day, the chair of the human-rights committee of the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action, which has lobbied for the removal of the sexist aspects of the Indian Act, said membership and status are two different things. If someone gets Indian status but does not belong to a First Nation, the government will have to pay for the benefits to which that person is entitled, Ms. Day said.

But “it does not really matter what the bands say,” she said. “The government of Canada cannot continue to discriminate against First Nations women and their descendants. Canada has committed itself to equality for women, and First Nations women are entitled to equality even if a few bands are discomfited.”

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