Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development Chuck Strahl introduced legislation on Thursday that could extend Indian status to thousands of Canadians ((Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press))

The Conservative government introduced new legislation to amend the Indian Act that, if passed, could recognize an additional 45,000 Canadians as status Indians.

"This addresses the difference in treatment between how descendants of aboriginal women who marry non-aboriginal people are treated differently than aboriginal men. So this is a gender equity issue," said Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl, who introduced the bill in the House of Commons on Thursday.

Under the proposed legislation, the grandchildren of women who marry non-natives would be granted Indian status. People who have registered Indian status are entitled to certain benefits, tax exemptions, federal programs and rights guaranteed under specific treaties.

The changes come after Ottawa lost a court case challenging the discrepancies in the way men and women are treated when it comes to Indian status under the Indian Act.

Originally under the Indian Act, women were stripped of their status if they married a non-native, but men were allowed to keep their status no matter whom they married.

In 1985, Ottawa changed the rules. Women who married non-natives would retain their status, as would their children, but not their grandchildren.

But the rules were still different for Indian men. They were allowed to marry a non-native and pass status down to two generations.

Last year's court decision prompted the government to extend Indian status for one more generation for women who had married non-natives. This means grandchildren of such a union will now have native status but not great-grandchildren.

Strahl refuses to speculate on increase in numbers

Strahl said he could not estimate what the new status recognition would cost the government in terms of funding. There have been estimates that 45,000 Canadians would be eligible to be recognized as status Indians if the legislation passes.

Currently, there are about 800,000 status Indians in Canada.

Strahl said that if every single person who becomes eligible for Indian status under the new law applies for it, it could increase the number of status Indians by eight per cent.

But Strahl said it's unclear how many people will apply and how many will want to move to a reserve, get membership in an existing band or just take advantage of the privileges that come with a status card.

"You can always pluck a number out of the air on a per capita basis, but it would be pretty frivolous," he said.

The British Columbia Court of Appeal gave Ottawa a deadline of April 6, 2010, to change the law. The government has applied for an extension until the end of the current parliamentary session.

Strahl said he hopes Parliament will expedite passage of the bill

With files from The Canadian Press