British Columbia

Indigenous people often denied access to Canadian institutions because of status card misinformation

Indian status cards have been a valid piece of identification in Canada since 1956 and yet many cardholders say they have faced confusion and discrimination when trying to use them.

Indigenous Services Canada says reconciliation a crucial government priority

Maxwell Johnson and his 12-year-old granddaughter Tori-Anne were trying to open up her first bank account at the Bank of Montreal. She was using a government-issued status card, similar to the ones above, as well as a B.C. health card, which according to the federal government, is sufficient identification to open an account at any Canadian bank. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

When Maxwell Johnson took his 12-year-old granddaughter into a Vancouver bank just before Christmas to open an account for her, the pair used their Indian status cards as identification and ended up in police handcuffs, accused of fraud.

A status card is government ID that identifies someone as a status Indian, as defined by the federal Indian Act. The cards have been a valid piece of identification in Canada for the last 64 years and yet many cardholders say they have faced similar confusion and discrimination when trying to use them.

"I don't know a Native person who has a status card who hasn't experienced discrimination in using that status card in a wide variety of scenarios," said Pamela Palmater, Mi'kmaq lawyer and author of Beyond Blood: Rethinking Indigenous Identity.

The cards can be used for health coverage, dental expenses, to cross the Canadian-American border, to open bank accounts and for specific tax exemptions. In some cases, like opening a bank account, an institution may also require a secondary ID.

Thompson Rivers University law student Darnel Tailfeathers, 25, said he tried to get his daughter's teeth cleaned at a dentist in Kamloops and the receptionist at the front desk was unsure what to do when Tailfeathers presented her with a status card.

"She had no clue the procedure after that. She was kind of almost clueless what it was," said Tailfeathers. "It was almost like a half hour at the front desk."

Tailfeather's experience is not unique.

"You get extra security, you get extra questions at customs," said Palmater. 

Certain tax exemptions exist only on reserve lands and stem from treaty agreements between the Crown and First Nations when the Crown guaranteed particular services in exchange for title to the land.

Not all status cards look the same and this could be cause for some confusion. 

An older iteration of the cards are laminated forms with a name, birthdate and registration number. The new cards have a hologram and are easier to validate. Status cards can be issued in any of the more than 600 band offices across Canada and new cards are issued at Indigenous and Northern Affairs offices.

Johnson said his granddaughter's status card was an older iteration of the card and two numbers on it were reversed, which could have been why the bank was unable to validate her identity.

Those issued by an Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada regional office have a hologram, making them easier to validate, but the wait time for those cards is approximately 18 months.

The federal government is responsible for disseminating information about status cards.

CBC asked Indigenous Services Canada for an interview. Minister Marc Miller was unavailable 

In a statement, Miller said instances of discrimination against Indigenous people, like the recent one in Vancouver involving Johnson and his granddaughter, are abhorrent and unacceptable.

"We know that there is more to be done and we will continue working closely with Canadians to build a country in which Indigenous Peoples can live free of discrimination," said Miller's statement. "Reconciliation remains a crucial priority for our government and we are working in partnership to advance a relationship that is based on the recognition of inherent rights, respect and cooperation."

To hear the CBC's Angela Sterritt discuss Indian status cards on The Early Edition, tap the audio link below:

With files from Angela Sterritt