2 years after Occupy INAC, Winnipeg office still closed to the public

The Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada office in Winnipeg has been “temporarily” closed to the public for two years.

To apply for a Indian status card, you'll need to call for an appointment at the offsite INAC location

Jasmine Kabatay is one of two recipients of the 2018 CJF-CBC Indigenous Journalism Fellowships, established to encourage Indigenous voices and better understanding of Indigenous issues in Canada's major media and community outlets.

Gord Bluesky remembers the Indigenous and Northern Affairs Office on Hargrave Street in Winnipeg as a busy spot.

Manitoba has 63 First Nations in the province, with more than 148,000 registered First Nations members. Winnipeg has the highest number of Indigenous people in any major city in Canada.

Bluesky remembers lots of people at the INAC office filling out their applications for status cards and taking numbers for service. There was a constant stream of people in and out, he said.

But it's a completely different scene now. The doors are locked, service is by appointment only and you have to talk with security guards through plate glass before you can get in.

The INAC office on Hargrave Street in Winnipeg has been closed to the public since 2016. (Jasmine Kabatay/CBC)

The Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada office in Winnipeg has been "temporarily" closed to the public for two years.

In April 2016, Occupy INAC was a movement that spread across Canada to bring awareness to Attawapiskat's suicide crisis. Offices in Vancouver, Regina, Gatineau, Que., and Toronto were occupied by protesters for days, while Occupy INAC in Winnipeg lasted for weeks.

This resulted in the closure of the Winnipeg offices to the public. INAC said at the time this was "out of concern for the safety of staff and the public."

By appointment only

According to Jeff Solmundson, an INAC spokesperson, it is unknown when the offices will be open to the public again. To apply in person for a status card, applicants have to call the office to get an appointment at a different address that's not publicly disclosed.

Solmundson said most information about status cards is available online.

"The only thing that's not publicly given out is the address of where they would meet off-site," said Solmundson.

"I think it was just out of an abundance of caution, and really it shouldn't be much of an inconvenience for people. It is a little bit unfortunate you have to call first, but then they are given the address."

An emailed statement from INAC said "These solutions will remain in place as we develop a long-term service delivery approach."

When Bluesky was at INAC recently, he got the address where to apply for a status card in the city and shared it on Facebook. His post was shared more than 500 times.

"In a lot of ways I feel it's almost like a punishment, like a 'don't ever do this again or it's gonna get worse.' That's how it feels like," said Bluesky.

Long waits

He has been trying to get status for his daughter since the beginning of February, and just recently received her status number at the end of September.

Before that, he went to get a prescription for his daughter and because he hadn't received her status number, he called INAC to see if they could give it to him over the phone. He said a staff member told him there were only two people dealing with the status applications and status Indian requests in all of Manitoba.

According to INAC, the Manitoba Regional Office has four full-time positions that deal with status and status card applications.

Before someone can get their status card, they have to apply and be approved to the Indian Register at Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, which records the number of status Indians in Canada. After that, they are able to apply for their card at an INAC regional office, their band office, or by mail.

Confused about what an Indian status card is, what it does, and how to apply for it? We've broken it down.

A look at what an Indian status card is, what it does and how to apply for one. 2:15

INAC issues plastic status cards with security features. Laminated paper cards are issued through First Nations.

Gord Bluesky had been waiting for his daughter’s status number since the beginning of February and just got it at the end of September. (Submitted by Gord Bluesky)

INAC said in an emailed statement that in fiscal year 2017-18, it received 28,518 applications for registration nationally and processed 27,871 cases, bringing the total registered Indian population to 990,435 as of March 31, 2018.

"At the moment, 7,712 applicants are waiting on the reception of their Secure Certificate of Indian Status," INAC said in the statement.

Once Bluesky had his daughter's status number, then he was able to start the application process for her card.

"I think they're under-resourced for the amount of need that is there," said Bluesky.

'It felt like a mission to get it'

Back in 2015, before Occupy INAC, Greg Meconse went to the open office on Hargrave to apply for his status card, where his photo was taken as part of the process. For months he thought everything had gone smoothly, until he got a letter in the mail.

"I was like 'I got my status card!'" he said. "And it was just a letter saying [the] pictures weren't good enough that we took, so we can't give it to you. It was so backwards. Like, 'We didn't do our job good enough.'"

The letter from INAC told him he had to reapply. During that time without his status card, Meconse said he had tried to apply for scholarships for university and had to defer to his expired card. He tried to get a prescription covered and was denied, leaving him to pay out of pocket.

An example of a plastic status card issued by INAC. Laminated paper cards are still issued by First Nations. (Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada)

This year he went through the process again in Winnipeg and said there was a huge difference in the office atmosphere.

"I would say compared to the process that I just went through recently, that INAC office [in 2015] was a lot more approachable and friendly," he said.

At the current office, "I felt like I was being processed into prison or something," he said.

"It felt like a mission to get it. I think it should be like any other sort of legal process, like when you go get your driver's licence."

6-month wait

But issues with status card applications are not unique to Manitoba. Matt Ward from Edmonton applied for his secure status card and ran into problems resulting in him waiting for a card for more than six months.

"They told me I should expect something in the mail in a few months and I waited. That was spring 2016. By the end of the summer I called to follow up why I hadn't received it yet," said Ward.

He was told they had made a mistake in submitting his application and they had to resubmit it from the beginning. He finally received his status card at the end of October 2016.

"Luckily at that time I didn't need it to rely on for like applying for education stuff or health care or anything, but if I had been that could have been very challenging," said Ward.

In an emailed statement, INAC said people waiting for status cards can get a Temporary Confirmation of Registration Document by calling their toll-free number or visiting a regional office. It's sent by mail "as quickly as possible."

About the Author

Jasmine Kabatay is an Anishinaabe freelance journalist from Seine River First Nation in northwestern Ontario. She is based in Toronto and has written for the Toronto Star, VICE News, and was a national columnist for Metro News (now StarMetro.)