Indian status: 5 things you need to know

The Indian Act defines who is and is not recognized as an "Indian" in Canada, but that doesn't mean all aboriginal people have Indian status or get perks like free education and tax breaks. Filmmaker Howard Adler explores some common myths about this almost 140-year-old classification.

Filmmaker dispels myths and misconceptions about Indian status in new film

In a new short film called Status, Vera Wabegijig talks about what having Indian status means to her. (Howard Adler)

The Indian Act defines who is and who is not recognized as an "Indian," but that doesn't mean all aboriginal people in Canada have Indian status or get free education.

Filmmaker Howard Adler explores what it means to have Indian status in a new film called Status, airing tonight on CBC Television in Ottawa.

Here are five things he thinks Canadians should know about Indian status:

1. Not all indigenous people have status

Created in 1876, the Indian Act is wide-ranging, covering governance, land use, health care and education, as well as defining eligibility for Indian status.

The Indian Act applies only to status Indians, and despite Métis and Inuit peoples being indigenous to Canada, it has not historically recognized them. There are also many non-status Indians who are, for a multitude of reasons, not entitled to be registered as Indians under the act.

2. Rooted in assimilation

When the legal category of "Indian status" was created, it was under federal policies of "assimilation" and "civilization" — the same policies that created and implemented residential schools.

In a practical sense, it determined which individuals were entitled to rights, guaranteed through treaties, but from the very start, it also had, as an underlying goal, the eventual erasure of the classification "Indian."

The idea was that as individual First Nations people became "civilized," they would lose their status and become "enfranchised" into Canadian society. In the past, a woman with status who married a non-status man would lose her status, and if someone with Indian status served in the Armed Forces, obtained a university degree or became a professional, such as a doctor or lawyer, they would automatically lose their status.

3. Status is a race- and gender-based classification system

Basically, prior to 1985, the way that an individual's status was passed on to the next generation was dependent on their gender and the status of their partner. If a woman with Indian status married a non-status person, she would lose her status. However, if a man with status married a woman without status, she would gain status.

Charlie Meness says he uses his Indian status card to cross the border into the United States. (Howard Adler)
In 1985, the Indian Act was amended with Bill C-31 because the legislation was in breach of the gender equality provisions of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Even under the amended Indian Act, the status system can be thought of as inter-generational surveillance that tracks racial purity. Although the legislation doesn't specifically refer to blood quantum, this is essentially what it amounts to.

For example, there are two types of "status Indians" that determine whether the children of a status Indian will have status or not. A 6 (1) Indian can pass their status on to their children, but a 6(2) Indian cannot unless the other parent also has status. This is often refereed to as the "second generation" cut-off.

4. Having status doesn't automatically mean 'free' university, no taxes

These are both pervasive and annoying myths that perpetuate misconceptions about indigenous people.

Education is a stipulation in post-Confederation treaties, and these treaty rights to education are constitutionally recognized in Canada, under Section 35 (1). However, post-secondary funding is limited to status Indians and does not include non-Status, Inuit or Métis peoples.

Federally provided education funds are distributed through First Nations bands, which often don't receive amounts that actually match up with the numbers of applicants requesting funding, resulting in long wait lists and restricted access.

As for taxes, if you're a status Indian and you live and work off your reserve (which is more than half of all status Indians), then you are certainly paying both federal and provincial taxes.

Tax exemptions only apply in very specific, limited situations, and for the most part, this means goods and services and income are only tax-free on the reserve.

5. The status system is problematic, but it doesn't have to be

Bill C-31 included revisions that separated Indian status from band membership, granting bands responsibility for developing and managing their own membership, meaning someone without status can now be a member of a First Nation.

But there's a catch: despite the fact that bands can determine their own membership, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development (formerly known as Indian and Northern Affairs Canada) provides funding to bands only for status Indians, not for band members.

Status will air on Saturday, Aug. 23 at 7 p.m. ET on CBC-TV in Ottawa as a part of an Absolutely Ottawa series called Ottawa Docs.


Howard Adler


Howard Adler is a filmmaker based in Ottawa. His film Status, explores the issues around gaining Indian Status under the Indian Act.