Some First Nations tighten membership criteria in response to Bill S-3's extension of Indian status

Some First Nations are tightening their membership and residency codes against the thousands of people across Canada who could potentially gain Indian status as a result of recent changes to remove remaining sex-based discrimination from the Indian Act.

'Canada should not be dictating belonging and identity,' says Kahnawake council member

Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer is an elected member of the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake. (Jessica Deer/CBC)

Some First Nations are tightening their membership and residency codes against the thousands of people across Canada who could potentially gain Indian status as a result of recent changes to remove remaining sex-based discrimination from the Indian Act.

Bill S-3 received royal assent over a year ago but some of its provisions aimed at eliminating all remaining sex-based discrimination before the creation of the modern Indian registry in 1951— the removal of what's called the 1951 cut-off —were delayed to allow for a year-long consultation process with First Nations.

The remaining provisions were brought into force by the federal government earlier in August.

The changes could extend eligibility for Indian status to potentially hundreds of thousands of people by opening up registration to descendants of women who lost their status due to marriage dating back to 1869.

Indigenous Services Canada said it has received approximately 17,000 applications for Indian status since S-3 received royal assent on Dec. 22, 2017, and about 4,000 people have become newly registered as a result. The rest are still waiting to be assessed.

The department said it expects the majority of newly eligible registrants will be living off-reserve and will access federal benefits of Indian status, but ​​​​​​Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer, an elected council member in Kahnawake, Que., near Montreal said the changes are a threat to her community.

"We understand there was discrimination against women that occurred for generations going back to 1869, but Canada should not be dictating belonging and identity," said Sky-Deer.

While Kahnawake's membership list is maintained by Indigenous Services Canada, the Mohawk community created its own membership law and registry to determine who is eligible to be recognized as a Mohawk from their community. 

Kahnawake's leaders say those who will gain status under S-3 will never meet their membership criteria, which requires having at least four Mohawk great-grandparents. They also enacted a residency law on June 17 specifying who can live in their territory in anticipation of the delayed S-3 provisions coming into force.

Although the residency law will only be implemented and enforced after the Mohawk Council develops regulations, it would limit residency to people with at least two Indigenous great-grandparents, pending other criteria like having family ties to the community and passing a language and culture test. 

"All these generations are so far removed if they didn't keep any ties with the community," said Sky-Deer. 

"We're aware of the wannabes out there and people who just want to capitalize off our rights and entitlements."

Sky-Deer said if people want to reconnect with Kahnawake, then the onus will be on them to learn language and culture. 

"If they really want to establish a connection to their identity, to their past, to the community, we want to see people being genuine and not just trying to capitalize on something that has a benefit," she said.

Six Nations passes new citizenship code

The elected council of Six Nations of the Grand River, Ont., west of Toronto have taken similar measures. On June 1, its new citizenship code passed via referendum with 414 votes in favour. Like Kahnawake, it creates a separate membership list with stricter criteria of who is determined to be a member of the community with access to local resources. 

New registrants will have to prove 50 per cent or more of Six Nations Haudenosaunee ancestry under the new code. 

Chief Ava Hill was unavailable for an interview with CBC News, but said in multiple video updates posted to social media in the last few months that the removal of 1951 cut-off and thousands of people potentially added to Six Nations was a motivator behind the new citizenship code. 

"This will provide a huge strain on services that we will be able to provide to the community," she said.

"Council feels that it should be up to our community to decide who should be considered a member of Six Nations."

It leaves few options for people like Cheyenne Rendell.

'Do I even deserve status?'

The 20-year-old's great-grandmother Dorothy Montour was from Six Nations. She lost her status through marriage following the Second World War. Montour, a residential school survivor,  met her husband while she was overseas serving in the women's division of the Royal Canadian Air Force as a telephone operator.

Cheyenne Rendell is not sure if she's eligible for status under S-3, but will be applying to find out. (Submitted by Cheyenne Rendell)

"She left the reserve and married him and had children and she sacrificed her status for that.  She shouldn't have been put in that position to begin with," said Rendell, who lives in Oshawa, Ont.

For Rendell, gaining status under S-3 would mean a stronger connection to her great-grandmother and Mohawk identity. 

"I've always felt really connected to my great-grandma even though I never met her and it's almost like I feel like I owe it to her," said Rendell.

"Growing up it was never like it was something I was very proud of. But it was something I couldn't claim."

Dorothy Montour lost status from Six Nations. (Submitted by Cheyenne Rendell)

Rendell said she still struggles with whether she deserves status, and acknowledges communities' fears about S-3. 

"When you think about it. I'm only '1/8th.' That's what I can prove. Which is also something I've struggled with because I've grown up with the traditions. Do I even really deserve status?" said Rendell.

"I would like to say I am more passionate and I want to learn things."

Even people who aren't being added under S-3 are affected by the measures taken in Six Nations and Kahnawake, said Tuscarora writer Alicia Elliott.

Elliott is a member of Six Nations and lives in nearby Brantford, Ont. Her 13-year-old son doesn't meet the 50 per cent blood quantum criteria of the new citizenship code. 

Haudenosaunee author Alicia Elliott poses for a portrait at the offices of Penguin Random House Canada, the publisher of her new book 'A Mind Spread Out on the Ground' in Toronto in March. (Cole Burston/The Canadian Press)

"They're pushing away a lot of their own people. It makes me feel a lot of despair," said Elliott. 

"It brings to mind what Frantz Fanon said about colonization. You don't need colonizers to be there if colonization is working at peak capacity because people who are colonized are going to do that for them. Enforcing things like blood quantum wasn't our ways, but people are doing it now." 

Embodying 'that same mindset'

The Grand Council of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, the traditional governing body of the Mohawk, Tuscarora, Onondaga, Oneida, Seneca, and Cayuga nations, also issued a statement opposing Bill S-3.

It defines citizenship around a clan system. A person is considered a Haudenosaunee citizen at birth provided that they are born of a mother who is considered to be a Haudenosaunee citizen with a Haudenosaunee clan transferred at birth, or are adopted. 

Courtney Skye is a research fellow at the Yellowhead Institute at Ryerson University. (CBC News)

Courtney Skye, a research fellow at the First Nations-led research centre Yellowhead Institute, said the actions of Six Nations and Kahnawake are examples of what happens when communities can't import traditional concepts within a federal framework. 

"They should be concerned that they have an external colonial force defining who can be in their communities outside of their ability to determine that in a way that aligns with their traditional beliefs and customs, and also saying that they have to do it with the money that they have already, which was never enough to meet the needs of the people that are already [there]," said Skye.

Skye said that environment doesn't empower First Nations to think about how to "rematriate" people into their communities and instead causes fear mongering around numbers wanting to take advantage of benefits. 

"Even from the initial framing of it, when the federal government first released their estimate, it was always like 'this many non-members are coming back to your community' as opposed to framing it as 'look at the scope of this discrimination,'" said Skye.

"We lost members, we lost our family, we lost legislated ability to support our family and our distant relations live amongst us. And we are now going to embody that same mindset and keep them away from our communities."


Ka’nhehsí:io Deer is a Kanien’kehá:ka journalist from Kahnawake, Que. She is currently a reporter with CBC Indigenous covering communities across Quebec.