U.S.-born Tsimshian woman fighting to stay in her First Nation's traditional territory in Canada

Dr. Mique’l Dangeli wants to stay in her nation’s traditional territory and continue her work in language revitalization.

'The immigration process is incredibly dehumanizing,' says Alaska-born Indigenous language educator

Dr. Mique'l Dangeli says she often receives a big group hug from primary students at 'Na Aksa Gyila̱ky'oo School in Kitsumkalum, B.C. (Amber Austin)

Dr. Mique'l Dangeli wants to stay in her nation's traditional territory and continue her work in language revitalization.

The problem is, as of July 1, Dangeli will no longer be able to work in Canada legally because she does not have Canadian citizenship, does not have Indian status in Canada and her application for permanent residency is still before immigration.

But Dangeli is determined that eventually she'll be able to work legally anywhere in the place she calls home. 

"When I say home, for me home is Tsimshian territory, period," she said.

"And in terms of citizenship, I'm Tsimshian. It's not I'm U.S., I'm not Canadian, I'm Tsimshian…. I only recognize the border because it's forced upon us."​

Dangeli is an adjunct professor at the University of Northern British Columbia and a Sm'algya̱x teacher at a school in Kitsumkalum, B.C., a community where there are only three fluent speakers of the language.

"We're in such an endangered state," said Dangeli about the Sm'algya̱x language.

"I'm doing everything I possibly can with my time to devote myself to our language."

She was born and raised on the Annette Island Indian Reserve in Metlakatla, Alaska, and is registered as being a part of a U.S. federally-recognized Indigenous community. But Canada sees her as non-status because she's not registered in the Canadian system.

Tsimshian traditional territory covers a vast area of the Northwest Coast of B.C. Metlakatla is the only Tsimshian community outside of Canada.

"The immigration process is incredibly dehumanizing," she said.

'Just use the Jay Treaty'

Dangeli said many people she's talked to about her situation have assumed she could stay in the country under the Jay Treaty.

"People say that to me all the time, 'just use the Jay Treaty,'" she said.

The Jay Treaty was signed in 1794 between the U.S. and the British. It allows status Indians born in Canada, who have 50 per cent blood quantum, to live and work in the U.S.

But Canada never codified the agreement, resulting in a lack of reciprocity.

U.S.-born Indigenous Peoples wanting to move to Canada are forced to either go through the long process of applying for Indian status in Canada or to apply for immigration like any other person moving to Canada from a different country.

Dangeli studied in Canada, graduating in 2015, and had a three-year post-graduation work permit. Last year, she left a tenure-track position at the University of Alaska Southeast to focus her energy on language revitalization efforts. 

She returned to Canada with her husband and started her new job, and got to work trying to secure permanent residency through the express entry program.

Her husband, who is Nisga'a but was also born in the U.S., has been unable to sponsor her and she says he has had similar problems.

Immigration process doesn't account for Indigeneity

She has applied to the express entry program three times, without success. She currently has a fourth expression of interest before immigration officials but doesn't have any guarantees that her application will be successful. Her lawyer says the nature of her work as an educator, researcher and artist and lack of single full-time employer makes her case complex.

"It's infuriating, frustrating. Most people I talk to feel that it's unbelievable that the two words can even exist... an Indigenous immigrant," said Dangeli.

"There is nothing about it that takes into account my Indigeneity at all and the work that I'm doing to ensure that a language that is Indigenous to Canada will survive for generations to come. My language."

In 1983 a report written for the federal government recommended that Canada introduce legislation to implement the Jay Treaty, but that never happened.

Lawyers with expertise in First Nations' legal issues, like Micha Menczer, aren't sure why.

"Why is that persons who are Indigenous and belong to nations, historic nations, that have cross-boundary territories are denied the right to live in their traditional territory and be with their communities?" he said.

Menczer said he realizes it might sound crazy to refer to an Indigenous person like Dangeli in the context of the immigration act, but said under the eyes of the law, that is where one of her legal options rests.

One section of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act states that a person with Indian status has the right to enter and remain in Canada.

In 2017, a report written for the federal government recommended an amendment to that portion of the act. One suggested solution proposed would be that Canadian officials "permit anyone who is a member of a Canadian First Nation, or a member of a federally-recognized U.S. Tribe (which tribes would be set out in a schedule under the IRPA regulations), a right to enter and remain in Canada, identical to that of an Indian registered under the Indian Act."

Menczer said Dangeli may also have legal options under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

'Caught between two federal systems'

Deanna Okun-Nachoff, a Vancouver-based immigration lawyer, said she's hoping to have the situation resolved by the time the school year begins in the fall.

She describes Dangeli as being "caught between two federal systems."

Dr. Mique'l Dangeli holds a Master's degree and PhD in Northwest Coast First Nations art history from UBC. Here she is seen teaching a group of youth at the Northwest Community College longhouse. (Nick Dangeli)

​Dangeli is also in the process of securing Indian status in Canada, but she said that process will likely take another couple of years. It wasn't the route that she wanted to take.

"Whether it's a status or non-status, or citizenship… we are continually forced to be in positions of proving who we are and standing up for our rights to be who we are," Dangeli said.

Nathan Cullen, the NDP MP for the area, has been trying to help Dangeli secure permanent residency and said he's talked to the immigration ministry about her case.

He said he is hoping to introduce legislation before the end of this parliamentary session to address this issue overall for people like Dangeli.

"And if there is a spirit of so-called reconciliation coming from the Trudeau government, we'd hope they'd be open to it," he said.

with files from Pamela Post