'Essential step': Liberals move to end sex-based status discrimination in Indian Act

As many as 1.4 million people would be eligible for status under the government’s broadened plan to end sex-based discrimination in the Indian Act. The Liberal government has signalled it will now restore full legal status to all First Nations women and their descendants born before 1985.

Consultations on how to implement key change could be divisive, lawyer says

The federal government is moving to address sex-based discrimination for status registration of First Nations.

As many as 1.4 million people of First Nations descent would be eligible for status under the government's broadened plan to end sex-based discrimination in the Indian Act.

The Liberal government says it will grant full legal status to all First Nations women and their descendants born before 1985, expanding the scope of its originally planned amendment that would have limited the timeframe to those born after 1951.

The expansion, a proposed amendment to a bill tabled in the Senate, would address all inequities created between 1869 and 1951 as well, the office of Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett confirmed.

Status rights could immediately be granted to some 35,000 people in the post-1951 category when the bill comes into force. 

The broader time frame of the plan, which will also address critical issues such as the size of First Nations reserves and who gets voting rights, will come into play after the government holds consultations.

The government expects that process could be wrapped up in less than two years, but Indigenous rights lawyer David Schulze sees a complex and divisive period ahead.

He anticipates much skepticism around the consultations, and said it will be "extremely difficult" to find consensus among First Nations on establishing criteria for status.

'Nice ambition'

"Some communities are very open, some communities are very closed, you have variations in between," he said. "The notion that in six or 12 months there's going to be pan-Canadian consensus on this, then these amendments will come into force… It's a nice ambition but I have trouble believing it's going to work out that way."

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde called it a "positive step" for First Nations women, girls and families and an "essential step" in reconciliation based on recognition of rights and gender equality.

"First Nations are rebuilding our governments and our citizenship based on our own traditions, kinship systems and laws," he said in a statement. "This includes our right to define our own citizenship."

The Indian Act, which dates back to 1876, is the primary law defining the relationship between the federal government and First Nations across the country.

Original definitions focused primarily on men and denied women many of the same privileges and powers when it came to their Indian status.

Several amendments over the years addressed some of the imbalances, but critics say the act continues to treat women unfairly when it comes to Indian status and their ability to pass that status along to their descendants.

Transmit Indian status

Once passed, the amendment would grant Indigenous women the same ability to transmit their registered Indian status to family members.

The Liberal government's previous, narrower bill was in response to a Quebec Superior Court decision that ruled some sections of the Indian Act violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The case was brought by Stephane Descheneaux of the Abenaki community of Odanak, about 40 kilometres northwest of Drummondville, Que.

Descheneaux couldn't pass on his Indian status to his three daughters because he got it through his Indigenous grandmother, who lost her status when she married a non-Indigenous man.

With files from The Canadian Press