As It Happens

How a non-Indigenous man became a member of the Fort William First Nation

Damien Lee has been accepted as a fully fledged member of the Fort William First Nation — even though he's not Indigenous by blood or under federal law.
Damien Lee has been granted membership into the Fort William First Nation, where he grew up. (Damien Lee)

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Damien Lee has been accepted as a fully fledged member of the Fort William First Nation, where he grew up, even though he's not Indigenous by blood or under federal law. 

Lee — an Indigenous studies professor in Saskatoon who has previously written for the CBC — is a white man, born to a white mother, and he is not registered under the federal Indian Act. 

"They recognize me as a non-Indian band member, so a non-status band member," Lee told As It Happens host Carol Off.

That means he can live, vote, run for office and be buried on the reserve near Thunder Bay, Ont. He would also be eligible for his share of any cash settlements the First Nation collects. 

Membership, however, does not make him eligible for the federal tax breaks or education benefits that come with official Indian status.

"I'm not a status Indian because I don't want to apply to be a status Indian," Lee told As It Happens in an email.

"I see Indian status as part of the problem because it gives Ottawa — and not Ojibwe — the power to decide who belongs."

Growing up on Fort William First Nation 

And Lee knows where he belongs.

He spent his entire childhood on the Fort William First Nation. His stepfather, a band member, adopted him in accordance with Anishinaabe law in 1980, when he was just six months old. His mother and stepfather married three years later.

"I participated in everything that any other kid in the band participated in, including, like, playing on reserve hockey teams, taking the school bus, you know, going to Christmas parties — I was fully included, just like my brother and sisters."

Damien Lee, left, pictured with his stepfather Art MacLaurin, centre, baby brother Jake MacLaurin, and sister Rebecca Lee, right. (Mari Jo MacLaurin)

It's a sentiment shared by his Fort William family. 

"I have never looked at him as a non-native cousin, he's just been a cousin," Kyle MacLaurin, a band council member and Lee's cousin, told the Globe and Mail.

From adoption to membership

Lee only pursued official membership after he stumbled upon the Fort Williams membership code in his research a few years back.

He discovered that Fort Williams scrapped the status requirement for membership in 1987, when the federal government granted bands the ability to set their own criteria.

While the council had never exercised that option before, Lee saw it as an opportunity.

Damien Lee, second on the left in the back row, and his family on Fort William First Nation. (Damien Lee)

"I believe that Anishinaabe and Ojibwe nations have their own legal systems that are valid," he said. "I wanted to explore the option to have my customary adoption, and all customary adoptions, upheld as a form of inherent Anishinaabe or Ojibwe law."

On Nov. 30, 2016, the band council unanimously voted to defer to the 1987 code when determining new membership. Four non-status people have since been granted membership, including Lee.

That doesn't mean just anyone can join.

"If we're talking about self-determination, the power to say yes to me is the same power to say no to people who are showing up and applying, you know, based on no solid grounds," Lee said. 

Not Indigenous, but Ojibwe in some circles 

The decision comes as many other First Nations work to actively limit membership, even denying it to Indigenous people who are biracial or who have non-Indigenous spouses.

Lee says he's empathetic to those who are upset he was granted membership while some Indigenous people are denied the same. 

"There is importance in terms of bloodlines," he said. "I think that their anger is valid."

It also comes amid a national debate over Indigenous identity, and who can claim it. Canadian author Joseph Boyden has come under fire in an APTN investigation that cast doubt on his self-proclaimed Indigenous heritage.

"I would say there are some significant differences there. The first, and probably the most important, is that my community claims me and my adoption was exercised through inherent law," Lee said.

"There is a history of non-Indigenous, especially white people, trying to play Indian in North America and trying to claim that space, and self-identification can be problematic outside of a community claiming that person."

Still, Lee does not claim to be Indigenous. Asked if he is Ojibwe, he said it depends. 

"Back home, at Fort William First Nation, people claim me as Anishinaabe or Ojibwe, but as I move away from that community, my whiteness starts to become all that people see because they don't know my relationship."

Off asked Lee if it's really as simple as being Ojibwe at home and white in Saskatoon. 

"No," he said. "It's incredibly complex, actually."