How every member of an Alberta First Nation lost Indian Status

Until 1985, under the Indian Act, First Nation people could legally get rid of their status by enfranchising, which means they would surrender their status to receive the same rights as non-Indigenous Canadians. 
The Callihoo family was the original family of the Michel Band. In 1878 Michel Callihoo (third from the left) signed an adhesion to Treaty 6 to create the Michel Band First Nation. (Submitted by Musée Héritage Museum)

Originally published on June 19, 2020.

Until 1985, under the Indian Act, First Nation people could legally get rid of their status by enfranchising, which means they would surrender their status to receive the same rights as non-Indigenous Canadians. 

Typically enfranchisement was a personal choice, meaning a First Nation person would make that decision as an individual.

But in 1958, the entire Michel Band in Alberta enfranchised — the only community in Canadian history to do so. 

The Michel Band was first created in 1878, when Iroquois Michel Callihoo signed an adhesion to Treaty 6 at Fort Edmonton. With that agreement in place, the community received a reserve 29 kilometres northeast of Edmonton. 

Celina Loyer, member of the Michel Band, helped curate an exhibit on the history of the band for The Musée Héritage Museum in St. Albert, Alta. (Submitted by Celina Loyer)

"There was a big push by the federal government for Indian bands to surrender their lands," said Celina Loyer, a member of the Michel Band, who helped curate an exhibit on the community for the The Musée Héritage Museum in St. Albert, Alta. 

Over the 80-year history of the Michel Band, there were several small attempts made to enfranchise the community, with one of the most notable happening in 1928. 

"The people of Michel were sending their children to the mission school in St. Alberta — it was a residential school," said Loyer. 

"People of Michel wanted to have a school built on the reserve because they no longer wanted their children to go to the residential school … they heard the stories from their children of what was going on there.

The exhibit indicates community members were told that if enough people enfranchised, a public school would be built nearby. In 1928, 10 families voluntarily enfranchised, and the province built the Michel school specifically for the children of those families. 

"Basically the parents had to choose between, do I continue to send my children to the residential school? Or do I choose to lose the rights that I'm owed under the treaty so that my children will be safe?" said Loyer.

Returning home from WWII 

Over the years, other community members were strong proponents of enfranchising, with Johnny Rodgers leading the cause. 

In 1931, Rodgers attempted to enfranchise, but the Indian Agent told him that he could only enfranchise if the whole band enfranchised as well. 

Shortly after, many men from the Michel Band — Johnny Rodgers — went to fight in the Second World War. 

Johnny Rodgers from the Michel Band was instrumental in getting his entire First Nation community to enfranchise in 1958. (Provided by Colleen Underwood)

"They were fighting alongside other people, they were treated equally to everyone else, they were allowed the same rights as everybody else," said Loyer. 

But when the men returned from the war, they went back to being "second-class citizens," said Loyer.

"At that time, Indians still could not leave the reserve without a pass, they could not go into any drinking establishments, even the legion if they had been to war … they couldn't even vote," Loyer said.

"They could go off and fight and die for their country, but they couldn't vote." 

Noticing this discrepancy, Rodgers once again worked to convince the band to enfranchise. 

According to oral history, Loyer said that Rodgers held an informal meeting with the community, asking for a show of hands of who wanted to enfranchise. 

"There were no minutes taken of this meeting, and there were no members of the Department of Indian Affairs present when it happened," said Loyer. 

"Johnny reported back to the Indian Agent they were willing to consider enfranchisement." 

In 1958, an order in council was passed allowing the entire band to be enfranchised. 

"According to the oral history, the band members said that they felt coerced into it and they were not prepared for it," said Loyer. 

"Some of the responsibilities as citizens, including paying taxes and other things like that, they were not familiar with because they had not … had to deal with that up to this point." 

Michel Band members regain status

Many Michel Band members have been able to get their status reinstated under Bill C-31, an amendment to the Indian Act which restored status to those who had it unfairly taken away through enfranchisement, marriage, or gender discrimination. 

Despite regaining status, the federal government still does not recognize the Michel Band. 

"Over time, the Michel band has gone through several different ways of trying to reestablish who they are in the eyes of the government," said Loyer. 

The community took the federal government to court in 2001, but dropped the case because of a technicality, said Loyer. 

"It's not that we want to be created, it's that we want the government to recognize that we still exist."