Damien Lee is neither a status Indian nor is he Indigenous. But he belongs to the Fort William First Nation.
It’s where he grew up. It’s where his family lives. And now, in a ground-breaking demonstration of both kinship and independence, the First Nation adjacent to the Ontario city of Thunder Bay has accepted Mr. Lee as a full-fledged member.
“That’s my home. Up until earlier this month I have been claimed by the community socially and in a de facto sense, but I never have been able to participate in voting, for example,” Mr. Lee said in a telephone interview from Saskatoon where he is a professor of Indigenous studies.
“Now I get to participate in the things that my brothers and sisters get to participate in.”
As other First Nations take legal action to limit their membership and to exclude even fully Indigenous people who marry outsiders, the Fort William First Nation this year accepted four people as members who do not possess Indian status, which is recognition by the federal government that a person is registered under the Indian Act and entitled to the accompanying funding and benefits.
A handful of experts contacted by The Globe and Mail could not point to another Indian Act community that, like Fort William, has opened its membership to non-status people.
Even as a true member of the First Nation, Mr. Lee will not be eligible for the tax breaks, education funding and other assistance that Ottawa provides to status Indians, nor will the community receive more money for having him on its rolls.
On the other hand, he can vote in band elections and run for office. He can hold land on the reserve. And, if there is a settlement that brings cash into the community, Mr. Lee will be able to claim a share. So broadening Fort William’s membership makes no financial sense to those who are already on its rolls.
But Kyle MacLaurin, a Fort William band councillor who is also Mr. Lee’s cousin, said his community decided that money could not be allowed to determine membership.
“We know who our people are. We can’t let [the department of] Indian and Northern Affairs dictate who our people are, especially on the grounds of dollars,” said Mr. MacLaurin.
The ability to allow non-status people to join a First Nation dates back to 1987 when the federal government said it would allow bands to set their own membership rules. Fort William was one of about 230 First Nations to do so.
Most kept the requirement that their members be status Indians. Fort William decided to eliminate that provision, but it did not exercise the option until very recently.
“Once I found out about [the fact that the new membership rules allowing non-status Indians to be part of the band had not been applied], I said this isn’t right, our community ratified this,” said Mr. MacLaurin. So “on Nov. 30 we unanimously passed a band council resolution saying we’re going to go back to using this code, as it’s written.”
Now anyone can now apply for membership, regardless of their ethnicity or their Indian status. If they are accepted by the band council, they must wait out a five-year probationary period and then have their membership ratified by a vote of all band members.
But the probation and the ratification vote are not required in cases where people have been adopted into the band as children. That is why Mr. Lee and the other three new members were accepted so quickly. He is the only one of the four who is non-indigenous.
Mr. Lee’s mother, who is Caucasian, married Mr. Lee’s stepfather, a member of the Fort William band, when Mr. Lee was a baby. Mr. Lee was adopted through traditional customs.
“I have never looked at him as a non-native cousin, he’s just been a cousin,” said Mr. MacLaurin. “He’s family and he grew up with us exactly like we lived, went to the same schools, took the same buses, played on the same hockey teams, grew up on the same reserve. So he belonged to us, he belongs.”
If the membership rules had not been opened, said Mr. MacLaurin, the number of people who could be members of the Fort William band could eventually shrink to the point that the First Nation would no longer be sustainable. Plus, he said, “as Anishinaabe, we are not exclusionary people.”
Heidi Stark, an Ojibwe professor of Indigenous politics at the University of Victoria, agrees.
“What they’re doing at Fort William is completely a celebration. It is, in many ways, an enactment of a much older Anishinaabe tradition about how we define family and kin,” said Prof. Stark. “Across the board, Anishinaabe scholars articulate our need to move toward a more kin-oriented way of understanding our citizenship, our membership.”
Meanwhile, five Mohawks from Kahnawake in southwestern Quebec have taken their First Nation to the Canadian Human Rights Commission saying they were deprived of their band membership because they are biracial or in a relationship with someone who is not indigenous. Kahnawake’s leaders say they had to enforce those rules to protect Mohawk identity and culture.
And in British Columbia, the Peters First Nation has decided to limit the number of people who can be members, causing some of those who believe they have been unfairly excluded to appeal to Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett.
But Fort William has gone the opposite route.
“It’s not just about bloodlines, it’s about who we are as a people, our beliefs, how we live as a community,” said Mr. MacLaurin. “We’ve been accepting people in since contact” with Europeans.
Now that non-status Indians have been given membership in the band, Mr. Lee said the First Nation can make a case to the government that newcomers deserve the same financial benefits as the other members.
“It actually gives the band footing,” he said, “to say ‘This is who we claim and, through our treaty, if we’re talking nation-to-nation, if we claim these people based on treaty, then you, the government, are supposed to be funding or sharing resources based on that, not based on who you say is an Indian.’”Report Typo/Error