The Chief of the Fort William First Nation says it is time for all children born to his people to be accepted by the government as status Indians and he is prepared to go to court to make that happen.
The community adjacent to Thunder Bay recently began upholding the rules it wrote in 1987 to allow non-status Indians, and even non-Indigenous people, to become members. The aim is to stop the slow assimilation of Fort William descendants into non-Indigenous society as First Nation members have children with non-native partners.
But, although the new members can vote in band elections and hold land on the reserve, they are not automatically registered by the federal government as status Indians under the Indian Act and are not entitled to the accompanying benefits, which include tax breaks and money for postsecondary education.
Chief Peter Collins plans to change that.
"INAC [Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada], you no longer determine who our members are," Mr. Collins said in a recent telephone interview. "Fort William will determine who our members are. We will send you our list of who should be status Indians in our community and you will add them to your registry. This is our right to self-determination."
The Indian Act contains a complicated formula based on the Indian status of the parents to determine who gets status and who does not. For instance, if a status Indian has a child with a non-status Indian, that child will get status, but the child cannot pass status on to their children if their partner is non-status.
As a result, there are many people who were raised at Fort William who do not have status, including the grandchildren of the former chief. "They don't feel like they belong anywhere," Mr. Collins said, "and yet their parents and their grandparents and their great-grandparents are status members of Fort William."
The Indian Act allows non-Indian children adopted by Indians to gain Indian status. So, on the advice of an elder, Mr. Collins plans to use traditional ceremonies to adopt all of the non-status children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren who want to join the First Nation. Then he will demand that the government registers those people as status Indians.
"We are trying to instill [in the adoptees] those same opportunities and same benefits that we take for granted every day, day in and day out," said Mr. Collins. "I disagree with them being lost in the system and losing their status rights. To me, the government is trying to make our community members extinct and, if they continue on this path, who knows what will be lost."
Mr. Collins said he does not know whether Ottawa will be willing to accept traditional adoptions, which are not formally recognized by Canadian law, as the basis for granting status. But, if his plan is rejected, he said, "I think there will be a court challenge somewhere down the road."
A spokesman for Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett said the government plans to completely overhaul the Indian Act and will not prejudge the outcome of those discussions. "I would point out that some bands have spoken out against expanding status requirements," said James Fitz-Morris. "So there's no unanimity on directly linking status with band membership."
Indeed, Fort William's leaders are taking the opposite tack to that in some other First Nations which are disenfranchising people who marry outside the community. But it is not alone in its desire to expand its membership and ensure that all members have status.
A resolution, introduced by the Skeetchestn Indian Band of British Columbia and passed by the chiefs of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) in late 2015, called upon the government to stop using the Indian Act criteria to determine status and to allow First Nations to choose their members through customary adoption.
"We have to assert jurisdiction over our citizenship and not rely on the Indian Act to determine band membership or band status," Perry Bellegarde, the National Chief of the AFN, said in an interview. "We've got to occupy the field and create our own citizenship acts because, if we stay under the Indian Act for determining citizenship, there will be no more status Indians in 50 years in Canada."
Mr. Collins said he is aware that skeptics will accuse those who want to become status Indians of being motivated by the financial benefits. But that is a "racist" outlook, he said. "It is about giving the kids that should be status the status that they deserve."
The government talks "about truth and reconciliation and they talk about the right to self-determination and they talk about all the good things like that," said Mr. Collins. "And this is what we are trying to do – self-determination and truth and reconciliation; reconciling with the kids who lost their status because of the legislation that our communities didn't agree to."