The federal government is proposing changes to legislation that would end some of the sexist provisions of the Indian Act and allow as many as 35,000 more Canadians to become status Indians, giving them access to special government benefits and, in some cases, band membership.
The bill, which was introduced in the Senate to expedite its passage, is aimed at fixing sections of the Act that make it more difficult for descendants of women to pass Indian status on to their own children and grandchildren.
But some sexist elements of the Act will remain even if the bill becomes law.
And Perry Bellegarde, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, says any attempt to eliminate the inequities are doomed to failure because the Indian Act itself is beyond fixing.
"The essence of the Indian Act is a colonial mindset that can only be tossed aside," Mr. Bellegarde said Tuesday at a meeting of a Senate committee that is studying the legislation. "I've always said [to the First Nations] you've got to occupy the field, create your own citizenship laws and acts … and put the Indian Act piece to the side or any other federal or provincial piece of legislation that you no longer wish to apply to you."
The case that is forcing the changes to the Indian Act was brought by a man named Stéphane Descheneaux from the Abénaki community of Odanak in Quebec. Mr. Descheneaux was unable to pass on his Indian status to his three daughters because his First Nations descent came from his grandmother, who lost her status when she married a non-Indigenous man. Had his aboriginal grandparent been a man, Mr. Descheneaux would have been able to keep his status and to pass it on to his wife, their children and grandchildren.
In ruling on the Descheneaux case in August, 2015, Quebec Superior Court Justice Chantal Masse found that those sections of the Act that spell out who can receive official Indian status violate the equality provisions of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Justice Masse gave the government 18 months to make the necessary changes. In January, she extended that deadline to July 3 after senators said the bill the government introduced to fix the Act would not end the discrimination and that there should be more discussions with the First Nations people affected.
In response, the government engaged in more consultation and has proposed six amendments to the bill that would address some of the remaining discrimination. But not all of the sexual disparities in the Act will be eliminated.
For instance, descendants of status men who were born before Sept. 4, 1951, will be granted Indian status while descendants of status women born before that date will not. The government says the courts have already decided that that provision can remain. It also says it will take another look at the issue in a second round of efforts to make the process of Indian registration more fair.
Supporters of some of the women affected say that is not good enough.
Many Canadians would be shocked to know that the Liberal government, which says it believes in the equality of women and in a new nation-to-nation relationship with First Nations, is addressing only the slice of the sex discrimination that is required by the court, said Shelagh Day, chair of the human-rights committee of the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action.
"To my knowledge, this is the last piece of overt legislated sex discrimination left in Canada and we're about to re-enact it," said Ms. Day.
Status Indians have access to federally funded supplementary health and dental benefits as well as some tax exemptions that are not available to other Canadians, and the First Nations are given money pay for the postsecondary education of their members.
To account for the looming influx of thousands of new people to the status rolls, the government has added an extra $130-million to the non-insured health benefits program for Indigenous people.
But Mr. Bellegarde questions whether that will be enough when First Nations are already fighting for resources. "Now, with more status Indians coming, they are going to need access to certain programs," he told the committee. "There's going to be a drain on the existing resource base that's there."
With a report from Tavia Grant in Toronto