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The federal government has internally acknowledged that it created a complicated and lengthy process to apply for Indian status, and is at risk of “media scrutiny” over that system – the gateway for First Nations people to access their rights.

In more than 200 pages of memos and reports, obtained by The Globe and Mail through an access-to-information request, Ottawa also conceded that the application process for status is “not well understood” and that the convoluted requirements lead to information being left out, and further processing delays.

“The department is at risk of ongoing media scrutiny over what could be perceived as a program that is poorly managed,” reads an April, 2022, draft memo about the Indigenous Services Canada branch responsible for processing these applications.

Without Indian status, First Nations people generally cannot access the rights to which they are entitled. That could include access to the Non-Insured Health Benefits program; certain tax exemptions; or the possibility of postsecondary-education funding. Status can also be linked to important social and cultural connections, such as being able to register as a member of a particular community or the right to live on reserve.

While the term “Indian” is typically considered outdated and offensive, Indian status is a specific designation under the Indian Act, which dates back to 1876. The controversial legislation tightly defines who is eligible for status. Receiving status, which is also referred to as registration, is not an automatic process, and requires an application – whether for an adult or a child.

The process of applying is typically not quick – even without additional delays. On its website, the federal government says waiting times for simple cases are between six and eight months, and, in complex cases, up to two years, though government officials say simple cases often are processed in a matter of weeks, not months.

Advocates and lawyers say the people whose applications drag on often have been cut off from their communities – whether through the legacy of discriminatory federal laws, or as a result of foster care or adoption. And getting information about the application process is so difficult that the government’s own documents say it can be perceived as a form of systemic racism.

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A draft memo titled "Complaints about the Public Enquiries Contact Centre's Wait Times and Dropped Calls," was originally dated Sept. 24, 2021, but was later edited, with an updated date of April 5, 2022.Indigenous Services Canada/Supplied

The timeline to receive a secure status card is also lengthy. As of late February, it was three months, Indigenous Services spokesperson Vincent Gauthier said in an e-mail. Secure status cards, which were introduced in 2009, are a form of identification that acts as proof of one’s status – just as the common laminated version does – but they also feature additional security measures, including for more straightforward use at the U.S. border.

The records obtained by The Globe reference applicants’ frustration over the months-long wait to receive a secure status card – and similar challenges with that application process.

The April, 2022, draft memo points to OneFeather – an Indigenous tech company that for about $20 submits secure status card applications on its customers’ behalf, after reviewing them for issues. The company receives its customers’ documents online. Otherwise, applicants must print their documents and mail them out, or drop them off in person.

“OneFeather’s existence implies that people need help to apply and reinforces the idea that government is too complex, perhaps intentionally so,” the memo reads.

And it continues: “Why can’t we offer the same service OneFeather does?”

Status under the Indian Act has long been intertwined with a history of discriminatory federal laws. Between that legislation and the Gradual Enfranchisement Act of 1869, scores of First Nations people were stripped of their status.

For First Nations men, joining the legal or medical profession or becoming a minister resulted in having one’s status taken away, up until 1920. The status of his wife and children would be taken, as well. And, for more than 100 years, up until 1985, women lost their status if they married a non-status man.

Legislative changes that year, as well as over the past decade, have attempted to remedy the harms of past laws, allowing certain people to be newly registered.

Claire Truesdale, a Vancouver-based lawyer who works with clients on status applications, said that while she sees simple applications completed in six months, complex ones can take three to four years. She also said there’s a “stark difference” between waiting times for status applications, compared with other government services.

“It’s a way to keep people from the benefits they’re legally entitled to,” she said.

And processing times can vary “widely,” depending on where an application is submitted, a 2022 government evaluation found.

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A draft document, titled "ISC Public Enquiries Contact Centre – communications challenges," is dated April 25, 2022, and refers to a high volume of questions on Indigenous Services' social-media channels, generated by frustrated applicants.Indigenous Services Canada/Supplied

Carol McBride, president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, said that while having status can be very important for financial reasons, one of the deepest benefits can be the sense of belonging. This is something Ms. McBride felt herself. She grew up without status, until 1985, when legislative amendments allowed her to register.

“I’d lived on the reserve all my life, and that made me feel included, made me feel more at home,” she said.

Ms. McBride said those applying for status now should not be forced to wait years for a decision, nor deal with delays if information gets left out. And, she said, there needs to be more help for applicants to navigate the difficult process.

“Sometimes I wonder if they put things like that in place just to make it more complicated,” she said.

A 2022 Senate committee report, focused on ending discrimination in registration provisions, echoed Ms. McBride’s recommendation for greater support for applicants. It also demanded that the department cut its processing time, recommending a 10-day standard for status applications – once documents have been received.

In an interview, Lori Doran, the director-general of the Indigenous Services branch that processes status and secure status card applications, and Stuart Hooft, director of registration reform, largely defended the government’s system. Mr. Hooft noted that simple applications – in which one or both parents of an applicant are already registered – are completed relatively quickly.

And as for complex applications, Mr. Hooft acknowledged that the government doesn’t keep track of the average processing time. Ms. Doran said the department is now beginning to process complex applications submitted in October, 2021.

“There are many instances where we have people who submit an application where that ancestral tie is not exactly clear, and the department needs to do research – genealogical or archival research – to confirm that link,” Ms. Doran said.

Ms. Doran said she recognizes the difficulties with the application process. She said that the department is simplifying its forms and building an online submission system for simple applications, among other changes.

The need for an online application process is mentioned several times in the government documents. A June, 2022, presentation points out that the application forms “require a printer and adequate bandwidth” and are “not accessible on mobile devices.”

“If we direct users to the online forms but they can’t access them, we are at risk of criticism,” the April, 2022, draft memo notes.

Then the memo says that “access to timely, accurate information” on these topics is a right for First Nations people, specifically referencing issues with the call centre meant to answer questions about status, as well as secure status cards.

”The government is not providing this service, which could be construed as systemic racism.”

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