Mystery remains about First Nations passport requirements

Come January 23, all Canadians entering the United States by air will have to produce a passport to prove their citizenship.

Come January 23, all Canadians entering the United States by air will have to produce a passport to prove their citizenship.

But while the change looms large, confusion whether the new rules apply to First Nations people remains — leading Canadian officials to push for clarity and examine changing Indian Status cards to bolster security.

Canadians and Americans with more than 50 per cent aboriginal blood are currently exempted from border laws under the Jay Treaty of 1794, signed by the US and Great Britain.

And for more than a year, Yukon Tourism and Culture Minister Elaine Taylor has been asking US and Canadian officials whether those exemptions remain under the impending changes.

“We feel there should be a continued exemption for aboriginal Canadians, to avoid confusion,” said Taylor in an interview Thursday

“I’ve been looking for clarification for whether or not that exemption will continue. We have a very migrant First Nations community, with organizations and governments traveling to and from Alaska for traditional gatherings.

“I think it’s primarily land border crossings that are of particular concern to us because there is a lot of travel to and from Alaska, but certainly air takes that into consideration as well.”

While rules for people arriving by air change this month, Canadians won’t need a passport to enter the US by sea or land until 2009.

Passengers flying from Old Crow to Whitehorse have to first pass through Fairbanks, Alaska, before arriving in the city on Air North flights, the only airline offering regularly scheduled service from the fly-in community.

Old Crow people without passports could be trapped in the community as a result.

Many are in the process of getting a passport, but many haven’t gotten one yet, said Vuntut Gwitchin spokesperson Dorothy Frost.

“I think that it’s going to become a problem,” she said of the passport requirements. “You need certain photos, and we don’t have a photo shop here. Most often the (passport applications) are sent back.”

With those concerns in mind, Taylor has spoken with Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day to determine whether the Jay Treaty exemptions will remain intact.

Day has formally taken those questions to US officials, but there has been no response.

Add that to a list of frustrations on the Canadian side of the border over clarity about the tightening rules for entering the US.

Getting US officials to provide specifics about rule changes has been incredibly difficult, said Taylor.

The January 23 change was originally scheduled for January 1, then shifted to January 8, before officials changed it again to the current date, she said.

Like many Canadian tourism ministers, Taylor has been pushing for an affordable and accessible substitute to a passport.

Officials have said one could be created this year but have provided no specifics, further muddling the rules.

“There’s so much confusion right now, with these dates continuing to change, and as well, now there’s discussion about alternate cards,” said Taylor.

“Yet we still don’t know what these cards are going to look like, when they’re going to be made available, where people can get them.”

One option that Indian and Northern Affairs officials are examining is enhanced security features on Indian Status cards issued by the department, she said.

INAC officials didn’t provide comment before press time.

About 40 per cent of Canadians hold a passport, according to Passport Canada.

In the US, that number is only 25 per cent.

In 2005, Passport Canada issued more than three million passports — the most it has ever produced.

And, as of November, passport requests are up 33 per cent over 2005, said Passport Canada spokesperson Francine Charbonneau.

“We’re facing record numbers,” said Charbonneau, noting winter is the peak season for passport requests.

More staff and overtime shifts have been added to process passport applications and print them more quickly, said Charbonneau.

Still, the average wait time for an application from the Yukon is at least 20 business days, she said.

That means Yukoners worried about the changes may not be able to get a passport before they come into effect if they apply today.

“It’s kind of a pickle,” said Charbonneau.