Status rights change for First Nation women

After a quarter century, Judy Gingell can finally pass her Yukon aboriginal status on to her grandchildren.

After a quarter century, Judy Gingell can finally pass her Yukon aboriginal status on to her grandchildren.

On Thursday, the federal government conceded Canada’s Indian Act discriminates against women who have married non-status men.

Gingell was one of them.

When she married a non-status Canadian, Gingell was stripped of her Indian status.

And when she had children, they did not get status either.

But in 1985, that changed. And Gingell regained Indian status for herself and her children.

Now, 25 years later, the Canadian government has introduced Bill C-3, allowing First Nation women to pass status onto their grandchildren. And the legislation could affect as many as 45,000 Canadians.

The new legislation comes after a 20-year court battle waged by Sharon McIvor, a BC First Nation woman fighting to gain status for her own children.

“I’m really happy to hear this,” said 63-year-old Gingell.

“But there’s more discrimination in this Indian Act that needs to be addressed.”

Gingell, of the Kwanlin Dun First Nation, was one of the founding members of the Yukon Indian Women’s Association in the late ‘70s.

She, along with other Yukon women, pushed the government to change what they saw as discriminatory laws in the Indian Act.

First Nation men who married non-status women were still allowed to retain their status and pass it along to their children while First Nation women who married non-status men could not.

That resulted in the federal government introducing Bill C-31 in 1985 which granted status to First Nation women and some of their children.

After 1993, when 11 of the territory’s First Nations moved to self-governance, the issue of status became less salient for Yukon First Nation people, said Gingell.

Self-governing nations have their own rules dictating who can receive status.

Even so, when Gingell leaves the territory, she’s glad she has a federal Indian status card that allows her to be recognized in other parts of the country.

But she questions why the federal government still has the final say on who is, and who isn’t First Nation.

“Who is this person who has so much power to say who is an Indian and who isn’t?” said Gingell.

The issue of status is something that goes deeper than just having the rights and benefits associated with being First Nation, said Yukon Women’s Council president Victoria Fred.

“It goes to a lot of people’s sense of identity,” she said, explaining that the McIvor case brought a lot of these issues forward.

For the three First Nation groups in the Yukon who aren’t self-governing, the issue becomes very significant.

“There are grandchildren in the Yukon who are not able to access resources or support whether it’s health or education dollars,” said Fred.

“Now this legislation will hopefully address that.”

But there is a larger issue.

The federal funding given to Yukon First Nation governments is still based on status numbers, said Fred.

“What happens then, is that the funding formula based on status numbers undermines First Nation governments (who dictate their own citizenship) to properly serve the interests of their citizens.”

There’s also the question of great-grandchildren.

Assembly of First Nations Grand Chief Shawn Atleo wants a parliamentary committee to look at that issue.

He wants to ensure that this new legislation effectively responds to the needs of aboriginal people, said Fred.

“Has the legislation gone far enough?” she said.

“Only time will tell. It think it’s one step of many on a long journey that is still ahead of us.”

There’s still a heavy workload around this issue, Fred added.

“The quintessential issue is ensuring that aboriginal people define their own identity – define their own issues around citizenship.

“We are part of this country and until we start getting recognition that we are quite capable and have a lot to bring to the table, the country as a whole will continue to be held back.”

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