Written by Melanie Paradis for National Newswatch. Click here to read the original.
Indigenous women will be equal in Canada, some day. That was the message out of Ottawa earlier this month. The federal government finally agreed with the Senate and promised to remove all parts of the Indian Act that discriminate against women, and to right these egregious historical wrongs once and for all. But what the government gave with one hand, it took away with the other. It has chosen to delay equality and the advancement of Indigenous women’s rights indefinitely. Now Bill S-3, which received Royal Assent this week, will only come into effect following a yet-to-be-determined consultation period.
One government after another has spent over 30 years trying to fix this mess. Until 1985, if a status Indian woman married a non-Aboriginal person, she would lose her Aboriginal rights entirely. Not only was this not the case for status Indian men, worse, if they married a non-Aboriginal woman, she would be granted status! There was actually a time when a woman could emigrate from Finland and become a status Indian the same day a woman born on a Canadian reserve with 100% First Nation blood lost her status, just because of who they chose to marry.
Fast forward to 2017, where we are several Supreme Court decisions down the line. Each one has found that the Indian Act is discriminatory. With each ruling, successive Governments have moved an inch when what was needed was a mile. So where are we today and what still needs to be fixed? Consider this chart:
What possible justification can there be for the descendants of Aboriginal women to lose their legal status a generation before those of their brothers? For many people who have married outside their community, and whose status ancestry flows from a woman, this is the stark inequality they suffer.
Last week the Parliamentary Budget Officer released a report that suggests 28,000-35,000 additional Canadians would be eligible to register as status Indians immediately under Bill S-3. This does not account for the unknown number of yet-to-be-born Canadians who would also fall into the third generation.
This will, of course, be a complicated and costly initiative. Band councils will see a spike in their numbers and will have concerns about the increase in demand on their already stretched resources. Ultimately, the Government will have to find more money.
But consider the upside. Thousands more Aboriginal Canadians will gain access to funding for health care, pharma care, tax exemptions and, critically, post-secondary education. Thousands will see their cost of living decrease while their quality of life increases. An entire generation of Aboriginal Canadians will gain access to funding for college or university. There will be more Aboriginal entrepreneurs, tradespeople, engineers, doctors and politicians. These are all great things for our economy and our country. They won’t come easily or cheaply, but they will be worth it.
Canada has been denying thousands of people access to benefits and opportunities that rightfully should have been theirs for decades because of sexual discrimination. We wonder why there is a problem in this country with how Aboriginal women are valued, and yet we continue to indefinitely delay making Aboriginal women equal in our own laws. If we are serious about changing the relationship between Government and Aboriginal peoples, then ‘someday’ isn’t good enough anymore. At the very least, the Government of Canada needs to give itself a deadline to develop the implementation plan. It should publicly commit to a timeline so their progress can be held to account. If you can set a date for marijuana legalization and drive relentlessly towards it, you can do the same for rights recognition for First Nations people.
The time to right this historical wrong is now. Every semester we wait, would-be Aboriginal students don’t go to school because they can’t afford tuition. With every year that passes, would-be Aboriginal entrepreneurs don’t open their small business and employ more Canadians because they can’t access grants. Every parliamentary session that ends without fixing this egregious discrimination, Canada is telling Aboriginal women: you just aren’t worth it right now. But maybe someday.