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Smashing Identity Algorithms, Yes Please

LISA BIRD-WILSON

While status registration under the Indian Act is a construct, claiming status identity is an important factor in Indigenous identity and cultural transmission.

The Joseph Boyden Indigenous identity debacle that started late 2016 and really hit its high notes by 2017 underscores not only the importance of knowing and claiming your heritage accurately, but also of receiving acceptance from your community. Most readers will remember that Boyden, one of Canada’s most commercially successful “Indigenous” authors, was the subject of investigative journalism by Jorge Barrera (APTN) exposing Boyden’s Indigenous identity claims as unfounded. It’s not only about who you claim to be. It’s about who claims you, too. This mantra dominated discussions about Boyden’s claims of Indigenous heritage. Granted, Boyden made some epic fuck-ups, including changing his claims about which Indigenous nation he is from. Boyden’s inability to publicly identify his link and lineage to an Indigenous community, and then his failure to admit his shortcomings, led to widespread rejection of him as an Indigenous writer and legitimate Indigenous voice.

Boyden’s was an unpleasant fall to watch, and many of us did so quietly from our own positions of insecure identity. I am an adopted Indigenous person, raised outside my family of origin, cheated by both harmful government policy and poor record keeping that often failed to transfer Indigenous identity rights to the child in adoption; the question who claims you is fraught with anxiety for me. The discussion about Boyden leaves many of us wondering about standards of identity and if we measure up. Regardless of the ability to be registered as a “status Indian,” or as a member of the Métis Nation, many of us question how we fit into the more subtle identity categories.

Lynn Gehl’s new book, Claiming Anishinaabe: Decolonizing the Human Spirit (University of Regina Press, 2017), is titled partially in response to the Boyden controversy and fallout. The notion of being claimed by a nation or community can be dicey for some Indigenous people who have been separated from their communities of origin through forced adoption, removal of children, alienation, sexist legislation of the Indian Act or a combination of these violent acts of colonialism. In Gehl’s case, the violence of colonial acts committed by Canada meant her ability to become a registered member of her family’s community and receive benefits under the Indian Act was rejected based on an unknown paternal grandfather who is assumed by Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada policy to be a non-Indian person. Gehl took the federal government to court over a sneaky 1985 amendment to the Indian Act that denies full status to children in cases of unknown or unacknowledged paternity, making it difficult for women in such circumstances to pass their status on to future generations. This amendment fails to recognize the realities of sexual violence and domestic abuse faced by Indigenous women. The legacy of historical colonial violence, in the form of residential schools, forced assimilation policies, criminalization of Indigenous cultural practices and so on, has left First Nations women vulnerable.

Gehl is clear about her claim to Indigenous identity, stating that despite the fact that Canada denies her registration as a status Indian, and as a result her First Nation denies her band membership, “I myself claim I am Anishinaabe.” Gehl writes, “I do this even though my Indigenous nation is unable to claim me as a citizen or member. I am decolonizing my spirit and claiming myself Anishinaabe.”

Current legislation includes complicated rules for registering under the Indian Act. For instance, people registered under section 6 of the Indian Act are divided into subsections 6(1) and 6(2) and are treated differently in regard to their ability to pass status on to children. As Chelsea Vowel notes in Indigenous Writes: A Guide to First Nations, Métis and Inuit Issues in Canada (Highwater Press, 2016), “This might be a good time to get a coffee, because this next bit is always confusing for people.”

Below is a breakdown, as shown in Chelsea Vowel’s Indigenous Writes. I feel it important to add that talking about people in this manner is absolutely dehumanizing, dispiriting, and the epitome of colonial oppression. The legislation, summed up in the diagrams, reveals a cold and complicated formula for human identity.

Eligibility for registration, or the denial of such eligibility, is fundamentally linked to cultural retention and identity, as Senator Lillian Dyck, a member of George Gordon First Nation in Saskatchewan, points out. She notes the sex-based discrimination in the Indian Act “has alienated hundreds of thousands of people like myself where we don’t have connections to our communities that we should have had…it’s a forced assimilation…it’s another method of cultural genocide.” Legislation that relies on such formulaic approaches impacts the human spirit, dignity and self-worth. It reinforces the myth of the vanishing Indian and threatens the freedom to live and love by choice rather than according to programmed measures necessary to preserve cultural identity. It’s reductive in a slippery way that diminishes people to categories and numbers and imposes hierarchies of worth. For instance, a person who is registered as a 6(1) has a greater “status” and ability to pass their lineage to a child than the person registered as a 6(2). Simply discussing human beings in this manner is dehumanizing and soul-crushing.

Recently the Senate of Canada forced the federal government to amend a new piece of legislation, Bill S-3, to address female gender discrimination in the Indian Act once and for all and bring it into compliance with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Originally Bill S-3 proposed to address gender discrimination only from 1951 onward. The senators were able to have the legislation changed to address the sex-based discrimination, which affects Indigenous women who married non-status men, all the way back to 1876 when the Indian Act came into effect. Senator Dyck stated, “Finally Indian women will be recognized in law as having equal rights as Indian men to transmit status as registered Indians and all that goes with it—your language, your culture, your connection to your family, your connection to your community.”

The lack of a deadline for consultations and implementation for Bill S-3 leaves many people skeptical because—let’s face it—broken promises are the norm for federal government actions toward Indigenous people. As Senator Dyck states, “We should not trust the government. We don’t trust the government.” And if we heed Lynn Gehl’s words that “the purpose [of Indian Act legislation] was, and remains, Canada’s need to eliminate its treaty responsibilities,” we will see more of the many ways and many times Canada has tried to eliminate registered Indians—largely through Indigenous women and their babies.

Regarding the sex-based discrimination in the Indian Act, Senator Murray Sinclair makes the valid point that the problem was not created by Indigenous people: “[Government] created this problem, not First Nations people and not Indigenous women… The government has to solve this.” First Nations did not cause the problem of gender discrimination, but through processes of colonization and the introduction of legislatively supported patriarchal violence and marginalization of women in our communities, First Nations, led mostly by male chiefs and councils populated by men, and not necessarily acting in the best interests of women and children, began to implement the Indian Act regulations to exclude Indigenous women from their communities. It bears repeating: in asking the question and demanding redress, Indigenous women are not responsible for knowing the solution. It’s the responsibility of the government to find ways to solve it.

Another current conversation, this one about eliminating the Indian Act altogether, which Gehl notes is extremely complicated, includes discussions about self-governance and fee-simple land settlements—led, again, by mostly male First Nation governance structures and not necessarily in the best interests of Indigenous women and children. While it is true that status registration under the Indian Act is a government and colonial construct, the concept of claiming status identity has clearly become an important factor in Indigenous identity and cultural transmission. With so much at stake, there can be no simple pen-stroke abolishment of the Indian Act in the name of decolonizing.

Gehl’s work, as she notes herself, can be “a bit of a cognitive wrestle,” but offers a current and critical discussion of Indigenous identity. In the process of decolonizing and locating ourselves as contemporary Indigenous people in the Canadian social, cultural and legal context, such discussions are necessary and timely. As Gehl says, “paradigm shifting requires mental activity and conceptual thinking.” To which I say, fewer Indian Act algorithms and more of what she says, please.

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LISA BIRD-WILSON

Lisa Bird-Wilson, a Métis and nêhiyaw writer from Saskatchewan, is the author of three books: The Red Files, a poetry collection (Nightwood Editions, 2016), Just Pretending, short stories (Coteau Books, 2013) and An Institute of Our Own: A History of the Gabriel Dumont Institute (Gabriel Dumont Press, 2011). Just Pretending is the 2019 One Book One Province selection for Saskatchewan. Her first novel, Probably Ruby, was published in 2021 by Doubleday Canada. Her shorter works have been published in periodicals and anthologies across Canada. Bird-Wilson lives in Saskatoon, SK. Find her at lisabirdwilson.com.


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