Addressing the Identity Crisis

McGill Indigenous Awareness Week Seeks Answers to Native Issues

John Onawario Cree spoke about his experiences in Kanehsatake. Photo Michael Wrobel

The notion of identity was the focus of a First Nations panel at McGill University on Sept. 26. Panellists discussed the legal clauses of Indian Status and Band Membership, which restrict third and fourth-generation descendants from inheriting status and its benefits.

Speaking at an event organized by McGill, the panel warned that this measurement might lead to the utter extermination of First Nations.

“Reducing legal rights from natives by loss of identity […] leads to the slow erosion of Indian status,” said panellist Michael Loft, social worker and professional associate of Indigenous Access McGill at the university’s School of Social Work.

“Without legal status, the person loses the right to [inherited] land,” Loft said.

The federal government of Canada legally recognizes individuals as aboriginals only if they obtain Indian status, which entitles specific rights as outlined in the Indian Act.

Band membership is one such right, allowing registered members a share in band assets and the ability to vote in band elections and referendums and to live on reserve land.

According to the 2006 Census of aboriginal population in Canada, 11.4 per cent of the 1,172,785 individuals self-identified as Indians were non-status.

The study calculates that about three in four of those without Indian status live in urban areas, and that from 1996 to 2006, the number of people without Indian status living in the city increased by almost 54 per cent, growing from a population of 86,593 to 133,155. The study predicts this number to reach 195,600 by 2026.

The federal government, as outlined in the Indian Act, bears financial responsibility for status aboriginals as wards of the state. This includes services usually relegated to the provinces, such as health care.

“The government is trying to erode status to reduce costs,” said Loft.

Following the amendment of The Indian Act in 1985, also known as Bill C-31, Indian status is passed on to children if both biological parents are status Indians or were entitled to be registered as such.

If a parent born to two status Indians has a child with a non-Indian, that child may receive status, but eligibility to status would be revoked from offspring of two successive generations of intermarriage between Indians and non-Indians, according to section 6.2 of the provision.

“Your status is what your parents are,” explained panellist Skawennati Tricia Fragnito, artist and co-director of Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace, a collective of academics, artists and engineers currently trying to identify how aboriginal people use new media technology.

She referred to “reverse racism” as an existent problem in some reserves, in which a community member is discriminated against for having at least one “white” or non-Indian ancestor.

Fragnito says she has been exploring what she calls the “Aboriginal territories in cyberspace” in her work. She told attendees that even if indigenous identity happens to be exterminated, “Cyberspace [offers a] new territory. Cyberspace is a place where we are living our lives, the ultimate frontier.

“In cyberspace I am still Mohawk,” she added.

Cecile Charlie, another panellist and a Mohawk activist, says she sees language as an important element in the preservation of Indigenous identity.

The mother of six also volunteers in schools to assist students with pronunciation and enunciation, as well as with storytelling techniques in the Iroquoian language.

Charlie says education in native languages is key to sharing values like thankfulness and respect to the elders with the younger generations.

The 2011 census by Statistics Canada reported a total Aboriginal mother-tongue population of 213,490.

Loft told The Link that events like Thursday’s panel help break up “the wall of miscommunication,” he said surrounds Indian status issues.

“Canadians are good people who would take the right decisions, but they need to know the facts not just from the books that are written by non-natives that think they have the authority because they have a PhD,” he said.

“Native people have a system. We didn’t have hunger, we didn’t have ignorance, and we didn’t have suicide. [Colonizers] coming from Europe just said that [it] didn’t make sense, it was savage and it had to change.

“They didn’t bother to find out what we were doing. [Aboriginal] systems are more complex than people may think.

“Changing our way of doing things to something else is basically like if someone came up to you and told you that [whom] you are is wrong. Next thing you know you are affected by it and may even change you.”

Indigenous Awareness Week was put on by McGill’s Social Equity and Diversity Education Office. In addition to the panel discussion on Aboriginal identity, events dealt with the challenges faced by Aboriginal women and multi-level governance and the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the Crown. There were also workshops on traditional hoop dancing and on how to make a dreamcatcher.

On Friday, a documentary film was shown about the 1990 Oka Crisis, a 78-day armed standoff between members of the Mohawk community of Kanehsatake, the Quebec police and the Canadian army, which was caused by a land dispute with the town of Oka.

John Onawario Cree spoke after the film screening about his experiences in Kanehsatake, where he was born and grew up. He worked as an aircraft refueller at night at the time, and would guard one of the barricades the Mohawks erected during the standoff in the morning.

“I still remember bullets coming by me in my head,” he said, recalling a firefight at the start of the standoff. “I realize that a lot of people didn’t understand why we [had a standoff], why we stood up and said no more.

“I think our people said, ‘That’s enough. We can’t keep moving backwards.’ You can only [push] people so far—people taking [your] land and after a while, you don’t have anymore land,” he said.