Hill Times March 22, 2021
I am status, card-carrying First Nations—the federal government calls me a real one. The status card is a race-based ethnic identity card used to limit access to certain federal government programs for real First Nations peoples only. It used to be based on blood quantum, one had to prove at least 25 per cent real “Indian” blood. It’s as weird as it sounds. Status is a hot mess, but it’s also very old. It’s difficult to question things that are cemented into 140 years of history.
I am from Taku River and I don’t need any outside government to tell me who I am or not. I am incredibly privileged, clear in my identity without need for external validation, and with financial stability to choose other than limited programs provided to status First Nations. Others face challenges on both fronts.
Status is problematic because it is controlled by the federal government. Let’s pretend that the federal government decided to create an ethnic database of “real Québécois.” Yes, the outrage is my point.
Ethnic-based identity is somewhat rare. In Rwanda, the ethnic identity card is believed to have greatly increased the speed of mass killings for Tutsi in 1994 who had this noted on their identity card. Israel used to note ethnic identity on its mandatory identity cards until recently, and it was a source of complex legal battles on how to define ethnicity. This may seem irrelevant, but it is very much an issue today in Canada in COVID-19 vaccinations.
Status is an issue because it’s applied inconsistently. Status used to be defined by blood quantum, except over history “Indian agents” stripped status from women, from strong community leaders, from strong communities. Obviously this status registry was used to decrease the political strength of First Nations and decrease the cost of providing services to First Nations. It’s questionable to rely on it now, given the dubious history of this registry.
And let’s be clear: blood quantum is just plain horrible. I have never heard of any Indigenous community or knowledge system in the world who used blood quantum to limit community membership prior to colonization.
Now status is more complex. There’s a community on the East Coast that uses a different approach of points, and gives points and status depending on how often you go back to the reserve, which seems to be a court case waiting to be lost. Except this is in light of a much larger context: the Supreme Court ruled, under the Daniels Decision in 2015, that the whole concept of status is moot partly because it has been implemented in such a messy way. The court said non-status First Nations and Métis are to be included along with status First Nations. But nothing has really changed, and the hot mess continues.
Now it’s wrapped up in COVID-19 vaccinations. Thankfully, Canada has prioritized Indigenous peoples, and while white supremacists are tweeting up a white storm, vaccinations for First Nations, Inuit, and Métis continue. Here’s the issue: Ontario has deemed it important to ask for proof of Indigeneity, and here comes the status card again as proof of being a real First Nations. What about non-status First Nations, will they continue to be left with “obvious disadvantaging consequences,” a key phrase from Supreme Court?
Frontline staff at vaccine call-in centres are trying to decide if a First Nations is “real,” based on status cards. Self-identity and community identity, differential access to health care, individuals feeling the hurt again of being left out; it’s a hot mess. Public health leaders need to understand the implications of relying on a flawed database and its colonial roots.
No, there is no alternative until First Nations determine our own ways of building and recognizing community, based in our own values and knowledge systems.