Briefing Note: Fort William Band Council Resolutions re 1987 Membership Code

December 1, 2016

On November 30, 2016, the Fort William First Nation (FWFN) chief and council approved two Band Council Resolutions (BCRs) pertaining to the 1987 FWFN band membership code. This briefing note explains the implications of these two BCRs, and contextualizes them within the history of the 1987 band membership code.

Context: The Indian Act, 1985
In 1985, the Indian Act was amended in such a way that allowed Indian bands to control their own membership lists. Section 10(1) of the Act provides that a band may control its membership list by meeting three criteria: 1. it writes its own membership code; 2. it gives appropriate notice to the Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada that the band wishes to assume control over its membership (this includes sending the code to the Minister for review); and, 3. a majority of the electors of the band consent to the band taking control of its membership list. According to section 10(8) of the Act, once approved by the Minister, the membership code submitted becomes the law governing band membership decisions “from the day on which notice is given to the Minister.”

The 1987 FWFN Band Membership Code
Fort William First Nation took advantage of section 10 of the Indian Act. It developed its own membership code in consultation with the community, leadership, and a lawyer. On June 26th, 1987, the majority of the electors approved the membership code. It was then sent to the Minister of Indian Affairs in July 1988. Finally, on June 26, 1990, after some correspondence between Fort William and the federal government, the Minister of Indian Affairs, Mr. Tom Siddon, gave notice to Fort William that “pursuant to subsection 10(7) of the Indian Act … the Fort William Band has control of its membership effective June 26, 1987.” With that, the 1987 band membership code became law, and has remained the law governing FWFN band membership since.

The November 30, 2016 BCR’s
As listed in the November 30, 2016 FWFN chief and council meeting agenda, the following two BCR’s were discussed and approved by council:

  1. BCR16-76 – Ratification of 1987 Membership Code
  2. BCR16-77 – Development of Membership Committee and Membership Court

1. BCR16-76 – Ratification of 1987 Membership Code
The name of this BCR is misleading. It does not “ratify” the 1987 band membership code. As noted above, the code became law through Ministerial approval in 1990. Rather, BCR16-76 merely acknowledges that the 1987 membership code is the law governing deletions and additions to the FWFN membership list. This BCR rights an historical wrong: as Ken Ogimaa, FWFN Chief Executive Office, put it during the meeting, Fort William First Nation has been failing those who rightfully belong by not using the 1987 membership code. This BCR also provides protection for the band in the event that it is taken to court over its membership decisions; as Mr. Ogimaa suggested during the meeting, Fort William could be found to be breaking the law if it was found to be not using its own membership code. There is legal precedent for such a scenario. After discussion, the FWFN chief and council voted unanimously to approve BCR16-76 during the November 30th meeting.

2. BCR16-77 – Development of Membership Committee and Membership Court
This BCR implements two components of the 1987 FWFN membership code. The 1987 code requires that 1. a membership committee be established, and, 2. a membership court be appointed by chief and council. The membership committee makes the majority of decisions regarding band membership. The membership court, on the other hand, is an appeal mechanism; it allows individuals denied membership by the membership committee an avenue to have their denial overturned. Importantly, according to the 1987 membership code, the FWFN chief and council does not decide who is a member of the band. The only roles allotted to chief and council in regard to deciding membership are to: a) establish a membership committee, b) appoint individuals to the membership court, and c) approve out-adoption of children adopted by another Indian band (more information is available here). After discussion, the FWFN chief and council voted unanimously to approve BCR16-77 during the November 30th meeting.

What does it all Mean?
First and foremost, the approvals of BCR16-76 and BCR16-77 re-centre Fort William’s band membership practices on the 1987 membership code. The following list highlights important aspects of how this effects membership decisions at FWFN:

  1. Indian status is not a prerequisite to become a member of the band. Non-status band members have certain rights under section 4.1 of the Indian Act (for example: they may vote in band elections, and may receive land claims money).
  2. A child is a member of the band if one or both of her parents are members of the band. However, a child must apply for probationary membership in the band if she has “one parent who is a member of the Band, and that parent also has only one parent who is a member of the Band.” The probationary period is 5 years.
  3. A person who is not a member of the band, but marries a member of the band, can apply for probationary membership (5 year waiting period). Marriages can take place according to “provincial law” or “Indian custom.”
  4. A person who transfers from another band does not automatically become a member of Fort William. Rather, they must apply to be a probationary member of the band. (5 year waiting period)
  5. Adoption is a basis for automatic membership in the band: “A child who is adopted by a member or members of the Band shall, as of the date of the adoption, become a member of the band.” No probationary period required.

Note: Becoming a member of the Fort William Indian band does not entitle one to Indian status under the Indian Act.

Next Steps
As was made apparent in the November 30th chief and council meeting, next steps now include establishing the membership committee and appointing individuals to the membership court. Certain sections of the 1987 membership code may also need to be changed (e.g. one section bars anyone with communicable disease from applying for probationary membership). I would suggest that most of this revision work has already been completed; see the draft Fort William First Nation Citizenship Code, 2015, which was developed by the FWFN Governance Committee through community consultation over 2014 and 2015.

Difficult Questions
While the passage of BCR16-76 and BCR16-77 are important steps for Fort William First Nation, several questions remain. As one FWFN councillor asked during the November 30th chief and council meeting, what about those individuals whose names have been added to the band membership list since 1987 in ways other than by using the membership code? Are they members of the band?

Furthermore, if the band has not been following its own membership code for an indeterminate amount of time, it can be assumed the membership list includes some names of people whom are not members of the band (in cases where they were made members outside of the membership code), and potentially excludes names of people whom otherwise might have been members of the band under the 1987 membership code (e.g. those who rightfully belong but are not status Indians). This is a troubling scenario. A band’s elector’s list is based on its membership list. If paragraphs 103 and 104 of the federal court case Cameron v Canada 2012 have any bearing at Fort William, the band might need to revise its membership list in accordance with its 1987 membership code before any future voting can happen. How does this affect the spring 2017 chief and council election? How does it affect the impending Grand Trunk Pacific Railway Specific Claim Settlement ratification vote scheduled for early 2017?


“Anishinaabe and Métis Territory?”: An Ice Breaker

The following is an open letter that was sent to the Dean of the Bora Laskin Faculty of Law, and the Chair of Truth and Reconciliation, Lakehead University, on November 10, 2016:


Once upon a time, explorers showed up in Anishinaabe aki and claimed it as their own. This was just part of how things were done then – if one group of explorers found Indigenous lands before another group, they assumed ownership to that land and named it. This method could be said to be the early beginnings of how Canada became a country. For Anishinaabeg, however, such naming and claiming is part of a larger process of ignoring Anishinaabeg peoples’ inherent relationship and responsibilities with the lands, waters, and beings we’ve lived with for thousands of years. Today, the Robinson-Superior Treaty and Robinson-Huron Treaty of 1850 and Treaty 3 (1873) may be utilized to push back on unilateral claiming. These treaties remain expressions of Anishinaabe territorial sovereignty today.

Fast forward a few hundred years, and the issue of naming as claiming remains in effect. But things are more complicated now; generations of identity regulation by the federal government have produced divisions between Indigenous peoples, awarding recognition to some and none to others. This politics of federal recognition is one way in which Canada lays claims to land: recognizing the territorial claims of those who find their self-governance authority within what the settler state will allow is much safer than recognizing the sovereignty of Indigenous nations that exist outside its purview. It is with this history in mind that we as Anishinaabeg and Indigenous scholars wish to discuss a recent claim to Anishinaabe territory.

In October 2016, Lakehead University posted to its website an employment opportunity for professorship in its Bora Laskin Faculty of Law. In part, that posting read: “Given the Faculty’s presence in Anishinaabe and Métis territory, preference will be given to qualified candidates with research and teaching expertise in either Anishinaabe law or Métis law or both.” While we are excited to see the establishment of a law program in Anishinaabe aki that centres Indigenous legal systems, as Anishinaabe citizens and scholars we aren’t sure how to interpret Lakehead’s claim that Thunder Bay, Ontario and surrounding areas are Anishinaabe and Métis territory. In truth, we were somewhat surprised. Within our respective families, communities, and research, we had not come across such a claim until now. We would therefore like to discuss this claim openly.

Before we share our thoughts, we want to acknowledge and recognize that Métis have and continue to experience colonial violence from Canadians and other Indigenous nations alike. In addition to land theft in the West and other forms of violence, this has also taken the form of questioning the very existence of Métis. We do not want to perpetuate such violence. We also want to be transparent that we have professional, personal and familial relationships with Métis individuals and families that we wish to uphold.

We also recognize that Métis identity is currently being debated by Métis themselves. Such debates put definitions of “Métis-as-mixed” in contrast with Métis as political peoplehood. While many Métis live within many different treaty areas including within Robinson Treaty lands and in Treaty 3 territory, we recognize the Métis as Indigenous peoples who came to define themselves as Métis through the establishment of a unique political consciousness in the Red River area and points west. Conversely, we agree with Métis scholars who argue that framing Métis as “mixed” effects all Indigenous nations in Canada because such approaches centre biological essentialism at the expense of the political consciousness and sovereignty that underwrites Indigenous peoples as nations.

These issues take on further complexity in northwestern Ontario for a number of reasons. One, the Métis Nation of Ontario (MNO) is engaging in agreements with natural resource corporations. Two, historically, many Anishinaabeg were misrecognized as “halfbreeds” by the Crown and its representatives. We understand that these MNO agreements with the settler government are being addressed by other Anishinaabeg and Métis so we will not address this here. Regarding misrecognition, this was a gendered and racialized approach to defining identity by prioritizing biological mixedness above Anishinaabe citizenship orders. For example, the Métis Nation of Ontario’s website states, “Prior to Canada’s crystallization as a nation, a new Aboriginal people emerged out of the relations of Indian women and European men.” We’d like to draw attention to how this implies Anishinaabe women were reimagined as being responsible for creating a new nation at the expense of their Anishinaabe citizenship, a reworking that both legitimizes Métis-as-mixed nationhood claims while removing women from being Anishinaabeg. Such constructions of Métis nationhood create complexities in understanding historical northern Ontario politics: we are aware that, in the lead up to the signing of the Robinson Treaties of 1850, some halfbreeds at Sault Ste. Marie claimed a separateness from Anishinaabeg and the nascent settler societies that would become Canada. We are also aware of the Halfbreed Adhesion to Treaty 3 (in 1874). Yet we would like to draw attention to how many “halfbreeds” were considered Anishinaabe through matrilineal Anishinaabe kinship and clan systems despite having some European ancestry. Indeed the issue of their “white blood” was not problematic until treaty negotiations when settler colonial governments needed to categorize and quantify “her Majesty’s Indians.” In fact, among Anishinaabeg, often halfbreeds were distinguished from Métis through different identifiers like “Red River Indians.” This is not to say that said halfbreed communities were not Indigenous, nor is it to say Métis did not travel back and forth from the Red River to these locales while using kinship governance to do so. However, we concur with Métis scholars when they suggest that said communities may or may not have thought of themselves in ways separate from the Métis of the west. Clearly, working through northern Ontario history requires great care in order to avoid reproducing settler colonial constructions of Indigeneity. Though committed to this ethic, we nonetheless struggle to do it right.

Getting back to the job ad, we are concerned that the phrase “Anishinaabe and Métis territory” rhetorically and powerfully names and claims Anishinaabe territory as Métis territory. First, we worry that the claim of Métis territory is a false claim. Halfbreeds were no doubt present at Fort William since the 19th century, but so were settler colonialists that sought to eliminate Anishinaabe presence through gendered and racialized misrecognition. Without a clear definition of what is “Métis territory” in this ad, we worry Lakehead may be reproducing a Métis-as-mixed-based claim to territoriality.

Further, in response to several emails inquiring into the meaning of this claim of “Métis territory,” on November 8, 2016 Dean Angelique EagleWoman responded. She suggested the Métis Nation of Ontario be contacted to gain an understanding of Métis presence in the Thunder Bay area. We were also made aware of the LU Faculty of Law’s 2013 protocol agreement, signed in part by the Métis Nation of Ontario as well as the Anishinabek Nation (Union of Ontario Indians), Grand Council Treaty #3, and the Nishnawbe Aski Nation. Unfortunately, this response does not provide any clarification to the query into the meaning of “Métis territory.” First, the job advertisement claims territory, not presence. Second, ensconcing the relationship between the Bora Laskin Faculty of Law and the MNO in the internal architecture of “Advisory Committees” and “Protocol Agreements” also fails to elucidate the meanings of “Métis territory” that are being claimed in this job ad. The long silence between the emails sent and the response, paired with an opaque response that was eventually given on November 8th, which essentially sends Anishinaabeg down a garden path, is disappointing. In an era of Truth and Reconciliation, this way of responding to Anishinaabeg is also curious. Given the outcome of these initial exchanges, we pursue another angle. Here, we wish to attend to Métis agency–or rather, MNO agency–in advancing their interests in Anishinaabe homeland, lands, and territory. We also prompt Lakehead to reflect on its agency and interests in supporting the trajectory being taken by this organization on behalf of Métis.

Following this trajectory that queries Métis agency, we worry that this naming upholds a politics of recognition whereby Anishinaabe lands and waters are claimed by Métis and organizations without the express sanction of Anishinaabeg themselves. As we see it, recognition from Canadian law and jurisprudence is not enough to claim Métis title within Anishinaabe territory. Rather, we feel that if Métis want to claim land within Anishinaabe territory, and use settler institutions to advance their agenda, they would need to first have those conversations and agreements with Anishinaabeg. This would occur outside of Canadian law and Canadian institutions. We are unaware of any such serious and important conversations being had to date.

In thinking about Lakehead’s claim that it sits on Anishinaabe and Métis territory, we have come to see other potential dangers emerging more broadly within Canada. We see potential for the state to push its brand of “reconciliation” through universities, sometimes using Indigenous individuals to do so, to undermine Indigenous nationhood. Lakehead’s claim to sit within Anishinaabe and Métis territory acts as a microcosm in which we can see how the state uses its power to recognize forms of Indigenous nationhood that are amenable to its distorted version of sovereignty, namely “self-government.” Through recognizing self-government of Indigenous nations where such recognition is based on Canadian liberal multiculturalist approaches to Indigeneity–as opposed to decolonization–the state can work to hijack nationhood claims. Drawing on the Lakehead claim as an example, through recognizing Métis claims to Anishinaabe territory, the state and individuals within the university advancing its agenda, can erase Anishinaabe territorial sovereignty under a narrative of Canadian aboriginal and multicultural politics. In doing so, Canadian multiculturalism is positioned as timeless and universal. Anishinaabe sovereignty is eroded in this scenario.

For this reason, we wish to centre Indigenous political and legal orders in territorial claims as well as in relationships between Indigenous peoples and the state, and amongst Indigenous nations. It is not enough to rely on recognition from the Canadian state to make claims to another peoples’ territory. To be just in a decolonizing sense, claiming territory must be done through Indigenous nation-to-Indigenous nation relationships and agreements. The creation and use of wampum belts to document and practice relationships between Indigenous Nations is just one example. Particular to our situation, we have a responsibility to centre Anishinaabe law within all Anishinaabe territory. We therefore have a responsibility to centre Anishinaabe law within Métis-Anishinaabe territory claims, and this must trump any claims made through Métis-Canada/Ontario relationships. Moreover, in centring Anishinaabe law within a decolonizing context, we have a responsibility to centre the experiences, knowledges and voices or Nokomisag (grandmothers), Anishinabekwewag (women), and two-spirited peoples.

In closing, we would request Lakehead University change its job ad with the above points in mind, and, accordingly, review any other of its statements where Anishinaabe territory is discussed. Perhaps, as an example, the job ad could be rephrased to state “….situated in Anishinaabeg territory, specifically within Treaty 3, the Robinson-Superior Treaty area, and the Williams Treaty area of the Anishinaabeg and Canada. Through kinship with Anishinaabeg, this territory is also home to many Métis.” We also request discussion with Lakehead University and other universities located within Anishinaabe territories about moving forward in constructing shared understandings about where we live, work, play, and learn. Finally, we urge our Anishinabe relatives–our grassroots leaders in our communities and our leaders through traditional government and political/territorial organization–take notice of what has taken place, and voice any of your concerns or ideas in regards to how territory is claimed in instances such as this.


Makwa dodem
Waaseyaa’sin Christine Sy
Lac Seul First Nation member
Ph.D Candidate, Indigenous Studies (Trent University)
Lecturer, Gender Studies (University of Victoria)

Waase dodem
Damien Lee – Zoongde
Fort William First Nation citizen
Ph.D Candidate, Native Studies (University of Manitoba)
Assistant Professor, Indigenous Studies (University of Saskatchewan)

Makwa nin dodem
Anang Onimiwin nnindishnikaz gaye Dr. Celeste Pedri-Spade, PhD (University of Victoria)
Lac des Mille Lacs First Nation member
Assistant Professor, School of Northern and Community Studies (Laurentian University)

Helen Pelletier
Fort William First Nation member

Tannis Kastern
Fort William First Nation member
Lakehead University Student Union
Director & Member of Lakehead University Native Student Association/National Aboriginal Caucus (CFS)

Stephanie MacLaurin
Fort William First Nation
Master of Arts Candidate, Indigenous Governance (University of Victoria)

Kingfisher Dodem
Geraldine King
Kiashke Zaaging Anishinaabek member
Ph.D Student, Queens University

Dennis McPherson
B.A., H.B.S.W., LL.B., H.B.A., LL.M.
Couchiching First Nation
Associate Professor
Department of Indigenous Learning
Lakehead University

Paul Chartrand, I.P.C.
B.A., LL.B.(Hons), LL.M.
St. Laurent, MB


When is it ok to be Racist?

By Jana-Rae Yerxa and Damien Lee

As we woke up yesterday morning, we read a piece on CBC News Thunder Bay about a complaint against Thunder Bay Police arising in the context of cross-cultural sensitivity training. The training was a part of the Walk a Mile Film Project, a partnership between the City of Thunder Bay and Thunderstone Pictures. In this training program which has become mandatory for City of Thunder Bay employees, race and Indigeneity are to be talked about as a means to promote understanding about Indigenous peoples for Canadians. However, as was clear in the news article, such a goal was allegedly undermined by the actions of a few cops.

Since Walk a Mile was “designed to encourage frank conversations in our community about the reality of life for [Indigenous] Peoples both here and across Canada,” we would like to add another layer of context that has been missing from the narrative up to this point.

While reading the article, it was clear to us that the complaint made against police was more than just about a “few bad apples.” Rather, it speaks to a system of power that upholds whiteness over Indigenous peoples, a symptom of colonial relations. No doubt it is a challenge to put together training that aims to address deep rooted issues like racism towards Indigenous Peoples. Miigwech to Thunderstone Pictures and the City of Thunder Bay for taking on such a challenging endeavor.

However, one of the main issues that does not get talked about enough in Thunder Bay is in identifying the approach taken when educating and creating space for such discussions. Approach matters because it determines what people walk away with and how conversations unfold. It is troubling when the approach taken, specifically in regards to race relations, is to educate white people about the “other” where the focus is on educating settler folks about an ‘Aboriginal experience,’ about ‘Aboriginal people’ and ‘Aboriginal history,’ instead of pointing the lens at settler colonialism and whiteness, both of which are root causes of the racial violence that Indigenous peoples experience. The approach of educating people who occupy dominant positions in this society about the “other” is harmful because it presents a guise of meaningful work, when the work needed — dismantling settler colonialism and ending settler colonial violence — is not actually being done.

With Walk a Mile in particular, the challenges are multiple from the beginning due to the partnership with the City of Thunder Bay. The issue of power must be highlighted here because of the structural power the City of Thunder Bay holds at the expense of Indigenous presence and how this power can be used and/or abused. By this, we mean that Walk a Mile is designed to speak to power – white power – in spaces where potentially those with the most power can make fun of Indigenous struggles without examining their own complicity with colonial violence. When this happens, it is not anti-colonialism or anti-racism, but a redeployment of violence through knowing the “other.”

Another important factor for us to consider when partnering cross culturally to address “race relations,” when structural power imbalances exist, are accountability measures. So in this instance, what accountability measures are in place, if any, to the Indigenous community? Accountability measures are crucial to ensuring that training, developed in partnership with Indigenous peoples, cannot be used as a ‘check mark’ by mainstream institutions. It would prevent the City from saying, “Look at what we are doing here to address racism,” when in reality the training may be not as successful as it is presented to be. It is also extremely problematic if Indigenous peoples are not the determiners of whether the training is achieving what it was intended to achieve.

In response to the Walk a Mile facilitator’s complaint, Thunder Bay city clerk John Hannam dismissed the alleged racism by stating police laughter during the training was “misinterpreted,” that it was part of a “side bar conversation,” and that the training “happened during a week when the attack on police in the United States and six or seven officers were murdered so there may have been some heightened sensitivity over that.” However, Hannam’s apologist response to these allegations is a part of the very problem we wish to shed light on. His response is a perfect example of what Sara Ahmed talks about in regards to evidence where racism is “denied because it is seen as a fault of perception…you perceive wrongly when you perceive wrong.” While the filmmaker behind Walk a Mile is calling for a public review of the city’s use of her work, it is also important to ask the question whether such a partnership with the City can be one that is accountable, anti-colonial or ethical considering the power relations we have spoken of here.

The complaint raised by the Walk a Mile facilitator has created an opportunity for us all to critically reflect how we contextualize significant matters, such as racism, that impact Indigenous humanity. In a city where the families of six dead Indigenous children called for police racism to be included in the scope of an inquest, and in a country where people are demanding police racism be analyzed as part of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and 2 Spirit Inquiry, such allegations ask us to connect the dots: Indigenous peoples want the police investigated for anti-Indigenous racism. If anything, yesterday’s CBC story only demonstrates that such analysis is needed and leaves us with pondering the question, when is it okay to be racist?

Results of the “Grand Trunk Pacific Settlement Survey”

In April 2016, it was announced that Fort William First Nation (FWFN) received a settlement offer from Canada regarding its Grand Trunk Pacific Settlement land claim. Worth approximately $99M, the land claim offer was made to settle a 1905 land expropriation that led to the removal of our community from the banks of the Kaministiquia River. This land taking is regarded as the largest expropriation for a railway in Canada.

Below, you will find the results of the member-led Grand Trunk Pacific Settlement Survey. This survey was developed by FWFN community members to complement the FWFN band’s own survey, which many believe to be biased to produce a specific outcome. The member-led Grand Trunk Pacific Settlement Survey is an alternative source of information that can help our community get a clearer picture of what we want to do with this land claim money.

Survey Results
The vast majority of survey respondents felt that a 100% per capita pay-out to FWFN members is in order.

In response to the question, What percentage of the total land claim amount available after legal fees would you prefer be paid to band members on a per-capita basis?, respondents noted the following:

Answer Choice Responses Per cent of Respondents
100% 56 80%
91-99% 10 14%
81-90% 4 6%
71-80% 0 0%
61-70% 0 0%
51-60% 0 0%
41-50% 0 0%
31-40% 0 0%
21-30% 0 0%
11-20% 0 0%
0-10% 0 0%
70 100%

Screen Shot 2016-07-26 at 9.28.37 AM

The member-led Grand Trunk Pacific Settlement Survey received 71 responses between July 1 – 25, 2016. All respondents except one provided their name for verification – the unnamed person’s survey responses are not included in the Survey Results. This survey was made available online through Survey Monkey, and was advertised within Fort William First Nation via various closed FWFN-specific Facebook groups. The survey was closed at 11:59 pm on July 25, 2016. Respondents were limited to one response per person. Respondents’ names are not shared in order to protect their privacy.

Getting over the Status Hangover: #LetJosiahPlay

I have been watching with excitement over the past few days the story of Josiah Wilson – a Heiltsuk man who has been refused entry into northern British Columbia’s All Native Basketball Tournament because he does not meet a minimum blood quantum requirement.  Josiah is black, born in Haiti, and adopted into the Heiltsuk nation by his father, Don Wilson.

The media attention given to Josiah’s story is a good thing.  It is raising important questions about how Indigeneity in Canada is defined, by whom, and about whether adoption is valid grounds for Indigenous peoples to claim individuals as citizens of their nations.

However, while Josiah’s story seems to be challenging many of us to wrap our heads around inherent Heiltsuk law, it also presents us with another ‘teachable moment’: in each story I’ve read so far, the role of Indian status seems to emerge as the “real” proof that Josiah belongs as Heiltsuk.  This is ironic and potentially damaging.

Adoption stories provide us with an opportunity to think about inherent Indigenous citizenship orders on their own terms in two important ways.  First, they show us that such orders are not heterosexist in nature.  Blood quantum, after all, is a heterosexist concept: it demands that Indianness be reproduced exclusively through heterosexual parenting.  Adoption stories, therefore, show us that Indigenous citizenship orders include queer families in renewing Indigenous nations.

Second, adoption stories show us that families are the decision makers within inherent Indigenous citizenship orders.  Unlike under the Indian Act, where belonging is determined by the Indian band in a centralized manner, adoption stories show us that families decide who belongs in a decentralized sense.  This is important because it helps us to see that the authority to discern citizenship flows from Indigenous peoples’ own constitutional orders, not the Indian Act.  All of this is reflected in how Josiah’s family and community claim him in the media: he is a Heiltsuk citizen regardless of bloodline because he was adopted by a Heiltsuk family.  His father made this perfectly clear: “[Our children are] ours. We as the Heiltsuk Nation accept my son as one of us.”

Yet, in each story I’ve read over the past few days, Josiah’s “status card” slips into the discussion seemingly as a sort of authenticator.  While his status as an Indian under the Indian Act is an important fact, I worry that it is being used as the ultimate proof of Josiah’s belonging.  Its as if Heiltsuk citizenship law is not enough.

On one hand, including Josiah’s Indian status in this story is understandable.  Collectively, we are suffering from “status hangover” given that, for generations, Canada made membership in an Indian band based solely on Indian status.  Put simply, many now see Indian status as a pre-requisite to being Indigenous.

However, the over-emphasis of Josiah’s Indian status in the discussions about him being and belonging with Heiltsuk runs the risk of hiding the most important element of this story, namely, that Indigenous citizenship laws are alive and well.  Such laws do not need the recognition of Canada to be valid.

Ultimately, it is up to Indigneous nations themselves to determine who belongs with them.  As Josiah’s story clearly attests, Heiltsuk citizenship law has survived the assertion of Canadian sovereignty.  This needs to be emphasized not only because its clearly the source of law that claimed Josiah as Heiltsuk, but ultimately because it demonstrates that Indigenous peoples throughout Canada do not need to rely on Canadian laws to determine who belongs.

With this in mind, the pathway forward can be one of demanding Canada base resource allocations in accordance with Indigenous citizenship orders rather than the terminal concept of Indian status.

Reconciliatory Education: Mandatory Unsettlement

Today, the discussion about reconciliation reached a crescendo in Ottawa. There, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its final report detailing its findings from over six years of working with thousands of survivors of Canada’s Indian residential schools system.  But now the challenge for Canada and Canadians will be to avoid interpreting reconciliation in ways that don’t re-colonize Indigenous peoples. It may therefore be worth paying attention to how reconciliation is being defined, and how some are already planning to use it in the education system.

For its part, the TRC defines reconciliation in terms of action. It is the active rejection of “paternalistic and racist foundations” as the basis for an ongoing relationship between Indigenous nations and Canada. It has called for reconciliation to be a “new vision” based on a commitment to mutual respect. This new vision could be reached, notes the TRC, by mandating “education for reconciliation” in Canadian schools where students learn more about Indigenous peoples.

For others, reconciliation is the continuation of struggle. In a brilliant piece in The Globe and Mail, Hayden King and Erica Violet Lee note that reconciliation might best be understood as an on-going “conflict” where Indigenous peoples will demand the return of men, women, children, knowledge and land, and Canada will keep refusing. This approach inherently challenges a mode of reconciliation predicated on ‘turning the page of history’ – reclaiming is not about forgetting.

Elsewhere, Billy-Ray Belcourt writes that reconciliation is a “contradictory object.” Apropos: “[reconciliation] only wants to collect the good public emotions it needs to keep going, to push itself outside of History, to narrate a present bereft of legislated pain.”

To me, this framing is reminiscent of how s.35 of the Canadian Constitution has been “interpreted” to the benefit of the state. Likewise, there is a real risk that reconciliation could be used to solidify Canada’s control over Indigenous peoples; all that is needed is for the term to be interpreted in ways that do not challenge Canada’s settler colonial foundation. As Belcourt rightly observes, therefore, “a world reconciled is not necessarily a world decolonized.”

Tracing the definition of reconciliation over the coming months will be an on-going project, and one that will require Indigenous peoples’ voices pushing back against those who would like to define it in ways that reaffirm Canadian paternalism. Tracing this debate might become increasingly confusing. But one place where the tension over the definition of what reconciliation could mean is already evident is in how some universities are approaching mandatory Indigenous education.

Much has been said about making Indigenous studies courses mandatory at Canadian universities in recent months. In February of this year, Lakehead University announced that starting September 2016, all undergraduate students at that university will be required to take a course with Indigenous content. In November, the University of Winnipeg announced that it would be following suit.

But content and politics matter.

In an article published in The Globe and Mail on December 20th, 2015, Annette Trimbee and Wab Kinew write that the University of Winnipeg will provide undergraduates with a list of approved courses from which they can choose their mandatory Indigenous course. Students will select a course that “aligns with their degree program or one that piques their intellectual curiosity.” This is in keeping with the approach that Lakehead University is taking as well; for Trimbee and Kinew, this means that, for example, “business students will learn how to engage with indigenous communities,” thereby giving University of Winnipeg students a “competitive advantage.”

Thus, based on what I’ve read so far, both Lakehead University and the University of Winnipeg’s definition of reconciliation could be summed up  as “learning more about Indians.” Despite my open criticisms to this approach, I’ve not seen a statement by either university noting that said mandatory courses will actually challenge students’ complicity with settler colonialism and white supremacy.

As you might guess, I see this orientation as problematic. It is worth noting that the “learning about the other” approach has historically been used as a tool of colonialism around the world, in which Indigenous nations’ claims to their own lands have been “interpreted” in ways that justify the occupation of a dominating, foreign power. Given this, one could ask: Whose interests are centered when mandatory Indigenous education is defined as learning about “the other” rather than learning about how Canada remains a colonizer in the present?

I therefore wonder how useful it will be to Indigenous nations when students come knocking on their doors having taken a half-credit course about Indigenous culture(s) without also equipping these same students with an understanding about how their approaches might perpetuate a relationship where Canada justifies its regulation of Indigenous peoples, and their political and legal systems. Is this reconciliation? If it is, we have a problem. To paraphrase Billy-Ray Belcourt: a university reconciled will not necessarily be a university decolonized.

For mandatory Indigenous education to be actually reconciliatory in this historical moment, therefore, it must flip the lens and unsettle students’ complicities with settler colonialism, and it must do this in addition to teaching about Indigenous issues.

Only then can Canadians start finding concrete ways to give land back to Indigenous nations, which, to me, is the minimum starting point for what reconciliation should really be about.

Speaking Notes: Disrupting Safe Spaces 4 Racism in Thunder Bay

Waverley Library
Thunder Bay, ON
October 8, 2015
Twitter: @damienlee

Download the accompanying PowerPoint slides, here.

As many of you will recall, the James Street Swing Bridge burned the night of October 29, 2013.  This fire sparked off a very public dialogue about racism: news reports were generated,[1] public speaking events were held,[2] and high school classrooms took the opportunity to define what racism looks like in real and immediate terms.[3]  While racism no doubt existed in Thunder Bay before that night, the burning of the bridge was a watershed moment in our collective anti-racism discussions, not least of which because it forced the issue of racism out from under the bed and into the limelight.  Anti-Indigenous racism in Thunder Bay could not be ignored, no matter how people wanted to write it off.  While the politicians looked for the culprit or culprits responsible for the arson, social media was on fire with racist slurs meant to do one thing: to remind Anishinaabeg that they are not safe in Anishinaabe Aki, or the Ojibwe Homeland.

It is the element of safety in anti-racism discourse that I want to focus on today.  What made October 29th “watershed,” is not just the fact that the racism expressed was so extreme, nor just the fact that Thunder Bay and Fort William First Nation still have not fully recovered from it.  Rather, it was also that the burning of the bridge forced white people to see the type of violence Indigenous peoples in Thunder Bay face each day.  Even if invisible to others, it showed that Thunder Bay is not safe for Indigenous peoples precisely because they are told, in varying ways, that their presence here is at best, tolerated, and at worst targeted for removal.  In short, “safety” was revealed to be a tenuous concept, as it was so swiftly taken away by those who wanted to punish Fort William First Nation for just being an Indigenous community.

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