October 28, 1994 Halifax Herald
On Wednesday, December 8, 1948, Canada signed the United Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Canada's acceptance of the principles of this enlightened document caused it to reluctantly embark upon a path to grant full citizenship to its First Nations' peoples. This reluctance is witnessed by the fact that the goal was only reached in 1985, 37 years later!
On June 7, 1956, as a step towards regularizing the citizenship status of First Nations people, Canada enacted the following amendment to its Citizenship Act:
“2. Section 9 of the said Act is amended by adding thereto the following subsection:
(4) An Indian as defined in the Indian Act, or a person of the race of aborigines commonly referred to as Eskimos, other than a natural-born Canadian citizen, is a Canadian citizen if that person: (A) had a place of domicile in Canada on the first day of January 1947; and (b) on the first day of January 1956 had resided in Canada for more than ten years; and such a person is deemed to have become a Canadian citizen on the 1st day of January 1947.”
Because of the fact that, historically, the government's conduct relating to the subject has been full of contradictions, I have been unable to discover exactly how or when "Wards of the Crown Status" was officially replaced with "Citizenship Status." However, up until when Parliament repealed the Indian Act Enfranchisement Sections in 1985, any "Registered Indian" applying for permission to give up "Indian Status" had to sign a declaration which stated: "...and certify that I am capable of assuming the responsibilities of citizenship..."
Canada's apartheid laws were still strictly applied in the 1950s. As a comparison, under the segregation laws then in effect in the southern United States, the Blacks had the right to vote; we didn't. To rectify this situation, the government on March 31, 1960, repealed the following Section from the Elections Act:
“14.(2) The following persons are disqualified from voting in an election and are incapable of being registered as electors and shall not vote nor be so registered, that is to say; (e) every Indian, as defined in the Indian act, ordinarily resident on a Reserve...”(Those who had served in the country's armed forces and their wives were allowed to vote by special legislation.)
With the granting of voting rights, we were given a measure of political muscle. Consequently, we were now viewed by politicians as a block capable of making or breaking a person's dream of elected office. Therefore, in constituencies where our numbers were substantial, campaigns were organized toward giving First Nation issues some consideration.
The acquisition of voting rights did not mean the end of exclusion. For example, in 1962 Nova Scotia began the process of constituting a Human Rights commission. Micmacs were not included in the endeavour. Our people were not officially brought into the picture until the Act was being revamped in 1991.
On April 17, 1985, Bill C-31, a law which repealed most of the discriminatory Sections of the Indian Act, was enacted by Parliament. Finally, First Nations’ women did not lose their status when they married non-Natives; nor was it any longer possible for a "Status Indian" to be barred from a liquor establishment or to be charged for being internally or externally in possession of alcoholic beverages, or to be subjected to other like-minded and humiliating restrictions. The Act still contains some minor discriminatory Sections.
In my opinion, Bill C-31 was the instrument that extended full citizenship to our peoples.
In penning the last several columns, I have endeavored to give a brief overview of a few of the extraordinary measures taken by past federal and provincial governments to deny First Nations citizens civil and human rights. After reviewing small mountains of material relating to the subject, it truly amazes and mystifies me how our peoples managed to survive and maintain their civility.
Over the years, the restraint shown must also have been a mystery to some whites. For instance, in 1946 an Indian Agent, in a report to his bosses in Ottawa regarding labour unrest occurring at the sawmills in Eskasoni and Shubenacadie, stated that, in his opinion: "there didn't seem to be any communistic influences."
The fact that our people did not resort to radicalism in order to escape the horrendous persecution is a tribute to their good sense and wisdom. However, this being 1994, and with about 80% of Canada's First Nations citizens still living in an unacceptable state of impoverishment, Canadians should be aware that the patience previously shown is not without limit.
Daniel N. Paul