Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

She always knew she was Indian

At last, Ottawa confirms it

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After she'd gathered birth certificates, baptismal records, old photos and some interesting documents gleaned from Ancestry.com, Debbie Scott waited more than a year to become what she always knew she was -- an Indian.

When her official Indian status card finally came in the mail, she was so excited she called her siblings, who were also trying to regain their status.

"We were all really, truly excited," Scott said. "This is my heritage. It's where my father came from, and I wanted that connection to him and my grandmother... It just kind of completes the circle for me."

Scott is one of 2,600 Manitobans who applied for Indian registration under the federal government's new gender-equity legislation known as Bill C-3. The new rules, which came into force two years ago this month, allow descendants of women who "married out" of their band to regain official Indian status.

For years, if women such as Scott's grandmother married a non-Indian man, the woman was automatically struck from the registration rolls and could no longer pass status on to her children. The same rules did not apply to men who "married out," prompting a lawsuit in British Columbia that found the practice discriminatory and forced Ottawa to rewrite the rules.

According to figures provided by Aboriginal and Northern Development Canada, 2,611 Manitobans affiliated with Manitoba bands have been registered under Bill C-3.

Ottawa expected about 45,000 people to apply for Indian status, but a report to Parliament suggested uptake was slower than hoped. At the end of the 2012-13 fiscal year, 33,000 Canadians had applied. Manitoba's applications have also been lower than expected. The number of registered Indians in Manitoba has grown by about 10,600 in the last two years. A quarter of that growth can be attributed to Bill C-3 compared with about 31 per cent nationwide.

The new rules are a paradox for Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Derek Nepinak, who says the gender-equity legislation righted a long-standing wrong and allowed indigenous people to regain some of the benefits that come with Indian status. But it reinforced the federal government's control over who is an Indian and who is not. If First Nations were to move toward self-government, bands themselves would have the right to control membership, Nepinak said.

Nepinak said Ottawa did not boost its Aboriginal Affairs budget to reflect thousands of new registrations, and bands aren't getting extra money to deal with additional members who may now have access to housing, education and social services.

Scott said Ottawa now pays for her prescriptions and she got hearing aids for free, thanks to her status card. But she said those benefits aren't why she applied for registration.

Scott's grandmother, who grew up on Fort William First Nation near Thunder Bay, married a French-Canadian man, and their children, including Scott's father, were born on the reserve. Because her husband was darker-skinned, it took several years for officials to realize Scott's grandmother had married a non-status man. When they did, she was forced to leave the only home she'd known and give up her status.

Scott said that dislocation was hard for the family, especially her father, now gone, who struggled to come to terms with his heritage. "It affected the turn of his life."

Now, Scott and her family return often to Fort William to visit relatives, especially for Remembrance Day, when the community's service takes place near a memorial made by Scott's uncle, a Second World War veteran.

"To me, there was always a little part that was missing, and that was it," she said.

maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 24, 2014 A9

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