Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 1/4/2012 (2723 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
ABORIGINAL women across Canada are fighting a federal policy that denies tens of thousands of aboriginal children Indian status because their fathers failed to sign birth certificates.
Others only receive partial status — their Indian status benefits cannot be passed down to their children — and say the policy is a form of discrimination tied to paternity rights.
"It is most definitely discrimination, and the reason why is that it only impacts indigenous women," said Pam Palmater, author of Beyond Blood and Rethinking Indigenous Identity.
To make matters worse, advocates such as Palmater say the policy isn't a historical relic developed during an age when women were granted few official rights.
"This was a policy that was introduced after the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was enacted. It was only created after 1985, after we enacted the charter, and that's particularly concerning to me," Palmater said.
More than 50,000 children were identified as either deprived of status or granted only partial status under the policy on paternity between 1985 and 1999 alone, said the 2005 study Indian Registration, Unrecognized and Unstated Paternity, funded by the Status of Women Canada. Some children have native fathers with status who aren't listed on birth certificates, which disqualifies their children from being registered as status Indians.
The federal policy states status fathers must sign their children's birth certificates before Ottawa will approve the children's registration as status Indians.
The status, which makes an individual a member of a First Nation, is the only way Ottawa will recognize individual treaty rights. Those rights can include housing, education and some medical benefits as well as hunting, gathering and fishing rights.
The problem is many fathers can't or won't sign the certificates, said Lynn Gehl, an Ontario Algonquin woman who is entitled to status, but can't get it because of the paternity trap.
Gehl has signed up 600 men and women like her on her Facebook site, Unknown and Unstated Paternity, in her search for justice.
Gehl said from her home in Peterborough, Ont., that she applied for status under Bill C-31, which restored status to women after Sandra Lovelace won an Indian Act discrimination case in 1985.
When the paternity trap disqualified her, Gehl also turned to the courts.
The Ontario Court of Appeal dismissed Gehl's first court action against the paternity trap, saying her cause had been brought in the wrong form to the wrong court, the 2005 study said.
Gehl refiled a charter challenge in Ontario Superior Court in 2002.
That second case is just now reaching the trial stage. It's a legal journey she had to convince herself she needed to take, she said.
"I watched what Sharon McIvor went through and how disappointed she was and I wonder, what am I doing?" Gehl said, referring to the B.C. woman who won a 2010 court case against Indian Act discrimination that disqualifies grandchildren of women who lost status by marrying non-natives but grants it to grandchildren of men with status.
"Then I remember — most people don't know the government is eliminating status Indians through these unknown, unstated and unrecognized paternity policies. And it's mostly young women who are the most vulnerable," Gehl said.
Nearly half, 45 per cent, of babies born to status mothers under age 15 fall into this legal limbo.
They're single mothers, often at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder with little education and fewer prospects. Worse, many are victims themselves, Gehl said.
"A lot of people think it's the mother's fault that the father's not signing (the birth certificate), but sometimes the fathers can't sign, and sometimes the fathers won't sign," Gehl said.
"These young mothers are the ones who are the most vulnerable. They're pregnant because of rape, sexual experimentation, gang rape, sexual slavery and incest. There's a lot of reasons," Gehl said.
At the same time, a significant percentage of women from their teens to their mid-30s also bear children who cannot claim status or pass status on to their children for any number of other reasons.
Winnipeg writer Colleen Simard said she ran into the roadblock when she applied to reclaim her Indian status.
She discovered her dad's name was printed in her birth certificate, but Ottawa refused to recognize it because her father hadn't signed it.
Simard said her father has never been part of her life and she didn't want to look him up. But she didn't want to give up her status rights, either.
"There are ways around it," Simard said. Ottawa will register eligible applicants if they find a status Indian who is willing to vouch for their paternity.
The other way is to amend the birth certificate after the fact and have an adopted father or stepfather sign paternity as long as they are status Indians.
Manitoba allows residents to amend their birth certificates, but regulations vary by province.
Alexandra is a veteran news reporter who has covered stories for the Winnipeg Free Press since 1987. She held the medical beat for nearly 17 years, and today specializes in coverage of Indigenous-related issues. She is among the most versatile journalists on the paper’s staff.