According to a government website, ‘Detailed instructions about how to apply for Indian status under Bill S-3 will be posted on this website in the coming weeks’
A new law intended to remove gender-based discrimination from the Indian Act took effect on Friday, but the federal government has still not provided a new registration process for Indigenous Canadians now eligible for Indian status.
Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) has updated its website with information about Bill S-3, which is estimated to extend status eligibility to hundreds of thousands of Canadians, but it has yet to provide registration forms for new applicants. According to the government website, “detailed instructions about how to apply for Indian status under Bill S-3 will be posted on this website in the coming weeks.”
In the meantime, the department advises new applicants to “start collecting the necessary documents” using an existing application process as a guide.
How many Indigenous families give up in frustration
Montreal-based lawyer David Schulze said a low-income woman in a community he works for has been waiting for years to apply for Indian status so her disabled child can obtain non-insured health benefits. He asks how the government failed to have the new registration process up and running, given the bill was originally tabled over a year ago.
“INAC has posted explanations of the amendments without any way for people actually to benefit from the new legislation. What is that supposed to do for her?” he said in an email. “Under the circumstances, how could the forms not be ready and how could the Registrar’s office leave for the holidays with nothing in place?”
NDP Indigenous youth critic Charlie Angus said in an email he’s “concerned” by the case Schulze described.
“We see a disturbing pattern of the government using bureaucracy to stall services to First Nation children until it becomes a political headache for the minister,” he said. “How many Indigenous families give up in frustration?”
Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett’s office said the department is working to update the relevant forms. “We expect the forms to be ready starting (in) the new year and are working to minimize any delay in processing the applications,” a statement reads.
Bennett’s office said new applicants can begin the registration process using the old forms, but they may have to provide additional information later. Schulze said the woman he’s been helping called the registrar’s office and was told “her application would be put on hold until the new form is ready and she would just have to fill the new form out later.”
Bill S-3 was originally drafted in response to a 2015 Quebec Superior Court ruling that found registration rules in the Indian Act violate Charter rights. The issue stems from the fact that until 1985, Indigenous women who married non-Indigenous men lost their Indian status, while Indigenous men who married non-Indigenous women passed their Indian status to their wives.
Since then, two amendments to the Indian Act have sought to remove the gender discrimination from Indian status requirements, but some imbalances remained. Until the passage of Bill S-3, siblings and cousins could still end up with different statuses depending on the gender of their Indigenous parent.
The new law reverses that discrimination, though it was originally only supposed to apply to those who had lost their status since 1951. In November, the Liberals agreed to implement a Senate amendment that would apply the new rules to all cases dating back to 1869, though only after a consultation period with First Nations.
Earlier this month, the parliamentary budget officer estimated that 28,000 to 35,000 Canadians will immediately be eligible to register as status Indians, of whom 90 per cent will likely do so, at a cost of about $55 million a year in government benefits. Once the new rules are extended to cases dating back to the 1800s, the budget watchdog estimates that 670,000 people will be eligible to claim status, though just 270,000 are expected to apply. According to the report, the government will ultimately pay an additional $407 million annually in health care and other benefits for new status Indians.
Angus claimed the government has failed to put in place any funds to prepare for that outcome. But the statement from Bennett’s office said funding has been set aside for those expected to register for status immediately.