Content warning: This article discusses systemic anti-Indigenous racism and suicidal ideation.

With the implementation of the Indian Act in 1876, traditional Indigenous forms of governance were forcibly replaced by colonizer-supported band councils. Band councils are the forms of government for Indigenous reserves, consisting of chiefs and councillors elected by individuals with official band membership. Traditional Indigenous practices of determining who was and was not part of their communities were replaced by a standardized system based on blood quantum: a measurement of the percentage of one’s blood that is considered to be Indigenous. 

The colonizer designed this system to increasingly eradicate Indigenous identity with each new generation to complete the cultural genocide. This has resulted in a group of non-status Indigenous persons whose Indigeneity is not officially recognized by the colonizer or its band councils. Non-status Indigenous persons struggle to tell their stories and need more support systems to rejoin their communities. This is my experience and that of my family.

The blood quantum system was furthered along by assimilation practices such as enfranchisement, a term used to refer to the colonizer labelling a person as Canadian and no longer as Indigenous. Enfranchisement takes away an Indigenous person’s political rights within their band and puts a degree of separation between them and their community. For example, several Indigenous soldiers who fought in World War I were enfranchised upon returning home. Indigenous activists such as Fred Ogilvie Loft were targeted for enfranchisement by the colonizer. 

Indigenous women who married non-Indigenous men were automatically enfranchised. While this was overturned in 1985 — through the 1981 Lovelace v. Canada case in which the United Nations Human Rights Committee ruled in favour of Sandra Lovelace Nicholas, who lost her Indigenous status — the process to regain status is still difficult. 

One must provide proof of lineage to the time ancestors originally lost status or community membership — that is, if the last ancestor is even in the colonizer’s system — and may even need an Indigenous person with status as a guarantor for the application. There is a separate process to regain membership in one’s band.

Band council approval is essential to regaining official standing in one’s community through band membership, plus lineage documents that are necessary for status and band membership applications may be in the band council’s possession. However, the band council may not want to reinstate their non-status brethren — as in the case of Brandon Engstrom and Amber Ragan of Peters First Nation before a federal court overturned the decision. In my opinion, band councils acting in this way makes it seem like they do not want to increase the number of those eligible for Indigenous benefits or political suffrage within the band. 

There is also the issue of bloodism, which is discrimination on the basis of blood quantum, that may lead band councils to view non-status Indigenous persons as not ‘pure-blooded’ enough for reinstatement. Bloodism is specifically tied to the Indian Act and is not the traditional way of determining Indigenous identity. The presence of bloodism illustrates how the colonizer has corrupted Indigenous communities into bouts of racist, exclusionary infighting over money and power.

The emergence of pretendians — individuals with no Indigenous ancestry who falsely claim to be Indigenous for financial, social, and/or political power — has made it even more difficult for non-status Indigenous persons to regain status. If a status or band membership application fails, perhaps due to insufficient colonizer records or band council bloodism, applicants and their families risk being labelled as pretendians and being publicly vilified by both the colonizer and bloodist Indigenous persons. The same could result even if non-status Indigenous persons self-identify, and this label could have lasting socioeconomic implications. Even those who were legitimately adopted into Indigenous communities are not spared this torture.

As a non-status Indigenous person, I live in a reality where if I so much as tell my family’s story, I could be targeted. For generations, my family has had to live among the colonizers, covertly hiding our true identity to stave off persecution for being too Indigenous for the colonizer or for not being Indigenous enough for bloodists. I am wary when I am on what would be my reserve. 

At school, I listen in silence as self-proclaimed proponents of social justice gleefully talk about calling out who they believe are pretendians while, through implicit recognition, they uphold the bloodism and the colonial legacy of the Indian Act. They do not understand the complexities of Indigeneity. They would turn on me in a heartbeat and group me in with pretendians.

Being non-status Indigenous does not mean receiving the benefits of being white and Indigenous without the stigma and harm that status Indigenous persons face, as some bloodists claim. It means quietly suffering from the colonial legacy and watching your family’s culture and well-being erode without access to the community and services status Indigenous persons enjoy. 

I believe it is the worst identity to have because merely acknowledging it exposes one’s family to hate. I cannot change my lineage. The colonizer does not want more Indigenous persons to exist. Bloodists do not want to acknowledge all the Indigenous persons who exist. I see no way of differentiating not recognizing non-status Indigenous persons and wanting non-status Indigenous death. 

When I come to grips with this, sometimes I wish I was dead. Other times, I wish I was never born. However, I cannot let the colonizer win and consume my family completely. There are many other families like mine. We are of this land.

I do not know if I would be welcomed at U of T’s First Nations House or if I should take courses to learn more of my people’s traditional language. I would inevitably be asked who I am. What if there is a status Indigenous person from my band in these spaces who, unaware of the extent of my family’s infiltration of the colonizer state and only knowing us from what we project in colonizer spaces, calls me a liar? Would my family members’ testimonies and documents proving our lineage be able to resist these allegations in the eyes of colonial society?

The non-status Indigenous experience has one truth vital to true reconciliation: there are many more Indigenous persons on Turtle Island than the colonizer claims. Recognizing this would unleash the true power of Indigenous communities upon the colonizer’s and its band councils’ political systems.

To truly overcome the genocidal legacy of the Indian Act, non-status Indigenous persons’ heritage should be recognized and support systems should be put in place by Indigenous communities to help them reintegrate. The colonizer should front the cost of these support systems. This should include better services to help gather documentation to prove lineage and navigate the process to regain status and band membership. Even better, the Indian Act and the blood quantum system should be abolished and replaced with something that upholds the traditional ways of Indigenous identity validation. Any amount of Indigenous heritage should be recognized.

Ko’kho:wa Kó:wa is a student at the University of Toronto. They have requested to leave their program and year of study anonymous for safety reasons.