Small Steps with a Big Sound —Fort William First Nation Leads the Way in Band Membership

By Damien Lee

Fort William First Nation just became a leader in band membership issues in Canada. Late in 2016, the Fort William band council announced that it recommitted the band to following its 1987 Membership Code. A blast from the past, the Fort William Membership Code lays out innovative ways for the band to determine who belongs with the community.

However, there was one catch: band membership at Fort William First Nation was no longer contingent on Indian status. And this sets the band apart from the majority of First Nations in Canada.

To understand why this is so important, though, we’ll first need to take a detour into the complex landscape of the Indian Act. But don’t worry; we’ll come back to Fort William in a moment.

Damien Lee, second from left in back row, and family at Fort William First Nation. Families discern belonging according to Anishinaabe law (2014)

A “status Indian” refers to a person who is registered as an Indian under Canada’s Indian Act. While that might seem simple enough, the way Indian status has been applied is anything but simple. For example, for decades, Indigenous women lost their Indian status if they married a non-Indian man, regardless of whether that man was Indigenous or not. On the other hand, many non-Indigenous women gained Indian status if they married a man registered as an Indian. These rules changed in 1985. Nowadays, status is not gained or lost through marriage.

Indian status is therefore a funny concept—it kind of refers to Indigenous peoples, but also kind of doesn’t.

In getting back to Fort William First Nation, the band opted to separate Indian status from membership through a referendum in 1987. This was made possible by a section of the Indian Act that enabled Indian bands to control their own membership lists if they so chose. Along with more than 200 other Indian bands in Canada, Fort William opted to develop and control its own membership code, and did so in consultation with the community, leadership, and a lawyer.

So why is Fort William a “leader” in membership issues now? To understand this question, we need to go back to the Indian Act, and this time work in a little bit inherent Anishinaabe law for good measure.

Until Fort William opted to control its membership in 1987, one had to be a status Indian in order to be a member of the band. The problem with this is that the Indian Act hijacks love. Like anyone else in the world, Anishinaabeg fall in love with whomever they choose. If you are a status Indian and happen to fall in love with someone who doesn’t have Indian status, there is a chance that your children won’t have status. Over time, the more this happens, the less registered Indians there will be. Indigenous peoples are the only people in Canada forced to have to choose between love and their rights.

On the other hand, Anishinaabe law does not depend on Indian status or the Indian Act. It is centered on love. In terms of determining who belongs, Anishinaabe law says that families decide.

Families are the essence of self-determination. They bring new people into Fort William through love. Examples of this include bringing people into the circle through birth, marriage, and adoption. It is families that renew the nation, not band offices or federal legislation.

Thus, Fort William has emerged in a leader in terms of band membership issues because its band membership code throws off Indian status as the measure of who belongs. Instead, the code recognizes the sovereignty of families to bring people into the community through birth, marriage, and adoption.

Lastly, it is important to note that band membership codes are not expressions of inherent Anishinaabe law. That said, Fort William’s code is a step in the right direction in that it moves the community one step further from the Indian Act. Many more steps are needed. But as with everything, change takes time.

As my good friend Robin Ranger once said, “meaningful changes comes in the form of small steps with a big sound.” The recent revelations about Fort William’s membership law have been nothing if not a big sound, even if they are only a small step forward.