Got Status? Indian Status in Canada, sort of explained.

It has been my experience that many Canadians do not understand the difference between Status and membership, or why so many different terms are used to refer to native peoples.  The confusion is understandable; this is a complex issue and the terms used in any given context can vary greatly. Many people agree that the term ‘Indian’ is a somewhat outdated and inappropriate descriptor and have adopted the presently more common ‘First Nations’.  It can seem strange then when the term ‘Indian’ continues to be used, in particular by the government, or in media publications.  The fact that ‘Indian’ is a legislative term is not often explained.

As a Métis, I find myself often answering questions about whether or not I have Status, which invariably turns into an explanation about what Status means in the Canadian context. The nice thing is, as time passes, fewer people ask me this because it does seem that the information is slowly getting out there into the Canadian consciousness.

To help that process along, I figured I’d give you the quick and dirty explanation of the different categories out there.  Well…quick is subjective, I am after all notoriously long-winded.

Terms discussed:

  • native
  • indigenous
  • Aboriginal
  • Status Indian
  • non-Status Indian
  • Métis
  • Inuit
  • First Nations
  • Bill C-31 Indians
  • Bill C-3 Indians
  • Band membership
  • Treaty Indians

Context first

Obviously I want to focus specifically on the Canadian context.  Since I’m trying to clarify the terms used, for this post I’m going to avoid using them interchangeably even though I tend to do this elsewhere.

When speaking generally, I will use the term native because it tends not to have any legal meaning and it’s just a term I’m used to using. When referring to specific legal definitions, I will use the legislated terms.

This discussion focuses mainly on Status, and does not delve into definitions of Inuit or Métis, nor is there much explanation about what being non-Status means.  Those are also huge issues that require separate posts.

Status versus Membership

Status is a legal definition, used to refer to native peoples who are under federal jurisdiction. Federal jurisdiction over, “Indians, and Lands reserved for the Indians” was set up in our first Constitution, the Constitution Act, 1867, in section 91(24).   This division of powers is not a little detail, so I’d like you to keep it mind always in these discussions.

The particular piece of federal legislation that defines Status is the Indian Act, which was created in 1876 and has been updated many times since then. Status then can be held only by those native peoples who fit the definition laid out in the Indian Act.

Membership is a much more complex issue. It can refer to a set of rules (traditional or not) created by a native community, that define who is a member of that community. It can also refer to those who are considered members of certain regional or national native organisations. It can be used in a much less formal and subjective sense, such as being part of an urban or rural native group.

Obviously these definitions will overlap at times. The most important thing to note is that having membership is not the same as having status.  For example, I am a member of the Alberta Métis Nation.  I am not a Status Indian.

Who is Aboriginal?

The term Aboriginal came into legal existence in 1982 when it was defined in section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982.  Section 35(2) defines Aboriginals as including “the Indian, Inuit and Métis peoples of Canada”. It is a general, catch all term that has gained legal status in Canada, and therefore is particular to the Canadian context.

The term ‘indigenous’ is another such catch all descriptor, but does not have the same national legal connotations. It is widely used internationally, however.  I am linking now to the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to give you a sense of how it is used.

The Constitution Act, 1982 does not define ‘Indian’, ‘Inuit’ or ‘Métis’.  The definitions have been fleshed out in legislation, in court decisions, and in policy manuals and have changed significantly over the years.  Thus you will see these terms used in different ways depending on how old your sources is, or what period of time is being discussed and so on.  Confused?  Oh don’t worry, you’re not alone!

Being Aboriginal does not mean one has legal Status; Status is held only by Indians as defined in the Indian Act.


Status Indians are persons who, under the Indian Act are registered or are entitled to be registered as Indians. All registered Indians have their names on the Indian roll, which is administered by Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC). (I still call this Ministry INAC (Indian and Northern Affairs Canada) or DIAND (Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development) which are both names I grew up hearing.)

Status Indians are able to access certain programs and services which are not available to other Aboriginal peoples.

Does this seem like a vague definition?  It isn’t.  It is incredibly detailed and confusing.  The definitions have changed many times over the years.  If you want to read more on this issue, this page gives a great overview of pre and post 1867 definitions as well as explaining some of the more shocking aspects of the Indian Act over time.

Bill C-31 and Status

There were various federal policies over the years that caused Status Indians to be removed from the Indian roll. Some lost Status when they earned a university degree, joined the Army or the priesthood, gained fee simple title of land, or married a non-Indian (this last one applied only to women).  One minute you were legally an Indian, and the next…you weren’t.

Bill C-31 was passed in 1985 as an amendment to the Indian Act, and was intended to reinstate Status for those who had lost it. In particular the Bill was supposed to reverse sexual discrimination that had cause Indian women who married non-Indians to lose their Status while men who married non-Indian woman not only kept their Status, but also passed Status on to their non-Indian wives.

Bill C-31 added new categories to the Indian Act, defining who is a Status Indian, and who will be a Status Indian in the future. The legislation does not specifically refer to any sort of blood quantum, therefore there is no official policy that would take into account half or quarter Indian ancestry. Nonetheless, ancestry continues to be a determining factor in who is a Status Indian.

Section 6 of the Indian Act identifies two categories of Status Indians, called 6(1) and 6(2) Indians. Both categories provide full Status; there is no such thing as half Status. The categories determine whether the children of a Status Indian will have Status or not.

This might be a good time to get a coffee, because this next bit is always confusing for people.

A 6(1) Indian who marries a 6(1) or a 6(2) Indian will have 6(1) children.  Everyone in this ‘equation’ is a full Status Indian themselves.

If two 6(2) Indians marry, they will have children with 6(1) Status.

A 6(1) Indian who marries anyone without Status (whether that person is Aboriginal or not) will have children who have 6(2) Status. A 6(2) Indian who marries anyone without Status (whether that person is Aboriginal or not) will have children with no legal Indian Status.

Look at this chart again.  Two generations of ‘out-marriage’.  That is all it takes to completely lose Status. It does not matter if you raise your grandchildren in your native culture.  It does not matter if they speak your language and know your customs.  If you married someone without Status, and your grandchildren have a non-Status parent, your grandchildren are not considered Indian any longer.  Not legally.

To be honest, it is amazing there are any Status Indians left in this country.

Bill C-31, way to not fix sexism!

One of the most criticised aspects of Bill C-31 was that it did not actually reverse the sexism inherent in denying women Status if they married a non-Status man.

Women who had their Indian Status reinstated under Bill C-31 had 6(1) Status, but their children had 6(2) Status.  That makes sense according to the charts above, right?

The problem is that men who married non-Indian women actually passed on Indian Status to their previously non-Status wives.  Thus the children of those unions have 6(1) status.

Sharon McIvor, and Bill C-3: Gender Equity in Indian Registration Act

Sharon McIvor launched an epic court battle to address the problems with Bill C-31 and the Indian Act.  In response a Bill was introduced to Parliament for First Reading in March of 2010. The full title of this Bill is:

An Act to promote gender equity in Indian registration by responding to the Court of Appeal for British Columbia decision in McIvor v. Canada (Registrar of Indian and Northern Affairs)

Bill C-3 was given Royal Assent on December 15, 2010 and came into force (became law) on January 31, 2011.  A great many grandchildren of women who regained Status under Bill C-31 (but who passed on only 6(2) Status to their children) can now regain their 6(2) Status if they choose to.

In an unsurprising twist, this means my mother and her siblings are eligible for 6(2) Status.  Many people are being faced with the same situation, and it is not an easy choice to make.  Identity politics are incredibly convoluted and mined with danger.  For others who have ‘lived’ Indian their whole lives, Status be damned, it can be an important change…but ultimately one that reinforces the so-called legitimacy of a colonial power deciding who is Indian and who is not.

By the way, ‘Bill C-3 Indians’ isn’t very catchy…I wonder if we’re going to start calling them ‘McIvor Indians’? (Say it out loud 😀 )

Band Membership

There are a number of sub-categories that apply to Status Indians. One category is Band membership.

A Band is defined as a group of Indians for whom land has been set aside (a Reserve), or who have been declared a Band by the Governor General (no Reserve).  A Band might have a number of reserves, but can also have no land reserved at all.  Think of a Band as the people themselves.

Before Bill C-31, having Indian Status automatically gave you Band membership.  Bill C-31 gave Bands the ability to stay under the Indian Act Band membership rules (automatic membership with Status) or make their own rules regarding membership.

Thus you can have Status Indians who have no Band membership, just as you can have non-Status Indians who do have Band membership.  Being a Status Indian is no longer a guarantee that you will be a member of a Band.

Bill C-3 Indians face the same problems as Bill C-31 Indians did.  Having Status does not necessarily mean they will be able to live on reserve or get Band Membership.  The pros and cons of this are hotly debated, so I’m going to back away slowly and not touch that, except to point out that there were and are no plans to make federal funding responsive to the influx of those with newly acquired Status under either Bill.


Related to Band membership, another sub-category is between reserve and non-reserve Indians. This does not refer to whether one actually lives on the reserve or not, but rather describes whether an  Indian is affiliated with a reserve.  These are people who have access to a reserve and the right to live there if they choose.

Even though no historical Treaties were signed in British Columbia, there are many reserves, while in the Northwest Territories which is covered by a numbered Treaty, there are no reserves.  I also pointed out above that you can have membership in a Band that doesn’t have a reserve at all.

As in other situations, being a Status Indian does not guarantee you access to a reserve, and there are non-Status people who live on reserve as well.

Treaty Indians

Another sub-category you should know about has to do with whether or not someone is a Treaty Indian.

Treaties in this context refer to formal agreements between legal Indians or their ancestors and the Federal government, usually involving land surrenders. The so called ‘numbered Treaties’ were signed between 1875 and 1921 and cover most of western and northern Canada. British Columbia, with the exception of Vancouver Island is not covered by any historical Treaty.

Other Treaties were signed in eastern Canada, but there are vast areas in the east that are still not covered by any Treaty. A number of modern (since 1976) Treaties have been signed in BC, and in other areas of the country, and negotiations are still underway to create more Treaties. Some Treaties provided for reserves and others did not.

There are many non-Status Indians, particularly in eastern Canada, who consider themselves Treaty Indians.  In the Prairies, “Treaty Indian” is often used interchangeably with “Status Indian” although one is not always the same as the other.

Confused yet?

To sum up, Status is held only by Indians who are defined as such under the Indian Act. Inuit and Métis do not have Status, nor do non-Status Indians. There are many categories of Status Indians, but these are legal terms only, and tell us what specific rights a native person has under the legislation.

If a native person is not a Status Indian, this does not mean that he or she is not legally Aboriginal. More importantly, not having Status does not mean someone is not native. Native peoples will continue to exist and flourish whether or not we are recognised legally and you can bet on the fact that terms and definitions will continue to evolve.

About âpihtawikosisân

Métis from Lac Ste. Anne, Alberta. Currently living in Montreal, Quebec. Passions: education, Aboriginal law, the Cree language, and roller derby. Education: BEd, LLB, working on a BCL
This entry was posted in Aboriginal law, First Nations, INAC, Law, Métis and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Got Status? Indian Status in Canada, sort of explained.

  1. Arlene says:

    You are not long-winded; you are a teacher—a great one and I thank you for your efforts.

  2. Debra Huron says:

    Your post explains a lot of things that many Canadians cannot be blamed for being unclear about.

    One thing it doesn’t touch on is the question of how the term Metis is defined in this country. I call myself Metis because I have francophone and Ojibwe ancestors on my father’s side. His grandmother was Ojibwe (status). But I grew up in Ontario where there is no “historic” Metis population. I’d be interested to know your opinion of this writer’s views:

    He seems to be saying that people (like me) who self-identify as Metis but have no link to the historic Red River Metis of Manitoba are actually misusing the term. We’re not part of his definition of what it means to be Metis.

    My dilemma is, what do I call myself if I don’t use the term Metis? I ask this more in a rhetorical sense than in the sense of needing a definitive answer. I’m comfortable in my skin and with my ancestry, and will call myself what I damn well please! 🙂 However, it’s not easy being of “mixed blood” in this country, and millions of us find ourselves in this situation.
    best wishes to you, Debra

    • I very specifically did not address the various definitions of Métis because as I explained, it’s going to require a long post all of its own!

      I will say that Métis used to mean ‘mixed blood’ but has certainly become something beyond that. When people here in Quebec hear that I am Métis, they ask me which of my parents is “an Indian”. That isn’t how I define myself as Métis, but neither do I believe in Red River ‘purity’, as my community has a different history. One linked to the Red River Settlement, yes…but not defined by.

      In any case, this is certainly something I will come back to:)

  3. Emo says:

    Re: “In the Prairies, “Treaty Indian” is often used interchangeably with “Status Indian” although one is not always the same as the other.”

    Part of what makes the treaty system seem so surreal is that we do have bands here that refused to sign the treaties… but the government proceeds to treat them as if they had signed the treaties anyway, and it seems to make very little palpable difference. Reportedly, one of the few recognitions that Standing Buffalo F.N. never signed the treaty is that they don’t get the $5 per year that the surrounding reservations receive… but in almost every other conceivable way the government treats them as if the treaty had been signed (and, certainly, there’s no schedule for new treaty negotiations…). If you were going to ask yourself the hypothetical question “what if…?” a given band had refused to sign, or had held out for further negotiations… well, there are (very peculiar) actual examples of what happened for those who did not sign. It’s one of many historical ironies that seems almost devised to demonstrate how little difference the treaties have made for the people they were supposed to protect.

    At one point I tried to make a complete list of such “unsurrendered territories” within Cree-speaking Canada… but I think I got sidetracked with memorizing actual Cree vocabulary, and the other things that take up my time.

  4. Mark says:

    In Treaty 3 there is no Metis. There is a term called half breed. One would understand that if one was half Ojibway and half British, their child would neither be British or Ojibway but a half breed. But it makes no logical sense id someone’s grandparents were 3 British and one Ojibway to say the peson was Ojibway. The majority of their DNA Is non-
    Ojibway and likely their culture is predominantly British, thus they should be called British.
    Metis by definition are from the Red River Valley. Anyone east of Manitoba or West of Saskatchewan with native blood are half breeds or
    more accurateley, non natives with a little bit of native blood in them, like me.

    If non natives owe, and natives are owed, then we need to look at the geat grandparents and determine if the majority are owers or owed.
    if split, then they are half breeds and can hunt and fish for free.

  5. Mark says:

    My best friend gowing up was an Afrikaner. When his dad retired he mentioned he had Zulu blood, like duh, but coloureds were trested different so tjey identified as Boers. In Canada, we have the same dynamic in reverse. If you can claim some native blood, at minimum you can claim Metis Staus, or, even if 7 out of 8 grandparents belong to the Royal Family, and one is Buffy St Marie, you can claim to be a status Indian.

    There are no Metis in Ontario but Tony Belacourt and the OMA has brough beat the Supreme Court to agree to this non-sense.

    Lets just examine it from an ower and an owee point of view. If both sides of the family are owed, then they are owed. If one side owes and the other sided is owed, then they neiter are owed or are they having to pay (ie half breed). But if 3/4 grandparents owe, an one grandparent is owed, the child should owe(ie be non native) then be owed.

    The way the situation is now, in 4 generations, 25% of Canadians will pay no taxes even though their genetics make up less than 5% native blood.

    If you can speak English, read and write English, can find Canada on a map, do basic math, have most of your ancestors come from outside of NA, you are not native, but non-native by definition. Unless..
    we define ancestory by place of birth, not blood. In that case, anyone born on Treaty land belongs to that Treaty. This is what happens when an illegal immigrant has a baby in Canada, their child is a Canadian citizen. Most Grand Chiefs oppose rhis as they could loose an election to a white person.

    Bottom line, racism sucks!

    • “The way the situation is now, in 4 generations, 25% of Canadians will pay no taxes even though their genetics make up less than 5% native blood.”

      Please read this post again, and then read the First Nations taxation post in order to figure out why this claim is wholly inaccurate.

      I won’t bother to deal with the rest of what you’ve said here at this point. I’ve asked you elsewhere to tone down the rhetoric and actually engage in discussion, and I hope you will do that from now on.

      I would also like to point out that I am aware you are also “Ernest” and that I have asked you previously to tone it down, and that we have been able to speak calmly at times. I am going to be more strict with your posts, now that we’ve had this discussion about tone and dialogue more than twice.

  6. Awaia:gon Seneca Nation says:

    Why is it that we as Indian people need a card to be Indians we are the only people that need a Foreign nation to say we are members of another nation….

    we are still indian people i use Indian because thats what im used to hearing.
    the indian act was made to screw our peoples over but yet we are forced to follow it band council are Government Employees. they swear an oath to CANADA they do not swear to up old the ways of our nations they are there to aid the Government with there programs etc.

    this is CANADA and THE USA its Turtle ISLAND these are the home lands of our people where our ancestors are buried where our WAYS or life and our LANGUAGES originated.
    why must we as the Indigenous peoples of this land be forced to follow the LAW, WAY, and there cultures.
    we have our own laws, we have our own GOVERNMENTS.
    if they actually wanna do some good scrap the Indian act, scrap there band councils and FULL ALLOW US TO REINSTATE OUR TRADITIONAL COUNCILS.

    canada you need to stop enforcing things on us.
    in all actuality you have NO RIGHT.

  7. korenle says:

    Great post.. the confused look when I explain this to people always gets me. Who we are defined as is not based on our own ideologies, or it would be less confusing. Sometimes I answer the question what kind of Native are you with… I am a 6(1) my kids are 6(2).. my kids will have to make a decision when they grow up a choose a life partner and start having kids. Do I want my kids to have status? Do most other people have to make that decision.

    Your blog is so great, it asks the questions we have in our minds and your answers are on point each time with a lil humour for good measure. Keep it up girl. I can’t wait for the Metis post. Your changing the world one blog at a time.

  8. Mark says:

    Treaty 3 incliding the Lind vesion is available on the internet. No mention of Metis but the term half breed is used to give hunting and fishing rights.
    I am a scientist and can not stand illogic. Again, why is someone who is less than half native not called a non-native expecially since non-natives owe natives, or so we are led to believe.
    You can see that half breed is an accurate term, as they get the benifit og hunting and fishing from their one half and the responibility to pay taxes from their other half.
    But if someone is majority Non-native, grew up in a non-native community, they are non native. Otherwise you are saying that ‘native’ blood is somehow more important or precious which is a form of eugenics and is total BS.

    Please find any historical document over 75 years old where the term Metis is used outside of he Red River Valley area and I will shut up.

    • The Treaties do not define who is Métis. Whether or not you are a scientist has no bearing on an identity discussion, which is not a scientific investigation, but rather a socio-political one, rooted in various historical (re: subjective) debates as well as currently evolving approaches.

      I do not appreciate your aggressive attitude on this. I am currently working on a post to deal with the unsettled issue of Métis identity (they’ll remain unsettled at the end of my post btw). You are welcome to participate in a discussion on what I have to say when I have finished, but I would very much appreciate if you do not come full of assumptions, accusations, and demands. You can imagine that I too feel strongly about this, but I do not present my thoughts on the matter as unquestionable fact because to do so ignores the variety of valid opinion on what is not a clear issue.

  9. Mark says:


    I know the issue of identity and identification is a tricky one that gets people very fired up. I understand that you have strong feelings on the matter, and strong opinions to go with them. I respect that. However, I need to provide a balance on this blog so that people do not feel threatened or disrespected and silenced because of it.

    If you can find a way to phrase yourself which does not come across as an attack, then I would very much appreciate you doing so. I will attempt to at least deal with the issue you’ve raised, but I can’t let you drive people away with the tone you’ve taken. We hear it enough elsewhere, and it really does silence the dialogue. I want to avoid that here.

    Dialogue also means being willing to consider other people’s points of view…but they are unlikely to share that with you if they feel you have made up your mind and reject them before ever hearing their opinions.

    I aim this not just at you, Mark, but post this as a reminder to all of us as well.

  10. daveM says:

    I greatly appreciate your post. For me, your posts are an education that I wish I had experienced many years ago.

    I soooo thank you.

  11. Ernest says:

    Edit: Ernest/Mark, you are no longer welcome on this blog. You consistently attempt to inflame the conversation with insinuations and accusations. You have been asked repeatedly to engage in respectful dialogue. As you seem unwilling to do this, please refrain from posting further. I will not give you any further benefit of the doubt or approve your comments.

  12. Emo says:

    BTW, and (sadly) right on topic (for conflicting definitions of “status” vs. “band membership” vs. the right of living on the reserve’s land itself, etc. etc.) for those who don’t already know the story, cf. the strange case of Waneek Horn-Miller… a story that is “old” (2010) and yet still is news…

    [Headline:] Former Olympian faces eviction from reserve over non-native fiancé
    [Quote:] As the band council threatens evictions of any non-natives living on the reserve with Mohawk partners, Ms. Horn-Miller is appealing for a change to a policy that is tearing families apart. “For a few generations now, people being told ‘marry out, you get out’ and being forced to leave, it hasn’t contributed to a healthier society,” she said in her first interview with outside media since she was targeted. “That is not the solution to solving our social problems and saving our language and culture.”
    In April, with her new home under construction and the arrival of her first child a month away, Ms. Horn-Miller learned a petition had been submitted to the band council demanding a stop to building. About 50 people had signed the petition, complaining that Ms. Horn-Miller’s fiancé, Keith Morgan, had no right to live in the house. The contractor arrived at the work site one morning to find a note directed at Mr. Morgan telling him to leave. Days before she gave birth to her daughter, Konwaskennenhawi, Ms. Horn-Miller received an anonymous letter saying her half-Mohawk child was unwelcome on the reserve.
    [The whole article:]

    If you want to see a photo of the newborn baby (and why not?) they published one in the McGill University newsletter, here:

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