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Status Card: A Double-Edged Sword

Tansi Nîtôtemtik,

In continuing this week’s topic about Identity, I thought that I would focus on the identity through identification cards, called status or treaty cards, and the Indigenous perspective of the card holders.

When I became an adult and started to share my Indigenous roots, many people would not believe me. Usually, I would pull out my Métis card from my wallet as proof that I was being honest. While most people became more confused as to how such a visible white person could have Indigenous roots, most acquaintances wanted to know what kind of “perks'' come with my Métis card. I instantly understood that they were confusing my Métis card with a status card. These are very different Indigenous Identity cards. While status cards may help First Nation individuals access resources such as education and health care, it is by no means a free pass to have what you need paid for by the government.

First Nation peoples do not identify with the term Indian. Throughout this article, you will see the word “Indian” used in reference to the Indian Act, other legislation or in reference to historical facts of how Indigenous peoples were viewed. Terminology that labeled Indigenous peoples as Indian or non-status Indian was created by the federal government, which contributed to the loss of identity. [1]

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Indigenous peoples identify themselves from their kinships, culture, geography, language and where the individual belongs within their collective community. [2] The government identifies First Nations peoples living on reserves from the registration number on their status cards. The government of Canada started issuing official identity status cards in 1956 to verify those registered under the Indian Act. [3] Indian status is applied for through an application process with Indigenous Services Canada (historically known as the Department of Indian Affairs). The government views status as a form of entitlement for those that meet the qualifying criteria.

The process of identifying who qualifies as a legal Indian has been around since 1850, when Canada enacted An Act for the better protection of the Lands and Property of the Indians in Lower Canada. [4] The criteria under this paternalistic Act were very broad and inclusive. [5] Any person of Indian birth or blood, any person who regarded themselves to be part of a particular group of Indians, any person married to an Indian, or any person adopted into an Indian family was eligible to be defined as an Indian. [6] As the government became financially responsible for and entrusted with addressing the needs of First Nations people, the criteria started to become more restrictive with the enactment of the Indian Act and its continuous amendments. Identity flows through the ties between individuals and exceeds the boundaries of the reserve and definitions set out in the Indian Act. [7]

To better understand an Indigenous perspective about what a status card means to someone who carries one, I called up an unforgettable friend from the O’Chiese First Nation, just outside of Rocky Mountain House, Alberta. She was born and abandoned in the late sixties at the RockyView General Hospital. An Aunt showed up a couple weeks later to claim responsibility and took her back to the reserve where she was raised by spiritual Elders until the age of three. She briefly grew up in a community entrenched in culture and ceremony but has no memory of this time. The Elders knew at a very young age that this little girl would one day become a voice for their community.

At the age of three, she was adopted by her non-Indigenous paternal grandparents and raised outside the reserve. She grew up in a healthy and stable environment. She knew nothing of her Indigenous roots until she became a young adult. After graduating with a diploma in social work in the early nineties, she applied for a job as a social assistance worker for the O’Chiese First Nation. Her return was an emotional and harmonious reunification. The Elders had tears in their eyes, and they began to tell her the stories of how they nurtured her as a young child.

Her status card became a fundamental part of her identity in her mid-twenties. She believes the card is like a double-edged sword. On one side, it is a form of proof that identifies her as part of the O’Chiese First Nation. It is a connection to a community that nurtured her at such a young age to become the spokeswoman, advocate, and leader for the community that she is today. On the other side, is it a connection to the Indian Act and the egregious mistreatment of Indigenous peoples by the government.

I also spoke with a first-year law student from Bigstone Cree Nation about her perspective on her status card. She has had a status card her entire life and got one for her children shortly after they were born. The card helps her access important health care needs like prescriptions and other treaty benefits through her registration number, but she still views it as a colonial piece of identification. She believes that the government has no business in identifying her as a number or a barcode.

The status card is a representation of what she is not, a registration number or an Indian. She feels that the card segregates First Nations peoples from Canadian society. The residential school system also played a role in eroding her family’s identity. At the age of five, her grandfather attended a residential school that gave him a new date of birth. They are unsure if the name that he went by was his given name at birth or one the residential school gave him as many young Indigenous children were given new English Christian names.

I want to thank the women that I spoke with for sharing their stories and experiences. It was an honour to be able to chat about life and have some good laughs in the process. I will leave you with one final comment about Indigenous identity. The term Indian is inappropriate in identifying any Indigenous person from Canada. There should no longer be a need to clarify whether someone is referring to an Indigenous person or an individual with an East Indian heritage. If an individual does identify as Indian, it is because they have an ancestral connection to India. It would be akin for a traveling Canadian from Alberta to tell foreigners that they are West Canadians.

Until next time,

Team ReconciliAction YEG

[1] “Identity and Terminology” (last visited 12 November 2022), online: College of Alberta School Superintendents <>.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “What is Indigenous Identity?” (8 February 2018), online: Indigenous Corporate Training Inc. <>.

[4] “Background in Indian Registration” (28 November 2018), online: Government of Canada <>.

[5] Supra note 3.

[6] Ibid.

[7] AFN-INAC Joint Technical Working Group, “First Nations Registration (Status) and Membership Research Report” (July 2008), at 12 online: (pdf) Indian and Northern Affairs Canada <>.

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