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Bill C-31

Mother and daughter Bill C-31, referred to as "The Act to Amend the Indian Act", was introduced to Parliament in April of 1985 and received Royal Assent on June 28 of that same year. It was created with the intent to alleviate some of the difficulties resulting from the laws outlined in the Indian Act and to bring the Indian Act up to speed with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Bill C-31 was focused on two major areas: the removal of discrimination against certain Aboriginal peoples --- especially women and children --- as well as those who had been enfranchised, and the increased control of bands over their own affairs.

At the root of Bill C-31 is the Indian Act, a federal statute dating back to 1867. This legislation, which was last altered in 1951, outlines the federal governmentís position on all issues relating to Aboriginal peoples, including those of status, governance, and the use of land. The Indian act was initially meant to assist the federal government with the assimilation of Aboriginal Peoples into the dominant culture. Over the years, the Act has undergone more than twenty alterations, most of which saw assimilation as their final goal. For example, laws were passed to force Aboriginal children to receive a European education or to ban traditional Aboriginal ceremonies.

Before the inception of Bill C-31, the Indian Act made discrimination against certain Aboriginal Peoples legal. Moreover, this discrimination was widespread and had been occurring for more than a century. It was rooted in the issue of status, and propelled forward by the ever-present goal of assimilation. The prime victims were Aboriginal women. The standing law stated that status Aboriginal women would lose their status and any rights that went with it, including band membership, if they married a non-status individual. Children, too, were affected. A child who had one half-Aboriginal parent and one non-Aboriginal parent was, in the eyes of the government, non-Aboriginal. This type of classification threatened to remove peoples of Aboriginal descent from their heritage and caused disjunction in the passing of age-old Aboriginal traditions.

Status restrictions of this kind also applied to enfranchised individuals. Enfranchising involved the relinquishing of oneís Aboriginal status in exchange for permission to take part in activities that were granted to non-Aboriginal citizens freely. For example, Aboriginal Peoples could enfranchise if they wished to drink alcohol openly in public before 1951 or vote in federal elections before 1960. In effect, enfranchisement was simply another way for the government to assimilate Aboriginal Peoples into mainstream society. At certain times in Canadian history, it was even mandatory. Bill C-31 made it possible for these peoples to restore their Aboriginal status and band membership years after having lost them due to the strict rules of the Indian Act.

Changes made to the Indian Act under Bill C-31 also recognized the right of Aboriginal bands to control their own memberships and affairs. However, certain regulations still applied. Though each band now had the opportunity to create their own constitutions and membership codes, all decisions had to be approved by Indian Affairs. This fact angered Peoples across bands who claimed that the organizational band formats they had been using for years were fit for their needs. Furthermore, many were offended by the implication that the government thought it could "grant" them this right instead of recognizing that it already existed throughout many bands.

Today, twenty years after the passing of Bill C-31, much has been done to alleviate the discrimination suffered by thousands under the Indian Act. Yet, despite these advancements towards an equal and just society, many remain dissatisfied. The overwhelming response to the offer for re-instatement of status, which saw hundreds of thousands of people apply, shows that Aboriginal Peoples of Canada are not willing to easily part with their culture or identities. Yet, in 2005, over 10,000 people are still waiting in line to have their Aboriginal status restored as was promised to them twenty years earlier. Many loopholes still exist under the act that make the loss of Aboriginal culture very possible. The definition of Aboriginal status has been changed, but is still strict enough to pose a threat to certain peoples who, despite having Aboriginal blood in them, do not qualify for status. For example, children with unidentified paternity are considered non-Aboriginal by default.

Much of the discrimination suffered by Aboriginal peoples today is still directly tied to the laws outlined in the Indian Act, which has remained largely unchanged since 1951. Acts such as Bill C-31 were meant to help bring this "legal" discrimination to a halt; however, much still has to be done to ensure the preservation and continuation of some of Canadaís oldest traditions.




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