Lynn Gehl’s grandmother belonged to the Pikwakanagan First Nation, one of hundreds of indigenous groups in Canada whose members are entitled to specific services and legal rights. But Ms. Gehl, a 55-year-old writer, had to fight 22 years in court to win any of those rights, and cannot pass them on to her children, because her indigenous lineage comes through the female line, and so is not recognized under Canadian law.
“I should be able to pass on my status but I can’t because of gender discrimination,” she said.
Now that may change.
The Canadian Senate last week approved legislation to amend a 141-year-old law that has prevented indigenous women and their descendants from obtaining the same rights allotted to indigenous men, including some tax breaks, the ability to vote for indigenous governments, access to land on reserves and expanded health care coverage.
The House of Commons is expected to pass the bill.
“Our government is committed to working with First Nations, parliamentarians, impacted individuals and experts to ensure all gender-based discrimination is eliminated from registration under the Indian Act,” the office of Carolyn Bennett, the minister for indigenous relations, said in a statement.
The bill would eventually allow more than one million people to gain official status and the corresponding rights, according to government estimates.
But it has stirred controversy because some rights would be granted only after consultation with indigenous groups, some of which have objected to the legislation, arguing that resources are limited.
Also, the process of consultation may not be completed before the next federal election in 2019, meaning a new government could simply decide to drop the plan.
“The problem with any federal government is their past decisions are such a horror story of broken promises you can’t take their word that the commitment will be honored,” said Senator Serge Joyal from Quebec, who voted against the bill for not including an explicit deadline for when rights for indigenous women and their descendants would take effect.
Indigenous groups in Canada, known as First Nations, have long been subject to state policies designed to erase their cultural identities, appropriate their lands and deny them political autonomy under treaties and laws like the Indian Act of 1876.
The law gave the Canadian government the power to regulate so-called Indian status — determining who was officially recognized as a member of a First Nation and who was not — and to restrict access of so-called non-status people to reserves, services and legal rights. It remains the core of many policies and regulations in effect today.
If a status First Nations woman married a non-status man, she and her descendants were permanently barred from accessing their rights and communities, a rule that did not apply to status men.
The United Nations has found this legacy of inequality to be a root cause of high rates of violence and discrimination against indigenous women in Canada.
Since 1985, the Canadian government has restored some rights to indigenous women and their descendants to comply with the country’s charter of rights and freedoms, which bans gender discrimination.
But courts have repeatedly found that the Indian Act continues to discriminate based on sex, especially by limiting women’s ability to transfer their status to their descendants if they married non-status men.
The bill passed last week by the Senate, referred to as S-3, has a tortured legislative history.
For decades, indigenous women and their descendants have fought legal battles that helped erode gender discrimination from the Indian Act. But governments resisted erasing all sexism from this law.
The legislation was drafted more than a year ago by the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to comply with a 2015 court ruling that ordered changes to the Indian Act to eliminate gender discrimination by December. The government portrayed the bill as a fulfillment of Mr. Trudeau’s pledge to build a new relationship with Canada’s 1.4 million aboriginal people, although the government is also fighting legal battles with some indigenous groups over rights to natural resources, political control and services.
“This is one of those key moments that tests the sincerity not only of the current government but Canada as a nation’s commitment to reconciliation,” said Craig Benjamin, an indigenous rights campaigner for Amnesty International.
But critics said the original measure did not go far enough.
In the spring, the Senate, whose members are appointed, unanimously approved an amendment to require the removal of all gender discrimination in the act. But Mr. Trudeau’s government objected, citing the financial complexities of granting Indian status rights to as many as two million more people.
The current version of the legislation is a compromise of sorts, though senators supporting the government defeated an amendment to include a deadline to ensure such rights are enacted.
“Delayed equality is no equality at all,” said Senator Marilou McPhedran, who represents Manitoba.
While the minister’s office said the consultations with First Nations groups would focus on identifying measures or resources “required to do this right,” indigenous advocates have objected to the postponement of gaining constitutionally protected rights based on a complex process many expect will be difficult to reach consensus.
“The risk is another never-ending talk fest that consumes energy and produces nothing,” said David Schultze, a lawyer in Montreal who represented an indigenous man in a court case that prompted the government’s legislation.