Striving for self-government

First Nation tries to repatriate membership control

By Brian Back                                              POSTED: DECEMBER 25, 2010

An effort by Temagami First Nation to repatriate control of its membership list from the federal government may seem a mundane exercise, but it is a significant step toward self-government and a treaty settlement.

To date, a vote favours repatriation 169 to 11.

"Without control of our membership, we remain under the yoke of the Indian Act, where they determine who we are as a First Nation," TFN Chief Roxane Ayotte said. 

"It's time to end this archaic colonial discrimination. It's time to have the legal entity that Canada created to recognize us, actually correspond to who we say we are." 

It has been a grotesque dance to bring control home. The band tried to get its newly written membership code accepted by Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) in 2007, but was unable to reach the high legal bar: a majority of the electorate must vote in favour.

The electorate was the membership list at INAC. It has maintained the list of status Indians since 1907, but it was a bloated mess that included many deceased members.

In 2008, the Federal Court of Appeal (in Odanak v. Canada) lowered the bar. It ruled that First Nations could clean up the lists. It also ruled a majority of the list must vote, but only a majority of those who voted needed to vote in favour.

The TFN waded through the names over the summer and fall. Forty were deceased.

Many addresses and contact information were missing.  People who lived, or moved, off the reserve retained their membership, but often didn't report their new addresses. More than half the membership lived off island. TFN staff searched other databases and used family, friends and word of mouth to locate some addresses.

Those people who could not be found were removed (but will regain the right to vote when they provide contact information). In the end, 580 names shrank to 368.  Votes needed to meet the threshold: 185. Considerably lower than the 2007 level.

On November 16, polls (Bear Island, Temagami, North Bay, Toronto, Ottawa, Thunder Bay) and mail-in balloting closed for secret ballots. First Nation members who missed those can vote, and have, by written consent, a mechanism without a polling-booth deadline.

Self-determination and self-government

Repatriated power allows bands to write a code that opens membership to non-status Indians.

The Teme-Augama Anishnabai is the tribal super-group that includes status (TFN members) and non-status Indians. These are the descendants of the original 14 families.

In 1975, the TAA was created as an organization to re-unite everyone, to assert self-determination, and take the lead in the court case and settlement negotiations.

"When they first made the band list they had somebody who didn't even know us strike names off the list," TAA Chief John McKenzie said.

Those left off, or women who later married someone without status, found they, and their descendants, lost their status.

"They deny membership to some of our children and many other Teme-Augama Anishnabai citizens who happened to be descendant from anishnabai kwe'wuk [women] rather than anishnabai nini'wuk [men]," Ayotte said. "That's racist and sexist."

Through the TAA those dispossessed regained their voice and a stake in the outcome of the settlement.

Unification leads to settlement

The Supreme Court ruled in 1991 that TAA members had not received all their rights and benefits. Settlement negotiations followed. At the eleventh hour, in 1993, Ontario's lawyers balked at handing the benefits over to an unincorporated body, the TAA. The easiest solution appeared to be through the incorporated TFN, so Ontario added a new demand that the First Nation, too, ratify the agreement.

Although the TAA approved the agreement, the vote did not go as planned at the TFN. For reasons that had to do with internal politics, distrust and uncertainty, its membership, suddenly thrust into a vote, rejected the settlement. The deal collapsed.

In a renewed round of negotiations, in 2001, the legal-entity issue needed to be resolved for progress to continue. To make the settlement fair to all, if the TFN was to be the benefit receptacle, it had to expand its membership to the non-status Indians in the TAA. Repatriation and the new inclusive code would make that possible. 

There were other benefits to super-sizing: it would eliminate duplicate organizations and unite the people more completely than under a dual TFN-TAA partnership.

At the time this story was published, the band remained six votes short of 185.

"If a member has lived in Toronto for decades, they have another life," Ayotte said. "It is hard to get them to vote, no matter what their opinion, but they have the right, and a duty."

Marvyn Morrison, the returns officer, expects more consents.

The potential membership for the TFN under the new membership code approximates 1,200. But it would be an imbalanced marriage. Benefits and funds received from INAC would largely go to status members. Benefits from other sources would be shared by everyone.

Down the road, aboriginal people see an end to the legal distinction between status and non-status Indians. Repatriation would be a big step to realization.










"Without control of our membership, we remain under the yoke of the Indian Act, where they determine who we are as a First Nation."

Chief Roxane Ayotte,

    Temagami First Nation









c.1883 Temagami Anishnabai people first recognized when listed by Canadian government to receive treaty annuities
1907 Band created under Indian Act, but some members excluded

Teme-Augama Anishnabai tribe reunited in formal organization

  1985 Indian Act amendment to allow membership repatriation was beginning of complete First Nation independence

Supreme Court ruled on land claim: fiduciary rights outstanding


Ontario insisted on TFN inclusion in settlement.

TFN voted down settlement


Negotiations raised need for a legal entity for benefits


TFN created membership code, but fails to get the vote turnout


Odanak decision lowered vote threshold


TFN votes under Odanak standard, nears vote threshold










"They deny membership to some of our children and many other Teme-Augama Anishnabai citizens..."

      Chief Roxane Ayotte








  BACKGROUND:  Land claim negotiations




       Voting on self-determined membership











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