Indian Act used as weapon to ‘break families’

As Catherine Twinn flips through photographs with her step-granddaughter Shelby Twinn in her home on the Sawridge First Nation in Alberta, they come across an old picture of Shelby and several of her cousins.

It was taken in the very room they now sit more than 20 years later.

“Here at Sawridge we have 44 band members and only one is a child,” Twinn says as she holds up the photo.

“What happened between this picture with all these children and our band membership list?”

For Catherine Twinn, the future of the Sawridge First Nation is worrisome. She believes the problems are within the Indian Act.

“The Indian Act really was a weapon to essentially break families and separate and destroy connections and trump relationships,” she said.

For the former Sawridge First Nation trustee, the purpose of the act is clear. It stands in contrast to what she sees as Indigenous justice.

“Love, truth, honesty, respect, humility, wisdom and courage. It washed all that away and trumped it with legal categories. And these legal categories we are still struggling with,” she said.

Bill C-31, an amendment to the Indian Act enacted in 1985, created two regimes of membership control over who is in a band and who isn’t. Section 10 meant bands could control their owl list, while Section 11 is controlled by the government registrar.

Sawridge is a ‘Section 10’ band and controls its own membership list.

That’s where the trouble started for people like Shelby Twinn, the granddaughter of the late Chief Walter Twinn. She was born on the Sawridge reserve, but has never been a member.

“What I’ve struggled with is a lot is feeling like, ‘Do I kind of have the right to claim half of my identity?’” she said. “It goes by the rules of the 1985 Indian Act rules which I fall under to be a beneficiary. The idea is to make the band itself a beneficiary which it is not currently.”

Shelby said she applied for membership more than a year ago and has yet to hear back from chief and council.

Twinn and others believe the federal government has given up its oversight role over the actions of the band in order to minimize the crown’s fiduciary duty.

“I am concerned that the federal government is handing over portions of its duty onto communities without having the proper oversight and ultimately diminishing their role that they had agreed to act in the best interest of First Nations,” said Ontario-based lawyer Eric Hovius.

He worked in government, but now has mostly First Nations clients.

“The lack of oversight could allow band council to make some decisions that just aren’t fair,” the lawyer added.

Then there are some like Margaret Claire Ward, who had to take her community to court. Ward joined 11 other women to fight for band membership in 1985.

“I approached Chief Walter Twinn at the time and asked ‘Why we weren’t band members?’ because of our great mom and her granny and our history going all the way back? We could trace our family history all the way back,” Ward said.

They sued the crown seeking a court declaration that the 1985 amendments to Bill C-31 are unconstitutional.

Finally, after a more than a decade of fighting, a Federal Court justice ordered Sawridge to give the women their full membership.

For Ward, gaining membership was for the future of her children and grandchildren.

But for Shelby Twinn, it’s about becoming a part of a family.

“My goal is to be able to, you know, hopefully gain membership and be able to become an active member of my community.”

Watch | Membership Denied – Part 1: ‘Everyone needs to belong somewhere’: Daughter of late chief denied membership to her home community