This is a significant new case on how to approach the provisions for Indian status under s 6 of the Indian Act. Among other things, the Court clarifies how the honour of the Crown applies to the interpretation of the Indian Act to disfavour the legality of enfranchisement. This decision may have significant implications for how applications for Indian status are processed.
The present statutory appeal is from a final decision of the Indian Registrar of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada. That decision refused to recognize a 9 year old child, Annora Daphne Hele as an Indian.
The discriminatory policy known as “enfranchisement”, involved the renouncement personally and on behalf of descendants, living and future, of recognition as an “Indian” including its certain rights and benefits. In return, one gained full Canadian citizenship and the right to hold land in fee simple. The policy used to be the cornerstone of the Canadian federal government’s assimilation blueprint relating to Aboriginal peoples. Enfranchisement was not a policy desired by Indians and was ultimately abolished in 1985. Parliament has since enacted remedial provisions to address some of the consequences of that oppressive process but certain descendants of enfranchised Indians continue to suffer its aftereffects.
The issue at the heart of this appeal is the interpretation of a subsection of a male-centric Indian Act, 1952 [“1952 Act”]. In debate is the meaning of the words, “an Indian” and “the Indian and his wife and minor unmarried children” found in subsection 108 (1), which cannot be understood without taking into consideration the entire section, the 1952 Act in both English and French, and the history of the Indian Act as a whole. The two versions of the Act are authoritative, the words of both English and French (translated verbatim) must be examined to understand the intention of the legislature.
When a court is called upon to interpret a statute, particularly one relating to the Aboriginal peoples, in addition to adopting a straightforward non-technical liberal purposive approach that resolves doubts or ambiguities in their favour, it should not engage in carrying out its task in a vacuum devoid of all realities before it. In interpreting a historic legislation such as the Indian Act that contains oppressive provisions, such as subsection 108 (1) of the 1952 Act, the court should not engage in merely an academic exercise.
Subsection 108 (1) was resorted to in 1965 to voluntarily enfranchise Annora’s paternal grandmother, Margaret Laura Hele. At the time, Margaret was twenty-five years old, educated, self-sufficient, and not yet married. She spent several years teaching in a number of cities in northern and southern Ontario. After she left the reserve, Margaret’s mother began to receive calls and visits from band councillors demanding to know why Margaret was not filing for enfranchisement. These councillors insisted that Indian women who had either married or who were going to marry a non-Indian in any event could no longer retain the right to be a member of the band. Conceding to the pressure, Margaret voluntarily enfranchised. Four years later, Margaret married a non-Indian Canadian. Despite the applicable legislation, this marriage had no effect on Margaret’s Indian status as she was by then already voluntarily enfranchised. Had Margaret not been enfranchised, she would have lost her Indian status by operation of law on the day of her marriage.
In 1985, due to compelling social and political reasons, section 108 of the 1952 Act was repealed and enfranchisement in Canada was abolished. Margaret filed to be registered as an Indian, and for her children living with her. In 1987, as a result of the amendments to the 1985 Act, their Indian status was restored. Shortly after Annora’s birth, the Appellant, filed an application with the Indian Registrar to register her as an Indian. The Indian Registrar refused to register Annora as an Indian based on the provisions of the 1985 Act. The Appellant then filed a protest of the Indian Registrar’s decision pursuant to section 14.2 of the 1985 Act. The main ground of protest was that in 1965 the Governor in Council had no competence under the 1952 Act to enfranchise Margaret, who was an unmarried Indian women.
The Indian Registrar concluded that since Margaret had been enfranchised voluntarily pursuant to section 108 of the 1952 Act, Annora was not entitled to be registered as an Indian. Had Margaret lost her Indian status four years later as a consequence of her marriage to Laurence, there would be no second generation cut-off under the 1985 Act, and the answer would be different.
The only relevant issue before this Court is the correctness of the Indian Registrar’s decision. The question that requires an answer in this appeal is whether subsection 108 (1) of the 1952 Act permits the voluntary enfranchisement of an unmarried Indian woman? The Court’s answer to the above question is no. Subsection 108 (1) of the 1952 Act did not permit in 1965 the enfranchisement of Margaret who was an unmarried Indian woman. The same conclusion holds today when subsection 108 (1) is examined in light of modern interpretive rules and the current socio-political context. There is no ambiguity in the text or language of subsection 108 (1) as they are not reasonably capable of more than one meaning when considered in their entire context.
Enfranchisement was never a right even though historically it was viewed as a privilege. Enfranchisement, which used to be the cornerstone of the Canadian federal government’s assimilation policies towards Aboriginal peoples, was abolished in 1985. The federal government today would not pass a law that would encourage or allow Margaret to enfranchise herself. It would be mistake in law today to interpret subsection 108 (1) of the 1952 Act as allowing Margaret to enfranchise herself voluntarily in 1965.
Sections 108 and 109 of the 1952 Act, as amended in 1956, are the only statutory provisions that existed and applied to Margaret at the time she was enfranchised in 1965. Neither section permitted in 1965, nor does either section permit today, the voluntarily enfranchisement of Annora’s grandmother, Margaret, as an Indian.
The Indian Registrar decided incorrectly when she concluded “that prior to 1952 the Indian Act was amended to allow men or women over the age of twenty-one to enfranchise.” The Indian Registrar therefore erred in law, when she concluded in 2017 that the Governor in Council had the power to enfranchise unmarried Indian women pursuant to subsection 108 (1) of the 1952 Act, and when she rejected the Appellant’s protest application to register Annora as an Indian on that basis. Annora’s request filed through her father is granted and this matter is returned to the Indian Registrar to modify in the appropriate registry records the notation that Margaret Laura Hele was voluntarily enfranchised by Order in Council.