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Who’s a 'status Indian' and what does it mean?

Most aboriginal people in Canada qualify for special status and benefits under the Indian Act — the 1876 law that governs education, healthcare, land use, hunting rights, and more.

The laws, however, and criteria for eligibility can be confusing and there are many misconceptions over what Indian “status” means.

First off, one must be listed on Canada’s Indian Register to qualify for status, and not all aboriginal Canadians qualify. Inuit peoples don’t fall under the Act, and it was only in 2014 that the Federal Court of Appeal ruled that Metis also qualify.

The criteria for eligibility have evolved over time with amendments to the Indian Act. Prior to 1985, it was also possible to lose status in several ways, including marrying a man who was not a status Indian. Changes in 1985 allowed people to regain their lost status.

Indian status myths

Among the misconceptions of Indian status is the notion that you pay no tax. This is untrue, although some exemptions apply. Anyone who lives or works off-reserve — approximately 60 per cent of all Canadian aboriginal peoples, according to Statistics Canada — pays both federal and provincial tax. Income earned or goods purchased on reserves are tax-exempt.

“Free education” is another common myth. The federal government provides some funds for post-secondary education, but money is limited and waiting lists are long.

Health care is provided by provincial, territorial, and federal governments and those eligible are also covered by the Non-Insured Health Benefits Program that provides coverage for some services not covered in other plans, such as dental or vision care.

Housing assistance is also available to status Indians. The Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development Act provides funding for construction and renovations on reserves, while the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation offers renovation assistance for both on- and off-reserve status Indians.

Status Indians are also entitled to annual treaty pay of $5 (amounts were never adjusted for inflation from when original treaties were signed).

Read more:

Federal programs and services for registered Indians

Canada’s Indian Act