On March 8, 2018 Professor Damien Lee of the University of Saskatchewan’s Department of Indigenous Studies presented at ILSA’s Aboriginal Law Speakers Series. Professor Lee’s 45 minutes flew by as he recounted his personal experience of adoption at Fort Williams First Nation and framed it through the context of Anishinaabe citizenship law. Citizenship regarding Indigenous peoples is most commonly understood as the ways in which someone is granted status or membership to their Indigenous community according to Canadian law. The Indian Act, for example, grants “Indian status” to First Nations individuals who can trace their lineage back to an Indigenous parent and provide proof of this ancestry. This colonialist classification system disregards the complexities of family systems and perpetuates the notion that membership to a group is based solely on the blood quantum of a person. Professor Lee provided us with a very different interpretation of the meaning of “citizenship” according to the Anishinaabe.
Professor Lee describes himself as a “racially Caucasian man” who was adopted by an Anishinaabe family at six months old. He was careful to remind the audience of this, saying, “My whiteness doesn't disappear just because I was adopted. We live in a society where whiteness is privilege… It is important for you to know my positionality.” Professor Lee had to navigate his own belonging to an Indigenous community despite his race and lack of genetic relation to his parents and siblings. This encouraged his research later in life where he endeavoured to determine how his community approaches citizenship law. He found that citizenship law to the Anishinaabe in Fort Williams First Nation is vastly different from the colonial framework of citizenship.
Professor Lee met with 13 people in his community who were knowledge holders regarding adoption. Each individual described the school bus as central to “claiming” (accepting into the community) those who are adopted. The school bus drove the children from the reserve to the city every day. While socializing takes place on the bus, another important process takes place as the children step off of the bus. Adopted children have a choice here: to go play with the other non-Indigenous students and abandon the group, or remain with the reserve children. If an adoptee chose to spend their time away from the rest of the community and ignore their obligations to the community, they were not claimed as Indigenous. Professor Lee describes this process as “co-constitutive”, meaning that the collective of the group decides on membership based on the individuals allegiance to the community.
Professor Lee then described citizenship as an ongoing process or one that must be renewed continually. He told the story of the late Franky Banning, a war veteran who was Italian Canadian by birth but adopted under Anishinaabe citizenship law at one years old. Banning realized that there was no way to honour Indigenous war veterans on the reserve, so in 1995 he began a Remembrance Day celebration on the reserve. The annual ceremony continues every year and the community continued to claim Banning as one of their own. Professor Lee describes this process as a “renewal”. Banning continued each year to honour members of his community and in turn, the community continued to claim his as their own.
These adoption stories exemplify the uniqueness of Anishinaabe citizenship law in contrast to Canadian citizenship law. Anishinaabe citizenship is decentralized; it does not come from just the family or the band office, but instead comes from the entire community. It is based on accountability to the community. It is non-essentialist and does not claim people based on racialization and blood lines. Finally, it allows for full inclusion. Once a person is claimed by the community, they are allowed to fully participate in the community.
Until next time,
Team ReconciliAction YEG
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