Current Problems

Government Commitments to Truth and Reconciliation

Immigration minister says he wants to make it easier for Indigenous people to cross borders

September 29, 2023
Ottawa considering amendments to immigration law, ministerial directive
A road sign gives directions to communities near the Canada-U.S. border.
The Canadian side of the international border between Cornwall, Ont., and New York, which passes through the Mohawk community of Akwesasne. Immigration Minister Marc Miller says he wants Canada to recognize the inherent right of Indigenous people to travel within their homelands across international borders. (Jonathan Dupaul/Radio-Canada)

CBC News: Immigration Minister Marc Miller says he wants to make it easier for Indigenous people to cross the international borders that have divided their homelands and families for generations.

In an interview with CBC News, Miller said Canada should recognize Indigenous people have an inherent right to move freely across international boundaries. “That’s something that I think we need to fix as a country,” Miller said. “It’ll take time. But it is one of my top priorities.”

A senior government source said the government is considering both a ministerial directive and amendments to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act that would exempt from immigration requirements Indigenous people whose traditional homelands extend beyond Canada’s borders.

A government source said the federal government is looking to present a solution next year.

Miller’s commitment is part of the federal government’s roadmap for implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Miller, who was shuffled from the Crown-Indigenous relations portfolio to immigration over the summer, said there’s immense institutional resistance within the federal government, but he’s determined to get the job done. “That is encouraging and now we look forward to some action,” said Kenneth Deer, a member of the Haudenosaunee External Relations Committee who deals with border crossing issues.

‘Frustrating … demeaning’ treatment at the border

Deer, whose traditional Mohawk name is Atsenhaienton, identifies as Haudenosaunee, not Canadian. He’s from Kahnawá:ke Mohawk Territory south of Montreal and his people are part of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.

The U.S.-Canada border divides their homeland, which includes parts of Quebec, Ontario and New York State. Deer, who travels with a Haudenosaunee passport, said it’s easier for him to get into the U.S. than to return to Canada — where he often needs to explain his rights to Canadian border agents and sometimes provide supplemental documentation.

Kenneth Deer at the Mohawk Nation longhouse in Kahnawà:ke, south of Montreal.
Kenneth Deer, a member of the Haudenosaunee External Relations Committee, wants Ottawa to amend immigration legislation. (Ka’nhehsí:io Deer/CBC)

“It’s incredibly frustrating and it’s also demeaning for the Government of Canada to say you can’t cross freely in your own homeland,” Deer said. “It’s embarrassing and it delays us when we are trying to cross the border.”

Marriage presents another complication, he said. Mohawks on the American side are required to get landed immigrant status in Canada to live with a spouse north of the border. “That’s absolutely ridiculous,” he said.

Deer said he wants Miller to adjust the legislation to ensure their rights are recognized and are never overturned.  “We need something there that’s permanent … so our children, our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will always have access to their homeland,” Deer said.

The Haudenosaunee aren’t the only ones whose Indigenous homelands are divided by international borders.

Disrupted way of life

The Inuit homeland of Inuit Nunaat, which stretches across the Arctic, is divided by the modern boundaries of Canada, the Danish autonomous territory of Greenland, the United States and Russia.

Natan Obed, president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, said Inuit have been calling on Ottawa to work on the issue for decades and he’s personally made the appeal to previous immigration ministers.

“Up until this date, the Canadian government has not been serious about it,” he said. “I’m just glad that minister Miller is now open to addressing this issue.”

One political leader speaks at a table while another listens beside him.
Marc Miller (left) and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami President Natan Obed (right) have spoken about improving Indigenous border policy. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

In many cases, Obed said, Inuit have extended family, shared hunting areas and places of marine management in other countries that they cannot access.

Inuvialuit in Canada’s Western Arctic, for example, have close family ties with Alaskan Inuit, known as Iñupiaq. Inuit in North Baffin, Nunavut have family connections with Greenland. “It is almost impossible for people to go and visit family for an extended period of time or if people get married and want to live in a particular place or another,” Obed said.

Obed said Inuit want specific revisions to the Immigration Act that would give Inuit from Greenland and the United States citizenship status that would circumvent the existing law on foreign citizens coming to Canada.

The move would create a new Indigenous class of citizen, Obed said, and ensure that Inuit families from Greenland and Alaska can travel freely within Canada. “It really would go a long way toward reconstituting our nation in the way that we have always lived in it,” he said. 

Canada playing catch-up

Miller acknowledges the United States is ahead of Canada in its approach to Indigenous rights and border mobility. 

The U.S. recognizes the historical clauses of the Jay Treaty, which was signed by the U.K. and U.S. in 1794, before Confederation. The treaty states that Native Americans may travel freely across the international boundaries and Indigenous Peoples in Canada are entitled to enter the U.S. freely to work, study, retire, invest or immigrate.

Canada doesn’t recognize those rights.

Canada looking to recognize Indigenous trans-border movement rights

WATCH | Miller says Indigenous people should have right to move freely across borders: Duration 2:04

International borders often separate Indigenous people in Canada, the U.S. and Greenland from their relatives and homelands. Some First Nations even issue passports, which other countries recognize for free travel, but Canada does not — something the federal immigration minister now says should be fixed.

Click on the following link to view the video:

Miller said he has no intention of recognizing the Jay Treaty. He said part of the problem with the treaty is that it applies only to people with at least 50 per cent of what it calls “American Indian race” — a rule he called inherently racist.

“We need to recognize something a little more fundamental than the Jay Treaty,” Miller said. “We have to first start by doing our job under it, which is to recognize Indigenous Peoples’ right to move freely across borders.”

Paul Williams, a lawyer in Six Nations, is working with Canada to assist approximately 200 Haudenosaunee families who have one spouse on each side of the border.

A small monument, numbered 120, marks the border in Chilkoot Pass in Alaska.
A small monument, numbered 120, marks the border in Chilkoot Pass in Alaska. (Andreas Rutkauskas/Supplied)

Williams, who is also part of the Haudenosaunee External Relations Committee, said the Native American spouses in Canada have no health coverage and can’t work in Canada — and can’t go back to the U.S. without risking being barred from returning to Canada.

“It’s a whole series of problems these families are facing,” Williams said. 

Williams said it’s within Miller’s power as minister to address the issue through an Act of Parliament by amending the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act or issuing a ministerial directive to exempt Indigenous people as a group — something that has been done in a limited way for Hong Kong students, Afghan refugees and Ukrainians fleeing war.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Williams said.


Olivia Stefanovich, Senior reporter

Olivia Stefanovich is a senior reporter for CBC’s Parliamentary Bureau based in Ottawa. She previously worked in Toronto, Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. Connect with her on Twitter at @CBCOlivia. Story tips welcome: