Current Problems

Government Commitments to Truth and Reconciliation

Ottawa eyes change to border rules for Indigenous communities. ‘It is an injustice that continues to divide our people’

December 10, 2023

Indigenous people are hopeful that changes will respect their rights to move freely on traditional lands that cross international borders.

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National borders have long hampered the ability of the Inuit and other Indigenous groups to travel in their traditional territories.Toronto Star illustration using photos from Dreamstime

Toronto Star: The territory where Tim Argetsinger’s ancestors once moved freely and hunted in the Arctic spanned 2.5 million square kilometres of land — about a quarter of the size of Canada.

Today, that same land crosses a slew of international borders — parts of Canada, Greenland, Alaska in the U.S., and the Chukotka region of Russia, dividing up the members of his nation and community.

So when Argetsinger travels from the Native Village of Kotzebue, his hometown in Alaska, to Nuuk in Greenland, where his wife is from, and Ottawa, where his employer is, he must follow the same immigration laws and border rules as an American.

But he’s Inuit, and he’s rankled by those restrictions, a consequence of colonialism.

Tim Artgetsinger, with wife Vivi Sørensen and son Yaayuk Sørensen Argetsinger in Greenland. When he travels between the U.S., Canada and Greenland he must follow the same travel rules as an American. Tim Artgetsinger

It’s a problem for many Indigenous communities, whose lands and families are divided by these geographical boundaries, and whose members are often hassled by border agents when they try to move around on the land that was seized from them.

“It is an injustice that continues to divide our people,” says Argetsinger, a 36-year-old management consultant with the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, an Ottawa-based non-profit organization that represents more than 65,000 Inuit in 51 communities across Canada.

“There are a lot of opportunities that we miss out on when we do not have that ability to move freely throughout the region and to make our lives where we want to.”

The federal government has opened the door to addressing some of these border-crossing challenges — a change that could be a major step in the reconciliation process, even as it requires a paradigm shift in how Canada treats its border.

Immigration Minister Marc Miller had the Indigenous affairs portfolio for five years until this year. He has now made easing Indigenous Peoples’ mobility and migration rights a priority.

Out of a list of key actions that Miller unveiled recently to strengthen Canada’s immigration system was a section to “advance reconciliation.” “Our aim to improve services won’t only stop with newcomers,” Miller told reporters. “We’re also addressing border crossings for Indigenous Peoples in Canada.”

And that means, according to his strategic plan, the Immigration Department will pursue legislative changes such as options to “amend Canada’s right of entry provision, and work and study permit requirements” for Indigenous communities.

It’s not known how many non-Canadian Indigenous people could potentially benefit from any proposed exemption of the regular immigration rules. The number of Indigenous people in the U.S. alone is estimated at between four and seven million, though not all have a connection with Canada.

First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities affected by border rules and restrictions have fought for years to reclaim their Indigenous rights that they say go beyond the convenience for travelling but to the core of the principle of their self-determination.

“It’s a stressful process to have to consistently go across the border where there are foreign laws and policies that have an impact on who you are as a person and where we come from,” said University of Windsor law professor Beverley Jacobs, a member of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy of Native Americans and First Nations peoples in Ontario, Quebec and New York state.

“We identify as Haudenosaunee. We are not Canadian. We’re not American. That’s part of the self-determination and sovereign protocols that we’ve always had.”

Indigenous communities have expressed their frustration over what they call the unjust border rules imposed on them for decades without seeing much progress.

In some cases, such as the Mohawks of Akwesasne in Central Canada, the Passamaquoddy in New Brunswick, and the White River First Nation in Yukon, existing communities are divided in two on both sides of the border.

“The imposition of the Canada-U.S. border has been, in the eyes of First Nations, destructive of family, cultural, governance and other connections with U.S. Tribes which are of great importance to their identity as well as to their cultural survival,” said an independent report released by the Canadian government in 2017.

“The normal flow of family and cultural practices as well as of governmental and membership alliances has been disrupted by current immigration rules.”

Unlike the U.S., Canada does not recognize the Jay Treaty, which allows American Indians to move freely across the international boundary. Under the pact, Native Indians born in Canada are entitled to freely travel south of the border to work, live, study and even retire there if they have Indian status, but not vice versa.

Some of the most common complaints cited in the 2017 federal government report include:

  • Hardships faced by Native American spouses who are not registered as Indians under the Indian Act but wish to reside with their Canadian First Nation spouse in Canada without automatic right of entry or residence in the country;
  • Situations of divorce or separation involving spouses or former spouses residing on different sides of the Canada-U.S. border where frequent family visits involving children become complicated; and
  • Hassles faced by traditional medicine men and healers when trying to enter the country due to the nature of the medicines they’re carrying and being questioned over the need for a work permit.

The report recommended Ottawa recognize the Jay Treaty or amend the immigration law to permit anyone who is a member of a Canadian First Nation or a member of a federally recognized U.S. Tribe the right to enter and remain in Canada like other Canadians.

Jacobs said the legislative change is the only route to address the Indigenous mobility and migration issues once and for all.

Currently, Canadian members of First Nation communities can use their secure identity cards to travel between Canada and U.S. But she said they are often hassled and pulled aside for inspections by doubtful — and sometimes outright racist — border agents who are unfamiliar with Indigenous rights and protocols.

“In most times, it depends on how educated the border guard is,” said Jacobs, a Mohawk of the Bear clan from Six Nations of the Grand River. “There’s no consistency.

“We’re not a minority. It’s our land. It’s our territory. So it’s important to understand that from that perspective. Those laws, even the immigration act, were all established way after colonization. Our people have been in existence since time immemorial.”

For the Inuit, they have an even tougher time trying to get around because they are not defined as Indians and hence don’t even enjoy the benefit of the Jay Treaty when they travel between Canada and the U.S.

The Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami has made submissions to the Immigration Department recommending changing the wording of the immigration act from “Indians” to “Indigenous Peoples” as an easy fix to recognize the rights of other Indigenous groups.

It also recommends a special “Indigenous Peoples’ class” to allow the movement of Indigenous Peoples who are not Canadian citizens to work and live within their traditional homeland in Canada, offering a pathway for permanent residence for Inuit from Alaska and Greenland. (The submission excludes the Inuit from Russia due to the current geopolitical tensions.)

“It’s the reimagining of it from a nation-state mindset to an Indigenous-specific mindset of the collective,” said the ITK’s president Natan Obed, whose Inuit parents are from Canada and the U.S. “This is a way in which to respect reconciliation and the idea of reconstituting nations.

“So for us, it’s the ability for Inuit from Alaska and Greenland to enter, work and reside in Canada, and the ability for a nation-state government to accept that is a part of Inuit Nunaat (the Inuit homeland) reconstituting itself and respecting Inuit in this process.”

Natan Obed, president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami.Blair Gable / ITK

Obed said he is particularly optimistic that change will come this time as a result of Canada’s commitment in pursuing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act, which became law in June 2021.

Section 52 of the federal action plan recognizes the travel and migration challenges, and calls for the need to advance amendments to the immigration law and regulations as well as policy reforms in 2024 while Canada continues to negotiate with international partners on Indigenous border crossing issues.

“It explicitly talks about amendments in legislation to comply with the UN declaration,” said Obed. “We’ve never had that in our pocket prior to the last two years. “We’ve never had an immigration minister speak publicly ever on amendments to the immigration and refugee protection legislation that is inclusive of Inuit considerations. So that’s strong.”

Argetsinger said he only got a work permit to come to Canada in 2016 under the then North American Free Trade Agreement because he had the specific expertise and skills that Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami was looking for to serve the community here.

But due to the restrictions placed on his work permit, he was only admitted as a consultant and not entitled to staff benefits. His now-wife Vivi Sørensen from Greenland, who was his girlfriend at the time, had to join him in Ottawa on a study permit even though she’s also Inuit because her Indigenous status was and is still not recognized here unless she’s a Canadian citizen.

“As an American, I have visa-free entry to Canada and to Denmark. But there is a difference between travelling to a place as a tourist and wanting to make your life and career in a place,” said Argetsinger, who moved to Greenland, an autonomous territory in Denmark, in late 2019 and now works remotely from there.

The bureaucratic hoops for him, his wife and their three-year-old son just to move around within the traditional Inuit land are inconvenient, he said.

“It’s also just the principle of its absurdity.”

Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration for the Star.

Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung.