To a large degree, the sovereignty that tribes in the United States have over their membership is often taken for granted. In Canada, the difference has been stark. Until 1985 and the passage of Bill C-31, only the federal government of Canada based in Ottawa could decide who was a member of any First Nation (Band). Prior to Bill C-31, the government could remove any woman who married out of the Band; if you went into military service you were removed; if you became a doctor or a lawyer, you were out as well. Bill C-31 was adopted and for the first time Bands could determine their own membership providing a Band election took place confirming their desire to control it. Sadly, the quorum hurdle was so high that it was near impossible for many Bands to meet it.
Then in a 2008 Federal Court judgment, a decision was made that only a majority of the qualified voters of a Band had to vote, and only a majority of them needed to vote for the change, thus paving the way for Bands to take control from Ottawa and put it into their own hands.
Since 1986, the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc Band in British Columbia has been working on taking control of their membership. Membership codes had been circulating the Band for decades and twice referendums to take control of their membership were defeated by their voters. But then came along Tk’emlups Council Woman Colleen Mosterd-Mclean who was elected to her Council in 2012. One of her many responsibilities was Band membership, and with that new responsibility came a fierce determination to make things right for her nation.
Colleen came to the 19th Annual Tribal Enrollment Conference in Las Vegas in 2013 and I had the honor and pleasure of meeting her for the first time. Within a year she and I were working together to help draft a new code that would meet the concerns of their members and put her Band on the fast track to membership sovereignty.
I made my first visit in January of 2015 to work with Colleen and the administrative staff to determine what was crucial for them to include in the code. In two subsequent visits Collen and I conducted three Focus Forums with the membership so they could include what was necessary to give them the comfort and safety they required.
On November 14, 2015, I was present at the referendum election to help answer any questions the membership had about the new code. I am happy to say that the referendum to take control of their membership, and to take a giant step towards what we often take for granted here in the United States - self-determination - was voted on with a 5 to 1 ratio in favor. An overwhelming victory for sovereignty and for the people of Tk’emlups te Secwepemc.
To the Tk’emlups Band, and especially to Collen Mosterd-Mclean, without whom this would not have happened, I say thank you, and congratulations on your giant step towards determining your own future. I am proud and honored to have played a small part in your history.
From 1990-2007, James Mills was the founder and President of DCIAmerica, one ofAmerica’s leading training organizations serving the needs of clients throughout Indian Country in the United States and Canada. Mr. Mills is the current president of Creating Stronger Nations and is focusing on the drafting of governing documents, leadership and governance issues for tribal organizations.