There’s renewed hope that American-born Onkwehón:we who share homelands north of the border could soon be granted new legal rights recognizing them as belonging to their respective nations.
Just last week, immigration minister Marc Miller shared he’s committed to ensuring Canada recognizes these individuals’ inherent right to pass between both countries without obstruction.
“This is a longstanding issue that Canada has not recognized,” Miller told The Eastern Door. “It affects Indigenous families whose vulnerability is exacerbated by a border that’s been imposed on them.”
Currently, Canadian-born Onkwehón:we retain the right to live and work in the United States, rights that have long been fought for north of the border. Miller’s recent cabinet shuffle from the Crown-Indigenous relations to immigration now puts him in a position to take action on concerns he’s been hearing from Indigenous governments.
“I do recognize that there’s work to be done, not only on a policy level but also on a legislative level, which could include amendments to the immigration act,” Miller said, adding a ministerial directive is another option being considered.
The Jay Treaty Border Alliance, which groups together nations with homelands across both borders, has actively been meeting with Miller and federal officials over the last year to demand the respect of their rights. In 1794, the Jay Treaty signed between the United States and Great Britain stated that Indigenous people have the right to freely pass and trade between the boundary lines of both signatories. Its influence still informs much of America’s current immigration law.
“It’s not about recognition of the Jay Treaty, but about how they can mitigate and improve the ability of US-born Onkwehón:we people to be able to cross the border without people being treated as though they’re foreign aliens,” said Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK) chief Ross Montour, who’s actively involved with the alliance.
“Miller’s made a commitment to achieving a solution to that within the next year. I think it’s a positive statement,” he added. “I’ll take him at his word that he wants to see this done.”
The Haudenosaunee Confederacy has also actively been participating in these negotiations with the federal government. The hope, Kahnawa’kehró:non Kenneth Deer said, is that one day Haudenosaunee considered to be American citizens will have the right to reside and work in Canada.
“As Mohawks we don’t recognize the border,” said Deer. “The Mohawk homeland is our homeland and it goes both sides of the border.”
Paul Williams with the Haudenosaunee External Relations Committee has actively been taking part in these discussions – speaking with officials so they can understand the hardships faced by those living on homelands separated by the border.
“The Haudenosaunee reality is we’ve got 15 communities, seven within Canada, seven within the United States, and one in both. And people marry back and forth, and people travel back and forth,” said Williams, an attorney from Six Nations.
“Somebody who is from the American side living in Canada, with a family in Canada, who’s married to somebody in Canada, with kids in Canada, very often will not have a work permit. Sometimes they can’t get a driver’s licence, and usually they can’t get healthcare. It’s a real problem.”
Canada’s current solution for this is to provide temporary residency permits, Williams said. However since healthcare is a provincial matter, this doesn’t always guarantee they’ll receive access to healthcare.
That’s not the only problem, he said. “As a condition of applying for it, you have to acknowledge that you have no right to be in the country,” Williams said. “But they do have a right to be in the country.”
This new commitment from Miller is part of a federal action plan that’s been put in place to gradually implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).
Williams said he’s still disappointed to see it comes with no promise to implement homeland rights recognized in a recent Supreme Court decision.
In 2021, Canada’s highest court ruled members of the Colville Confederated Tribes in Washington State have a constitutionally protected right to hunt north of the border, a decision issued after US-resident Rick Desautel was fined by British Columbia for hunting without a recognized permit.
“There are bureaucrats in the department of Crown-Indigenous Relations who say Desautel is only about harvesting rights,” Williams said. “Obviously it’s about more than that. It’s about self-determination. If you have a right to hunt somewhere, you probably have a right to be there.”