It took Lynn Gehl 22 years of litigation to register as a status Indian—an official designation determined by Canadian law—all because of a missing signature. Gehl, an Algonquin Anishinaabe advocate and writer, traces her family’s First Nations lineage back at least five generations. But without her paternal grandfather’s signature on her father’s birth certificate, she was denied the rights granted under Canada’s Indian Act.

Established in 1876, the Indian Act ensured key protections and resources, such as the right to participate in First Nations governments, the right to live in the community, and access to health care and education. Through this legislation, Canada assumed the administration of First Nation lands and resources. This included regulating the ability to pass Indian status, and the accompanying rights, to one’s children.

From the outset, the Indian Act imposed avenues for Indigenous people to be “assimilated” into Canadian society: Women who married non-Indians lost...

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