When the homelands of indigenous groups straddle the border between U.S. and Canada, traveling back and forth becomes an immigration issue. You might think the countries would have similar policies, but it isn’t that easy.
One U.S.-born Tsimshian teacher is caught in the mess, fighting to legally stay and work in her ancestral homeland in British Columbia.
Mique’l Dangeli teaches the Tsimshian language — Sm’algya̱x — to children and adults, including at a school in Kitsumkalumm, British Columbia.
Now, she’s fighting to stay. Her post-graduate work visa expired July 1 – along with her ability to legally work in Canada.
She applied for Canadian citizenship – but was denied – twice. The first time, she hadn’t taken a required English exam. Her frustration boiled over while talking to an immigration representative:
“The Canadian government as well as the American government have forced, over a 200-year timespan, our people to speak English through physical, emotional, spiritual and sexual abuse,'” she said. “‘I have to take an English exam to continue to teach Sm’algyax here?'”
“And she said, ‘I’m sorry. … I don’t make the rules, I’m sorry. This is what you have to do.'”
Still, Dangeli took the $500 exam. Then she says Canadian immigration denied her the second time. It’s complicated, but she says it has to do with her husband’s immigration status.
Canada views her husband as a landed immigrant. His nation, the Nisga’a, gave up their First Nations status cards in favor of Nisga’a status cards, which were to offer the same rights as First Nations members. But they don’t. And because of his status, he can’t sponsor Mique’l into the country.
“Now we’re both, both our rights, to be here be in B.C. and our peoples’ traditional territory is being called into question,” Dangeli said.
Canadian immigration officials did not return a request for comment by this story’s deadline.
Her situation isn’t unique. She says indigenous people such as Gwich’in, Haida, Tlingit and Coast Salish also face issues crossing the border.
“It’s just that it doesn’t get all the media attention that all the other border issues do. I’ve always felt that the northern border between U.S. and B.C. in particular, the U.S. and also the Yukon are completely ignored because of all the focus on Mexico-U.S. border.”
Dangeli grew up on the Annette Island Indian Reserve in Metlakatla, Alaska. The Ph.D. in Northwest Coast Native art history moved to British Columbia to focus on teaching Sm’algya̱x in the traditional Tsimshian territory.
“With my education and my work history regardless of who I am in terms of being a Tsimshian woman, it’s not good enough within the Canadian system,” she said.
She even gave up a tenure track position at the University of Alaska Southeast to do so.
“We should be afforded the same rights as our relatives on the Canadian side to come to the U.S. to live and work as we please,” she said.
She’s talking about the Jay Treaty, which was signed in 1795 and allowed Natives to trade and travel across the border of U.S. and Canada, then a British territory. But Canada does not recognize the treaty.
Dangeli says First Nations status holders from Canada can live and work in the U.S., but Canada doesn’t reciprocate with U.S.-born Natives.
“Canada is exporting indigenous people to the U.S., not importing us.”
In the meantime, Dangeli’s school in British Columbia is on summer break. She’ll travel back to Metlakatla to visit friends and family. And Canada issued her a visitor’s extension through part of July.
Canada’s asymmetrical polices don’t surprise Damien Lee. He’s an associate fellow at Yellowhead Institute, a First Nations public policy center in Toronto.
“The irony is that if Canada exists because of First Nations permission, yet First Nations are being denied permission by Canada to exercise their current political jurisdiction. To me that’s mind blowing.”
Dangeli is circulating a petition urging Canada to change its policies and allow U.S.-born indigenous people to live and work in the Great White North.
Until then, things are in the hands of Dangeli’s lawyers and Canadian immigration.