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A subaru outback with roof racks, drives past a sign that reads 'USA CANADA BORDER'
Now that the Canadian government has reopened the border without consulting Indigenous nations on or near the border, it is long overdue for Canada to honour Indigenous people’s rights to travel freely. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)

The U.S.-Canada border may have partially reopened, but intrusive travel restrictions still exist for Indigenous Peoples

While Canada began welcoming vaccinated United States citizens and permanent residents across the land border on Aug. 9, the U.S. border remains closed to Canadians until at least Aug. 21. The perceived unfairness of the decision has seen some understandable expressions of dismay from Canadians who have endured months of travel limitations since the pandemic began.


Read more: As pandemic restrictions ease, we need to consider ethical travel in our return


Now, however, may be a good time to reflect on the privilege of travel, especially the entitlement we feel to freedom of travel. As those of us on the Canadian side wait for the U.S. land border to reopen, we should remind ourselves of — or learn about — the restrictions Indigenous people have faced crossing the international border since it was created.

The Medicine Line

Indigenous Peoples foresaw these problems as early as the 18th century. In 1794, Mohawk leaders insisted on a clause in the Jay Treaty (between the U.S. and the British Crown) that would protect their rights to trade and travel across the border. Their argument then, and now, was that the border was an agreement between settler governments. As the original nations of this continent, they asserted their sovereign rights to maintain the freedom of movement they enjoyed before settlers arrival. These rights were challenged several times over the years, but still exist today.

Indigenous people called the U.S.-Canada border the Medicine Line. During the 19th century, as the border changed shape and direction, Indigenous people realized it could also protect them. For example, if they crossed it to evade pursuit from U.S. and British armies, and the North West (later Royal Canadian) Mounted Police.

Possibly the most famous example of the Medicine Line’s power was Lakota leader Sitting Bull’s escape to the Cypress Hills, Alta., after the Battle of Greasy Grass in 1876. He remained in Canada until 1881, when starvation — a result of Canadian policies — forced him to return to the U.S. and surrender.

A billboard with a photo of Sitting Bull on it reads 'sitting bull burial site'
A banner for the burial site of Sitting Bull is seen in the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in Fort Yates in North Dakota. (AP Photo/Matt Brown)

In the opposite direction, Cree leader Little Bear led his people from Saskatchewan to Montana to escape retribution for their part in the 1885 Northwest Rebellion.

Once in the U.S., they were labelled as refugees. In 1896, the U.S. Congress passed a law formally deporting the starving and landless — a result of U.S. policies — Cree “refugees” back to Canada. Several years later Little Bear and his remaining people crossed back into Montana, finding a home on the Rocky Boy’s reservation.

The pass systems

At the same time, even “domestic” travel was restricted for Indigenous people.

In 1879, the U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs mandated that Indian agents be provided with official seals to stamp on passes to “allow” Indigenous people to travel between reservations or agencies.

In 1885, Canada created the “pass system” with the same restrictions and requirements. The U.S. version lasted until 1912, while Canada’s system didn’t disappear completely until the 1940s.

A more ‘formal’ border

The Medicine Line was effectively closed in 1924 with the passage of new immigration laws, the Indian Citizenship Act and the creation of the U.S. Border Patrol.

While travel was already hugely difficult because of the pass system, Indigenous Peoples within Canada were now formally deemed foreign nationals by the U.S. and refused entry — despite the clause in the Jay Treaty.

These restrictions led Tuscarora Chief Clinton Rickard to “fight for the line.” He led a series of cross-border protest marches with his Indian Defence League of America.

UNITED STATES in capital letters at border crossing
A car heads to the U.S. border crossing on Aug. 9, 2021 in Lacolle, Que. The U.S. border remains closed to non-essential travel as Canada re-opens its birder to fully vaccinated Americans. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

During the same period, Kahnawà:ke citizen Paul Kanesto Diabo was labelled an “illegal alien,” arrested and deported back to Canada while working as an ironworker helping to build the Delaware River Bridge in Philadelphia. Diabo fought his arrest and the deportation was overturned. As a result of protests and court defeat, the U.S. government ruled that Indigenous people from the U.S. and Canada were now exempt from the Immigration Act.

However, cross-border travel for Indigenous people has been a struggle ever since. Even for members of Indigenous nations whose original territories are divided by the border, border crossing is incredibly difficult and often fraught with apprehension and targeted racism.

Indigenous border struggles

In 1969, Akwesasne Mohawk people asserted their sovereignty by blocking the border crossing through their reserve, because they were being charged tolls to pass through it. They told the Canadian government, “You Are on Indian Land.”

Ceremonial items are one of the most common points of contention for Indigenous people trying to cross the border. In 2001, Kainai Chief Chris Shade was stopped from crossing the border with his ceremonial headdress due to U.S. immigration rules about eagle feathers.

Indigenous people are often told that they must open sacred medicine bundles for inspection and have feathers, pipes and other items handled by non-Indigenous border staff. In territories such as that of the Blackfoot, sacred sites sit on either side of the border, making international travel a necessity. Having to open sacred items for inspection by border security in order to complete ceremony is a violation of basic human rights.

While the U.S. still respects the Jay Treaty, Canada never has admitted to inheriting the Jay Treaty from the British Crown.

Now that the Canadian government has reopened the border to vaccinated U.S. citizens without consulting Indigenous nations on or near the border, it is long overdue for Canada to honour the treaty and respect Indigenous people’s rights to travel freely.

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