U.S.-born Tsimshian woman fighting to stay in her First Nation’s traditional territory in Canada


Dr. Mique’l Dangeli wants to stay in her nation’s traditional territory and continue her work in language revitalization.


The problem is, as of July 1, Dangeli will no longer be able to work in Canada legally because she does not have Canadian citizenship, does not have Indian status in Canada and her application for permanent residency is still before immigration.

But Dangeli is determined that eventually she’ll be able to work legally anywhere in the place she calls home.  

“When I say home, for me home is Tsimshian territory, period,” she said. 

“And in terms of citizenship, I’m Tsimshian. It’s not I’m U.S., I’m not Canadian, I’m Tsimshian…. I only recognize the border because it’s forced upon us.”​

Dangeli is an educator — an adjunct professor at the University of Northern British Columbia and a beloved Sm’algya̱x teacher at the ‘Na Aksa Gyilak’yoo School in Kitsumkalum, a northern B.C. community where there are only three living fluent Indigenous language speakers.

“We’re in such an endangered state,” said Dangeli when thinking about the work that needs to be done to revitalize Sm’algya̱x.

“I’m doing everything I possibly can with my time to devote myself to our language.”

She was born and raised on the Annette Island Indian Reserve in Metlakatla, Alaska, and is registered as being a part of a U.S. federally-recognized Indigenous community. But Canada sees her as non-status because she’s not registered in the Canadian system.

Tsimshian traditional territory covers a vast area of the Northwest Coast of B.C. Metlakatla is the only Tsimshian community outside of Canada.

“The immigration process is incredibly dehumanizing,” she said.

Work permit to expire

Being born on the U.S. side of the border is difficult for people like Dangeli, because as multiple government reports show, U.S.-born Indigenous Peoples are not afforded the same freedom of movement as those born in Canada who want to live and work in the U.S. There are several Indigenous groups across North America bisected by the Canada-U.S. border.

U.S.-born Indigenous Peoples wanting to move to Canada are forced to either go through the long process of applying for Indian status in Canada or to apply for immigration like any other person moving to Canada from a different country.

When Dangeli finished her PhD in Northwest Coast First Nations art history at the University of British Columbia in 2015, her heart was set on staying in Canada. She got herself a three-year post-graduation work permit. 

Last year, she left a tenure-track position at the University of Alaska Southeast to focus her energy on language revitalization efforts in the community.

“If I would have taken the time to go through the tenure process… it’s quite likely that there wouldn’t be any opportunities to work with our first language fluent speakers anymore because of their age,” she said.

So she returned to Canada with her husband and started her new job, and got to work trying to secure permanent residency through the express entry program.

Dr. Mique’l Dangeli holds a Master’s degree and PhD in Northwest Coast First Nations art history from UBC. Here she is seen teaching a group of youth at the Northwest Community College longhouse. (Nick Dangeli)

Immigration process doesn’t account for Indigeneity

She has applied to the express entry program three times, without success.

She currently has a fourth expression of interest before immigration officials but doesn’t have any guarantees that her application will be successful.

“It’s infuriating, frustrating. Most people I talk to feel that it’s unbelievable that the two words can even exist… an Indigenous immigrant,” she said, noting that at one point she had to take an English test as part of the application process.

“There is nothing about it that takes into account my Indigeneity at all and the work that I’m doing to ensure that a language that is Indigenous to Canada will survive for generations to come. My language.”

Throughout this process hereditary and elected leadership in Kitsumkalum have written her letters of support and the community formally accepted her as a member in January.

Her husband, who is Nisga’a but also born in the U.S., has been unable to sponsor her. She says he too has had problems being fully recognized as a person with rights equal to Canadian citizens.

She said she’s deeply frustrated with how the Canadian government has treated her and her husband — making them feel like immigrants on the land their families have lived on for generations.

“This isn’t about an individual, this isn’t about a married couple, this is about First Nations people who are Indigenous to the country that they govern, who just happen to be born in the U.S. … that do not have rights within their own traditional territories as they should.”

‘Just use the Jay Treaty’

Dangeli said many people she’s talked to about her situation have assumed she could stay in the country under the Jay Treaty.

“People say that to me all the time, ‘just use the Jay Treaty,'” she said.

The Jay Treaty was signed in 1794 and is an agreement between the U.S. and the British. It allows status Indians born in Canada, who have 50 per cent blood quantum, to live and work in the U.S.

But Canada never codified the agreement.

In 1983 a report written for the federal government recommended that Canada introduce legislation to implement the Jay Treaty, but that never happened.

Lawyers with expertise in First Nations’ legal issues, like Micha Menczer, aren’t sure why.

“Why is that persons who are Indigenous and belong to nations, historic nations, that have cross-boundary territories are denied the right to live in their traditional territory and be with their communities?” he said.

“This isn’t a matter of vast convoys of weapons and drugs going back across the border, these are ordinary people living ordinary lives such as Ms. Dangeli, contributing to the community, and I think they’re being made to suffer.”

Menczer said he realizes it might sound crazy to refer to an Indigenous person like Dangeli in the context of the immigration act, but said under the eyes of the law, that is where one of her legal options rests.

One section of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act states that a person with Indian status has the right to enter and remain in Canada.

Menczer also points out that in 2017 a report written for the federal government recommended an amendment to that portion of the act.

The report, by Fred Caron, focused specifically on First Nations border crossing issues and found the border has had an “adverse impact on family and cultural connections,” for Indigenous communities across the country.

As one suggested solution to this problem, Caron proposed that Canadian officials “permit anyone who is a member of a Canadian First Nation, or a member of a federally-recognized U.S. Tribe (which tribes would be set out in a schedule under the IRPA regulations), a right to enter and remain in Canada, identical to that of an Indian registered under the Indian Act.”

Menczer said Dangeli may also have legal options under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

“So me as a lawyer looking at that, I can look at half a dozen sections [of UNDRIP] that I think Ms. Dangeli could rely on,” he said.

‘Caught between two federal systems’

Dangeli has legal representation but isn’t hopeful that a solution will be found by Canada Day.

Deanna Okun-Nachoff, a Vancouver-based immigration lawyer, said she’s hoping to have the situation resolved by the time the school year begins in the fall.

She describes Dangeli as being “caught between two federal systems” and said that her attempts to secure permanent residency are further complicated by the nature of her work as an educator, researcher and artist.

Dangeli’s lawyer said her application for permanent residency is complex because of the nature of her work as an adjunct professor at UNBC, educator at ‘Na Aksa Gyila̱ky’oo School and artist. (Amber Austin)

​Dangeli is also in the process of securing Indian status in Canada, but she said that process will likely take another couple of years. It wasn’t the route that she wanted to take.

“Whether it’s a status or non-status, or citizenship… we are continually forced to be in positions of proving who we are and standing up for our rights to be who we are,” Dangeli said.

Nathan Cullen, the NDP MP for the area, has been trying to help Dangeli secure permanent residency and said he’s talked to the immigration ministry about her case.

He said he’s not ready to say “mission accomplished” on her case, but is confident that things are being worked out.

“We’ve been on Mique’l’s case for a while now because our colonial system still lives and breathes today,” said Cullen.

He also said that he is hoping to introduce legislation before the end of this parliamentary session to address this issue overall for people like Dangeli.

“And if there is a spirit of so-called reconciliation coming from the Trudeau government, we’d hope they’d be open to it,” he said.

With files from Pamela Post