Disentangling 'Race' and Indigenous Status: The Role of Ethnicity

Queen's Law Journal, Vol. 33, p. 487, 2008

31 Pages Posted: 12 Jun 2009

See all articles by Sébastien Grammond

Sébastien Grammond

University of Ottawa - Civil Law Section

Date Written: April 1, 2008


The notion of "race" is a social construction, discredited today by scientists as factually unsound. Individuals cannot be organized into discrete groups of people based solely on physical characteristics. An individual's identity is now understood to consist of more than the contents of one's blood. This more robust understanding takes account of other important elements of identity, such as the individual’s cultural and historical makeup. Despite this progress, the author argues, notions of race (sometimes in the form of blood quantum requirements) still define indigenous status in many countries, including Canada. The author posits that group identity would be best understood by reference to the concept of ethnicity, which leads to a broader understanding of identity that goes beyond the biological classifications associated with race.

The author analyzes the American Supreme Court case of Rice v. Cayetano, where the majority found that an ameliorative provision of the Hawaiian Constitution violated the Fifteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution due to its racial distinctions. The author contends that what separated the majority and dissenting judgements was the fact that the former took a racial view of indigenous identity and the latter an ethnic view. The majority focused on the word “race” in the impugned provision, thereby automatically labeling it as racist. According to the dissent, the intent of the provision was to recognize status on the basis of ancestry, and not on the basis of rigid blood purity requirements, as a racial distinction would. The author supports the dissenting view. He argues that while the concept of race is incoherent, ancestry might be a legitimate definition of identity, as it can reflect non-biological elements transmitted by descent. Rice v. Cayetano demonstrates how an inaccurate definition of indigenous status can undermine public policy initiatives meant to redress harm done to indigenous peoples. The author concludes by proposing that while ancestry may be a satisfactory determinant of ethnicity, group identity would be better understood with reference to other relevant sociological factors, such as language, residence, culture, participation in community events and self-identification.

Keywords: Indigenous Status (Canada), Indian Act, equality, racial discrimination, blood quantum, native americans, indigenous peoples

Suggested Citation

Grammond, Sébastien, Disentangling 'Race' and Indigenous Status: The Role of Ethnicity (April 1, 2008). Queen's Law Journal, Vol. 33, p. 487, 2008, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1416760

Sébastien Grammond (Contact Author)

University of Ottawa - Civil Law Section ( email )

57 Louis Pasteur Dr

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