TORONTO -- It took more than two decades, but Dot Beaucage-Kennedy can finally perform legally binding marriages for Indigenous people without the backing of a church.

Thanks to a new amendment to Ontario’s Marriage Act, the Ojibway Elder from the Nipissing First Nation can legally apply to be an Indigenous officiant for couples tying the knot.

“I just said ‘Wow,’ that was quite an accomplishment. I really was excited,” Beaucage-Kennedy, who had previously been officiating marriages under the Clergy Support Memorial Church, told CTV National News.

It’s a form of legal recognition that Beaucage-Kennedy has sought since 1999, when she applied to be recognized as Indigenous officiant to legally perform the traditions and customs of First Nations people, ceremonies that were already happening but weren’t legal provincially. In Ontario, city clerks, justices of the peace, priests, rabbis and other clergy registered as officiants with a religious affiliation have long been able to officiate and submit a marriage for registration with the Ontario Registrar General.

On Oct. 8, the province announced the amendment with the change coming into effect immediately, adding that the move was another step in the province’s commitment to reconciliation with Canada’s Indigenous people. It’s been a long time coming for Beaucage-Kennedy, whose applications to be recognized as an Indigenous officiant were repeatedly denied. 

“I thought, we need to marry our own people, because how we do it is more than just a wedding,” she told CTV National News, noting that Indigenous marriage ceremonies involve medicines and rituals.

“It’s not just -- bang, you’re married. Why can’t we have a licence? We’ve been around since time immemorial. If you have to have a licence for all these other things [such as hunting], then why can’t we be acknowledged and have our licence too as Indigenous people?”

For newlyweds Robert and Kim Stoneypoint, the amendment is another move towards reclaiming a culture that had been systemically stripped away from prior generations through assimilation and the residential school system. 

“We are on a road of revitalizing our traditions, our own culture,” said Robert. “It has been a struggle, but we're still doing it, and this is one of the small stepping stones.”

With files from CTV National News and Indigenous Circle Reporter Donna Sound