Native Women’s Rights Addressed in Ottawa

by Reuel S. Amdur

Annie Smith St. Georges, an Algonquian elder, performed the opening ceremony at the International Women’s Day program at the National Library in Ottawa on March 8. She welcomed everyone to Algonquian territory in English, French, and Algonquin and related her own story. She lost her status when she married a Métis, regaining it only when Canada passed an amendment to the Indian Act in 1985. Yet, she pointed out, her grandchildren cannot have Indian status.

She was followed as a speaker by Kathleen McHugh, a Siksika woman from Alberta who chairs the Women’s Council of the Assembly of First Nations. In her remarks she addressed women’s role in First Nations communities back to historical times. She related that when a delegation of British officials came from England to meet the Cherokee leaders, the Cherokees expressed surprise: “Where are the women?” Cherokee women attended all the important meetings and were advisors to the men. Then, she said, came the Indian Act.

The Indian Act of 1869 introduced a new political system that shut women out. The male legislators, and they were all men, did not even consider women as persons. First Nations people were not involved in the drafting of the Act, and native leaders from Ontario and Quebec fought against this wrong to women at the time.

Addressing the situation that St. Georges experiences, McHugh noted that the Indian Act deprived women of their status if they married men without status. They had no right to live on the reserve. At the same time, there was no parallel disentitlement of status men who married non-status women. It was only when Sandra Lovelace, who had lost her status when she married a white man, complained successfully to the United Nations, that Canada amended the Indian Act in 1985 to allow the women to keep their status, but their grandchildren would not have status.

The provision relating to descendants is being challenged in the courts by Sharon McIvor. While she won at the B.C. Supreme Court in 2007, the Conservative government is appealing. That same government abolished the Court Challenges program, which had been funding the appeals, and the costs of an appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada could be beyond the resources she is able to muster.

On a personal note, I am a social worker, and many years ago I was a welfare worker in Toronto. I took an application for assistance from a young mother who showed me her I.D.: an Indian status card and the passport of a northern European country. She had married a status Indian.

McHugh also raised concern about how the law treats matrimonial property rights. A woman in a marital breakdown needs to go to provincial court, but that is not easy if she is living in a remote settlement. There is no provision in the law for alternative dispute resolution, and there is no provision for money for public education about matrimonial property rights.

Another panellist, Jody Wilson, is a lawyer and member of the We Wai Kai First Nation. She has been elected to her third term as a Commissioner of the British Columbia Treaty Commission. She spoke of her Nation’s matrilineal custom, in contrast with the patriarchal Indian Act. In B.C., 48 of the 203 chiefs are women, and on the bands there are 340 women councillors. Women, she said, are the backbone of treaty activity in the province. There are close to 50 separate First Nations in British Columbia and they are currently in negotiations with the province to develop a framework treaty into which separate treaties can be fitted. In the process of the treaty negotiations, efforts are being made to blend Indian Act governance with traditional models.

Dr. Kiera Ladner, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Politics and Governance at the University of Manitoba, addressed the same theme which was McHugh’s focus, pointing on the key role women have played in Indian affairs right up to the present. She said that the church and the government were instrumental in depriving women of their traditional rights. Currently, the battles in Caledonia and Charbot Lake have been led by women, she said, and in Burt Church it was a clan mother who got the ball rolling by going out in a boat to fish lobster.

When a member of the audience asked about provisions for First Nations in the new federal budget, McHugh pointed out that the money included is not new dollars. Ladner added that in order to provide clean water for the more than 100 communities lacking it would take 15 times more than is allocated.

McHugh was asked to address the issue of individual rights on reserves, and she acknowledged that there is a problem with favoritism and lack of free expression on some reserves.