Silenced Voices: The Systemic Suppression of Canadian Indigenous Women

by Marcia Veldman
Athabasca University

na-682-3
Life on the reserves was difficult for Canada’s indigenous peoples such as these Cree women and children near Maskwacis (formerly known as Hobbema), ca. 1890s. They tried to adopt an agricultural lifestyle on land that they did not own or control—land that often was not suited for agriculture. Poverty was common throughout the reserves. Source: Glenbow Archives, NA-682-3

 

The cessation of Indian status for indigenous women who “married out” of Indian society or into other bands has caused exceeding socioeconomic, cultural, and personal harm, to both the affected women and those around them.  Although many laws, treaties, and acts laid basis for the paternalistic treatment of Indians and the discrimination against Indian women in particular, The Gradual Enfranchisement Act of 1869, which defined status Indians for the first time , and the Indian Act passed by federal parliament in 1876 were highly restrictive in the daily regulations of Indian lives and communities.  In 1985, Bill C-31 (Bill to Amend the Indian Act) was passed into legislation, legally entitling Indian women to gender equality as laid out in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  While Bill C-31 was created to empower individual bands to become self-governing and autonomous, the power structures that remain intact today do not reflect the structures of band society that existed prior to colonization, specifically with regards to the status of Indian women.

To truly understand the negative effects the Indian Act and previous treaties had on Indian women, one must consider the sociological history of the various indigenous tribes and bands.  Despite the current Euro-Canadian patriarchal culture that Canadian society functions within, the indigenous societies were unique in often being matriarchal of nature: Indian women, specifically senior matrons, were both highly valued and carried vast responsibilities and authority within their bands, as the male members, known as hunters and gatherers, were frequently physically absent for long periods of time .  While the men followed the migratory patterns of buffalo, caribou, and other types of resources across vast spaces of land on hunting expeditions, the bands were managed by the women who remained behind with the elderly and young children.  Many First Nations were also matrilineal:  a family’s descent and inheritance were traced through the female for generations and senior matrons were empowered to elect chiefs and depose them when so desired .  Although certain bands may not have been solely matriarchal, traditional roles would have been egalitarian in these bands , and women would have been recognized as equal in status to male band members.  When considering all the roles that Indian women assumed within their families and bands, it is clear that they were valued as an integral piece of their indigenous communities, even as the maternal being was honoured in indigenous spiritual beliefs.

However, as the number of European settlers multiplied at a steady rate, European ideals and practices became the normative basis of life in Canada, which included the ideology of women being viewed as property of their male counterparts .  Victorian culture promulgated the notion that women were fragile gentle creatures, not built for physical labour or leadership; with these ideals, European settlers would have found any farming or various labour tasks Indigenous women performed vulgar and inappropriate.  The independence of Indian women economically, politically, and even sexually, did not reflect domestic Euro-centric ideals .  As the nineteenth century government of Canada became intent on “civilizing” the indigenous peoples, the true intentions of the Canadian government and the Canadian Indian Department would be exhibited and imbedded within legislation:  assimilation.  To successfully assimilate, the government introduced the concept of enfranchisement in the Gradual Enfranchisement Act of 1869 to male Indians, which involved terminating one’s Indian status and receiving full Canadian citizenship, thus ending any fiscal benefits an Indian may have received, as well as their cultural identities .  Although the concept of enfranchisement may have seemed feasible to the Canadian government, the notion of abandoning one’s community and identity was rejected by most male Indians, much to the government’s consternation and surprise.  Notably, married Indian women not offered sole enfranchisement without the permission of their husbands , and with that action the government arbitrarily relegated Indian women to a lesser status beneath their male equals and built a foundation of how Indian women would be treated and viewed for decades to come.

Indian women could no longer choose freely who they wanted to marry without the potential threat of being ejected from their community; those who did opt to “marry out” of their bands were displaced and disallowed from returning to live with their families on the reserves .  Any Indian women who married into another band were forced to sever ties with the bands they were born into, automatically relegated into their partner’s current band.  Section 6 of the 1869 Act, which reaffirmed the Victorian ideal that Indian women were to be submissive to their husbands while recognizing that their offspring would legally be his ,  would eventually become the cornerstone of Section 12.1.b of the Indian Act passed in 1951.

Despite 82 years passing between the Gradual Enfranchisement Act of 1869 and the Indian Act of 1951, the status of Indian women did not improve on the passing of the 1951 act.  The membership status of Indians became more complex, and the subsequent changes to the status of Indian women were deleterious. Prior to the 1951 Act, Indian women were discouraged from marrying outside of their societies with the threat of being removed from their communities; however, if they chose to marry outside of their society or into another band, they would still maintain Indian status and receive their lawful annuities.  With the passing of Section 12.1.b, Indian women who married a non-Indian would lose their status, band rights, treaty and health benefits, the right to live on their reserve and inherit property, and finally, the right to be buried with their ancestors . Section 12.1.b effectively removed any autonomy or legal rights of Indian women, placing them under the guidance and care of their husbands in a paternalistic act.  Although the 1951 amended oppressive sections regarding cultural Indian practices such as potlatch and wearing ceremonial dress, Indian women continued to be discriminated against even as the world was evolving and civil rights movements were gaining interest and popularity among the Canadian public .

After years of fighting for recognizable status, Bill C-31 passed in 1985 with three goals:  to address discrimination against Indian women within the Indian Act, to restore Indian status to those had lost their status due to discriminatory enfranchisement, and to create autonomy within bands regarding band memberships .  Bill C-31 amended the discriminatory legislation of Section 12.1.b from the 1951 Indian Act, but despite the changes to legislation and law, the decades of injustice perpetuated against indigenous women have caused grave social and psychological consequences that are impossible to measure definitively.  Decades of injustice and institutionalized mistreatment of Indian women has permeated native identity and communities with band governments failing to make the wellbeing of their women a priority .  A 2009 General Social Survey performed by Statistics Canada revealed that Aboriginal women were almost three times more likely to be a victim of violent crime than a non-Aboriginal woman .

There is no doubt that Aboriginal women have faced egregious harm since the beginning of Euro-Canadian colonization in Canada, having been stripped of their legal rights, identity, and independence for decades.  Although the Government of Canada has attempted to make reparations for racist and misogynist legislation that shaped the view of Indigenous women for decades, they continue to face discrimination, violence, and prejudice within their own communities and Canadian society.  As awareness continues to be raised regarding the history of Indigenous women, there remains hope that education and empathy will lend to building respect for the culture and identity of all aboriginal women, along with an empowerment and ability to raise their voices and finally be heard.

 

References

Chinook Multimedia. (2018). 1985 – Bill C-31. Retrieved from Canadian History: The Many Histories of Canada: https://canadianhistory.ca/natives/timeline/1980s/1985-bill-c-31

Crey, K. (2009). Enfranchisement. Retrieved from Indigenous Foundations: https://indigenousfoundations.arts.ubc.ca/enfranchisement/

FemNorthNet. (2016). How Colonialism Affects Women. Retrieved from Feminist Northen Network: http://fnn.criaw-icref.ca/images/userfiles/files/LWM4_ColonialismWomen.pdf

First Nations Studies Program. (2009). Bill C-31. Retrieved from Indigenous Foundations: https://indigenousfoundations.arts.ubc.ca/bill_c-31/

Hanson, E. (2009). Marginalization of Aboriginal Women. Retrieved from Indigenous Foundations: https://indigenousfoundations.arts.ubc.ca/marginalization_of_aboriginal_women/

Hanson, E. (2009). The Indian Act. Retrieved from Indigenous Foundations: https://indigenousfoundations.arts.ubc.ca/the_indian_act/

Harry, K. (2009). The Indian Act & Aboriginal Women’s Empowerment: What Front Line Workers Need to Know. Retrieved from Battered Women’s Support Services: http://bwss.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/theindianactaboriginalwomensempowerment.pdf

Jamieson, K. (1986). Sex Discrimination and The Indian Act. In J. Ponting, Arduous Journey: Canadian Indians and Decolonization (p. 113). Toronto: McClelland and Stewart.

Sayers, J. F., & MacDonald, K. A. (2001). A Strong and Meaningful Role for First Nations Women in Governance. Ottawa: Status of Women Canada.

Statistics Canada. (2009). Violent Victimization of Aboriginal Women in the Canadian Provinces. Statistics Canada.

 

 

 

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