A recent UN decision is about more than Indian status; it is about restoring the political rights and powerful voices of First Nations Women
Sharon McIvor has been engaged in an epic 33-year battle against the federal government to prove that she, her children and her grandchildren are entitled to be recognized as Indians the same way her male relatives and their descendants are under the Indian Act. Earlier this month, McIvor, who is from Lower Nicola Band in BC, won yet another landmark legal victory. The United Nations Human Rights Committee released a decision in her favour and directed Canada to end the sex discrimination.
But while Canada has lost every court case since the 1980s on this issue, the federal government refuses to stop discriminating. This not only advances the government’s goal of legislative extinction of Indians, but it limits the number of voices who might oppose its resource extraction agenda on First Nations lands.
If sex equality is a constitutional guarantee, and the Constitution Act, 1982 trumps all other federal laws in Canada – why were McIvor and others forced to spend time and money fighting for the same rights Canadian women get to take for granted? The answer lies in our colonial history.
Canada has always targeted First Nations women for exclusion from the Indian Act as part of its overall Indian policy geared towards the elimination and assimilation of Indians. When colonial governments could no longer murder Indians or starve them or infect their blankets with smallpox, they tried residential schools to torture the Indian out of them. When that didn’t work, they stole their children and had them adopted into white families. When Indigenous people kept making babies, the government engaged in the forced sterilization of Indian women and girls – often without their knowledge or consent.
Knowing they could not eliminate Indians by force, the government designed the Indian Act to eventually legislate Indians out of existence. To speed up this process, they targeted Indian women and children for exclusion from both registration as Indians, and membership in their communities in a variety of ways. Indian women who married non-Indians lost their Indian status, as did their children. Daughters born to Indian men out of wedlock were excluded from registration. Indian agents, the government’s representatives on reserves, could also protest the registration of children born to Indian women out of wedlock. In fact, the success of assimilation depended in part on targeting Indian women. In the words of the department in 1920: “It is in the interests of the Department… to sever her connection wholly with the reserve.” MORE