The Indian Act’s contribution to murdered and missing Indigenous women

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The Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) is a National Indigenous Organization representing the political voice of Indigenous women, girls and gender diverse people in Canada.

In early June, the final report of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls inquiry was finally released.

The report determined that the disproportionate level of violence against Indigenous women was genocide that originated from Canada’s colonial ideologies and policies including the Indian Act. It continued that “targeting victims in a gender-oriented manner” destroyed Indigenous communities and left lasting scars.

According to UBC’s Indigenous Foundations website, when the Europeans arrived in North America, they brought with them patriarchal beliefs about the role and importance of women. Europeans believed in universal male dominance. Settler women had few individual rights, were ruled by their husbands and treated as their property.

European patriarchy was imposed on First Nations through the Indian Act, which discriminated against Indigenous women in several ways. First, the Indian Act ruled that to qualify as an Indian, you had to be an Indian male, be the child of an Indian male, or be married to an Indian male.

Whether a woman was an Indian depended on her relationship with a man. Should she marry a non-Indian man, she lost her Indian status. The act’s sexual double-standard was brash for not only did an Indian man marrying a non-native woman keep all his rights, his wife gained Indian status.

What’s more, the Indian Act did not allow Indian women to possess land or martial property. If an Indian woman’s husband passed away or they separated, she and her children could not stay in the family home and left with nothing.

Although Canada was forced by lawsuits and the Charter to amend the legalized gender discrimination of Indigenous women through Bill C-31, inequality still exists in that the generational offspring of an Indian woman that married a non-native man will eventually become ineligible for Indian status.

Another way the Indian Act discriminated against Indigenous women was by excluding them from governance. Traditionally, Indigenous women participated in governance as advisors or decision makers.

The colonial racialization and sexualization of Indigenous women resulted in stereotypes that made violence against them acceptable.

Based on the European patriarchal belief that women were not fit for politics, the Indian Act implemented a male-only elective system. Indian women were not allowed to vote in band elections or hold political office. MORE

What does it mean to call Canada’s treatment of Indigenous women a ‘genocide’?

In international relations, words have weight – and some are much heavier than others


Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, pictured at the Women Deliver Conference in Vancouver on Tuesday, said he accepted the MMIWG inquiry’s conclusion that the massive number of deaths and disappearances of Indigenous women constituted “a genocide.” (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

Now, the debate over the unique nature of the crime of genocide has become part of Canada’s political dialogue going into the fall election campaign. In its final report, released this week, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls described those thousands of victims as casualties of a “genocide.”

Yesterday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau adopted that language as his own, telling an audience in Vancouver that “we accept the findings of the commissioners that it was genocide.”

But despite Trudeau’s careful use of the past tense, the commissioners who drafted that report were talking very explicitly about the present. They wrote that Canada has pursued “a continuous policy, with shifting expressed motives but an ultimately steady intention, to destroy Indigenous peoples physically, biologically, and as social units.”

The report points a finger of blame at “present-day Canadian state conduct,” including what it calls “proactive measures to destroy, assimilate and eliminate Indigenous peoples.”

National Inquiry commissioner Marion Buller defended her commission’s decision to use the genocide label, saying comparisons to other countries are misleading.


Chief Commissioner of the National Inquiry Marion Buller addresses a crowd at the closing ceremonies for community hearings in April 2018. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

“I think it’s important for everybody, for all Canadians, to know that we often think of genocide as the Holocaust, the killings in Africa or elsewhere. And of course that is genocide, and of course that is tragedy,” she said.

“But the type of genocide we have in Canada is, as my colleague Commissioner Robinson said, death by a million paper cuts for generations.”

“Examinations of the commission and risk of genocide largely and unhelpfully revolve around the numbers killed,” the report says, suggesting that the definition is bad at capturing what it calls “the particular nature of Colonial Genocide.”

The report then says that Canada should be judged not only by its actions, but also by its omissions. Together, it says, they constitute the Canadian government’s “genocidal policy, a ‘manifest pattern of similar conduct’, which reflects an intention to destroy Indigenous peoples.” MORE

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“This [declaration of genocide] is likely to spur commentary in mainstream media about the veracity of that conclusion, but if we were to apply the United Nations definition of genocide, it should be undeniable that the Canadian state has committed genocide against Indigenous peoples.”

And today, the genocide continues,

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