While the rest of Canada (well, apparently less than half of us) had their sights set in October on who to choose for our next prime minister, many of us in the Native community were waiting for another big announcement to happen.
Sharon McIvor, a descendant of the Lower Nicola Valley band, first launched her case in 1989, hoping to win Indian Status for her own children. Shortly before her case reached the courts in 2006, the federal government agreed to restore status to McIvor's children.
"Sharon could have dropped the case at that point, once her own children were granted their rights. Instead she pushed forward on behalf of all First Nations women and children," says the Assembly of First Nations Women's Council Chair, Kathleen McHugh. "She is a true champion and heroine."
McIvor's case, which was heard by the B.C. Court of Appeal on October 14, could restore the right to Indian Status to more than 30,000 First Nations women and children. Thousands of First Nations women and their children do not have the legal right to vote in band elections or to own or inherit property on reserve because of a clause in the Indian Act that continues to discriminate against First Nations women by removing their ability to pass Indian Status onto their children. The clause has existed in varying forms in the Indian Act since its inception in 1869.
The whole structure of being a "registered Indian" was something the colonizers started as a way to differentiate which racist laws were to be forced upon which population of colour. For our people, besides our land, treaties and basic human rights being taken away, being registered also meant attending residential, boarding or mission schools which systematically stripped us of any cultural identity and are now responsible for the generational repression that permeates so many of our communities.
This also meant that basic, democratic rights like voting were restricted, up until 1960 when we were then given the right to vote in federal elections.
However the Indian Act does not contain provisions governing on reserve "matrimonial real property;" which is a term that includes a couple's home or land that they live on, or benefit from, during their marriage or marital relationship. In 1986, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that provincial and territorial laws on matrimonial real property do not apply to reserve land. These decisions created a gap in the law which has had serious consequences, especially for Aboriginal women to assume our ancestral tenure over the land.
Additionally, the Indian Act included a sexually discriminatory section 12(1)(b), which stated that a Native woman would lose her legal recognition as "Indian" if she married a non-Native man. This lasted until 1985 when Parliament passed Bill C-31, An Act to Amend the Indian Act, allegedly removing the provisions which, for over a century, had legalized discrimination against Native women.
While the laws supposedly changed after 1985 for Native women to have their status reinstated, women who married non-Indians and their children got status, but the women's grandchildren did not, while the grandchildren of Indian men and non-Indian women did. And that's where the power of Sharon McIvor comes in, because in reality, if our youngest generations cannot legally carry on our lineage, how is the culture going to survive?
In fact, the National Aboriginal Health Organization (NAHO) estimates that in 15 years if status laws don't change, only 60 per cent of our youth will be legally recognized, while the rest are left susceptible to assimilation and cultural genocide.
Yet you would think that with such a prejudicial institution that is known as the "Indian Act," when it comes to self-governance on the reservation, we would all instantly ignore these rules created to assimilate and destroy. The truth is that this oppression has been so internalized that we sometimes use the same system against each other to identify who has rights to the reservation. In a number of territories across Canada, there are two separate identifications you must go through, which determine whether or not the government legally recognizes you as "Indian," and whether or not the tribe you belong to officially recognizes your membership to that reservation.
I recently had the pleasure of watching my friend and colleague, award-winning director Tracey Deer's documentary Club Native which profiled the lives of four women in her home community of Kahnawake, located in Quebec. It is an up close and personal account of their stories which are ultimately about a relationship outside the community that is affecting them on some level to potentially lose their status as Mohawk. The film confronted the deeply-rooted prejudices people have against each other and understanding the severe damage it can do to our inner-most selves. It makes the connection that in the end we are all human beings and need to celebrate who we are as a whole.
So now we sit and wait to see if the government of Canada thinks it's alright for Native women to be rendered "equal" in their eyes of their "Indian" institutionalism. McIvor doesn't expect a decision to happen until January to April 2009, however she knows that if the government wins she will continue her fight and appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada. But then if she wins, the government will most likely appeal to the Supreme Court. No matter what the outcome, this woman has battled it out with her heart and soul and is truly exemplary of the strength our Native women carry, day in and day out.
In all my cultural teachings, I don't ever remember learning a single lesson that was about a system telling me whether or not I was Native. It is so much more than that, it is life, essence of being, and things that I can't even fully describe or do justice to in this English language of the colonizer. I know that as Mohawk, we are a matriarchal society; our women and children are the forefront of our communities. We all deserve the utmost recognition on every level as such.