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6(1)a All the Way! Equality for Indigenous women

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Photo credit: Judy Rebick

6(1)a all the way!

If you thought that Indigenous women won equal rights to Indigenous men under the Indian Act in 1985 when Section 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms came into force, you'd be wrong.

You might be aware of the Mohawk activist Mary Two-Axe Early who, in 1967, founded Indian Rights for Indian Women and worked with the National Action Committee on the Status of Women in support of ending discrimination under the Indian Act.

Or perhaps you remember Jeannette Corbiere Lavell and Yvonne Bedard, two Indigenous women whose Bill of Rights discrimination claim over the Indian Act was rejected by the Supreme Court of Canada in a split vote in 1979. Or Sandra Lovelace, a Maliseet woman (now a senator) who took her case to the United Nations in 1979 and helped lead a march of Indigenous women from the Tobique reserve from Kahnestake to Ottawa -- 110 miles to protest the 110 years of sex discrimination under the act.

The 1985 amendment to the Indian Act, Bill C-31, did reinstate women who had lost their Indian status because of the infamous "marrying out" clause. This clause treated status Indian women and men differently; Indian women lost their status if they married non-status men, while Indian men conferred Indian status on their non-Indian wives.

Unfortunately, Bill C-31 didn't solve the problem of discrimination because C-31 "reinstated" women to a lesser category of status. Clause 6(1)c embedded a sex-based hierarchy between full status (for men) and partial status (for reinstated women). It gave women lesser recognition and less entitlement to transmit status to their children and grandchildren. After 18 years of fighting, status women were still unequal to status men in law.

Recent struggles, like that of Sharon McIvor, who took her challenge of the sex-based hierarchy of status entrenched in Canada's 1985 amendment to the United Nations, remind us that status women still do not have full status or the same ability to transmit status to their children and grandchildren.

As does Lynn Gehl, an Algonquin Anishinaabe-kwe who challenged the "unstated or unknown paternity" policy of the federal government. This policy has had the effect of denying status to the children of countless First Nations women. Good news came when Bill S-3, the latest amendment to the Indian Act, was passed in 2017. Bill S-3 included provisions that would finally correct this discrimination and give status women and their descendants the same rights as status men and their descendants.

But what you may not know is that the provisions in Bill S-3 that set out to eliminate discrimination are not in force. They can be brought into force through an order-in-council -- in other words, just a cabinet decision is needed to make these provisions law.

In March, I attended an Indigenous women's symposium at Trent University organized to honour pioneers in this struggle, and their longtime allies. Speakers from United Nations and Inter-American human rights experts have linked missing and murdered Indigenous women to the unequal status imposed by the Indian Act. In addition, they noted that denying status to women who marry out is part of a campaign of assimilation and genocide against Indigenous peoples.

At this date, an estimated 270,000 women and their descendants have been excluded from status because of this unequal treatment. In earlier days, sex discrimination was supported by many male Indigenous leaders, but today, Indigenous leaders tend to view sex discrimination as a tool of the colonial government of Canada that was used to divide and weaken their communities.

Why are the Liberals still sitting on it? That's what Lynn Gehl wants to know. The author and activist recently launched a protest -- "6(1)a All the Way!" -- being held in front of the Peterborough office of Maryam Monsef, the minister for women and gender equality, every Tuesday until the end of June. The campaign demands that cabinet act so that all discrimination against Indigenous women in the act can finally be removed.

We are at a strategic moment. I urge you to join Indigenous women's fight to press the Trudeau cabinet to pass an order-in-council that will once and for all bring gender equality to the Indian Act before we move into an election campaign.

The Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action (FAFIA) and others are demanding that the outstanding provisions in Bill S-3 become law. Write Prime Minister Trudeau and your MP to support Indigenous women who have been fighting for equal status for more than 50 years.

Special thanks to FAFIA Human Rights Chair Shelagh Day and Lynn Gehl for assistance with this article. To support the 6(1)a All the Way campaign, see: http://fafia-afai.org/en/solidarity-campaign/#tab-3.

This article was originally published in Herizons.

Judy Rebick is the founding publisher of rabble.ca. Her latest book is a memoir, Heroes in My Head.

Photo credit: Judy Rebick

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