The long fight against sex discrimination in the Indian Act

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Image: Photo by Nik Gehl. Used with permission.

Lynn Gehl is an Algonquin Anishinaabe-kwe, an advocate and a writer  based in Peterborough, Ontario. Through her own decades-long court battle as well as her involvement in political mobilizations, she is a long-time participant in the fight against sex discrimination in the federal Indian Act. Scott Neigh interviews her about the history of that struggle and about the current "6(1)(a) All The Way" campaign that is putting pressure on the Trudeau government to remove the last elements of sex discrimination from the act.

An important mechanism through which the Canadian settler state has attacked Indigenous nations and implemented assimilation and genocide is its imposition of the legal category of "Indian" status -- that is, dictating who counts legally as an "Indian." The details of how this process has worked have shifted over the years, and are quite complex, but one crucial feature is the ongoing reality of sex discrimination.

Between 1876 and 1985, Canada allowed Indian status to pass to children almost exclusively from their father. As well, if a woman with Indian status married someone who did not have it then she lost her status, while a man with status not only kept it when he married a non-status woman but even passed it to her regardless of her actual background.

Indigenous women have been resisting colonization and its gendered impacts all along, but legal and political challenges led by Indigenous women to these particular aspects of the federal Indian Act began to get wider recognition starting in the late 1960s. It was only in 1985, in preparation for the new Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms coming into effect, that the federal government began to make concessions to these challenges.

Unfortunately, the amendments to the Indian Act passed in 1985 continued to be discriminatory. Men with status and descendents of such men who had full status at that point were in 1985 given what is called 6(1)(a) status, named after the relevant section of the act. Those women whose status had been taken away or who had previously been denied it but were eligible for it under the new rules were granted status under section 6(1)(c). The rules for passing on status to descendents were also changed, but were more restrictive for those with 6(1)(c) status than for those with 6(1)(a) status.

Political and legal challenges led primarily by Indigenous women continued in the years after 1985, as did the inadequate response from the federal government. Despite further legislative changes in 2010, after a legal victory by Sharon McIvor, the hierarchy between 6(1)(a) status and 6(1)(c) status remained intact.

One of the other legal challenges in those years was mounted by Lynn Gehl. Her case revolved around how to handle status when paternity was unknown or unstated. The government assumed her paternal grandfather, whose identity is unknown, to be non-status, which resulted in her being denied status. She ultimately won, after many years in court. However, the form of status that gave her access to remained a more limited form -- called 6(2) status -- because of the way that the ongoing 6(1)(a)/6(1)(c) hierarchy applied to her family.

The most recent amendment to the Indian Act was made in 2017. Extensive lobbying and political mobilization succeeded in getting the Senate to pass a version of the amendment that would enact what Gehl called "6(1)(a) all the way" and would eliminate sex discrimination in the act. But the Trudeau government still rejected such measures, claiming more consultation was necessary. As a compromise, they left the relevant clauses in the final legislation but refused to proclaim them, which means they are not in effect but could be enacted by a simple order-in-council rather than by passing new legislation.

Gehl's member of Parliament is Maryam Monsef, who is Minister for Women and Gender Equality. Because of this, and in light of the Liberal government's attempts to brand themselves as "feminist," Gehl decided more recently that she needed to continue to take action. Every Tuesday -- the day that cabinet meets, and could proclaim the necessary clauses -- she has been protesting outside of Monsef's office with the demand "6(1)(a) all the way." She has been doing lots of media work on the topic. And she has mobilized other local people in her area to put pressure on Monsef as well.

She urges people to show their solidarity by contacting their MPs and the relevant cabinet ministers. And she encourages people to support the Feminist Alliance for International Action's campaign on the issue, which they call Any Tuesday.

Gehl is the author of The Truth that Wampum Tells: My Debwewin on the Algonquin Land Claims Process (Fernwood Publishing, 2014) and Claiming Anishinaabe: Decolonizing the Human Spirit (University of Regina Press, 2017).

Image: Photo by Nik Gehl. Used with permission.

Theme music: "It Is the Hour (Get Up)" by Snowflake, via CCMixter


Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out its website here. You can also follow them on Facebook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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