Aboriginal women’s rights activist Sharon McIvor says federal legislation designed to address discrimination in the Indian Act hasn’t remedied the inequality faced by a large group of First Nations women.
McIvor has been fighting for changes to the laws that determine status for First Nations women for 25 years, and she doesn’t plan on giving up any time soon.
“My grandchildren will have status, but that’s a small piece of everything,” she told the Straight by phone from Kamloops.
On December 15, Bill C-3, the Gender Equity in Indian Registration Act, received royal assent. Drafted in response to the B.C. Court of Appeal’s April 2009 decision in the McIvor v. Canada case, the bill amends the registration provisions of the Indian Act that were found to be unconstitutional.
According to the Conservative government, the law will provide access to Indian status for 45,000 descendants of aboriginal women who were previously ineligible.
But McIvor and another prominent human-rights advocate, Shelagh Day, say the bill still doesn’t remove all the discriminatory elements of the Indian Act.
“What the bill essentially corrects is the discrimination against the women who married out and their descendants, but it leaves in place the discrimination against the women who partnered in common-law relationships and their descendants,” Day told the Straight by phone from Vancouver. “So we’ve got another big group here who are still being left out, and in addition to that, there are some other smaller groups that are also left out.”
Since the first piece of legislation governing Indian status was introduced in 1857, Day said that First Nations women have been subject to different rules than men for passing on their status to their children.
“It’s been a very Byzantine piece of legislation over 153 years, but it’s discriminated in a very consistent and simple away against the women,” Day said. “The women as mothers and as partners were never treated the same as the men as fathers and as partners. So we’re still struggling with that, and it seems...far too late in the history of Canadian relations with aboriginal people, and with aboriginal women, to be doing such blunt and unnecessary form of discrimination.”
When the Gender Equity in Indian Registration Act comes into effect, the federal government will launch an “exploratory process” into some of the issues around Indian registration, status, and membership.
Brenda Kustra, director general of the governance branch of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, said the department is working with the national aboriginal organizations on the yearlong process.
“The information that’s going to be gathered over the next year will be part of a continuing discussion in terms of what are the next steps,” Kustra told the Straight by phone from Ottawa. “Now we have a better understanding of all these views, what are the next steps that we may want to take with respect to program, policy, and legislation.”
McIvor dismissed the exploratory process as “nonsensical”.
“We’re talking about human inequality rights here...and where else in the country do they go and do an exploratory process to ask others if it’s okay if we can exercise our full human inequality rights?” she said.
Day said the process of canvassing various issues of concern to aboriginal people is good, but she argued that it’s “not a way to fix sex discrimination”.
The human-rights advocate said there are other, broader changes needed to address inequality for aboriginal women.
“This is a profound, societal problem that we’re trying to cope with here and to correct, and that is an attitude towards aboriginal women that treats them as though they’re second class, as though they don’t really matter, as though they’re property,” she said.
“They could have sent a very strong signal, not just by fixing this particular form of discrimination, but a strong signal more broadly in the society about their honour and their respect for aboriginal women, and they haven’t yet fully done it,” Day said.
She argued there should be a federal public inquiry into the 600 aboriginal women that have been murdered or gone missing across the country, a number recorded by the Native Women’s Association of Canada.
The next step for McIvor is pursuing a complaint she filed in November against the federal government with the United Nations Human Rights Committee.
While she hopes to get a finding from the UN, she said “what the government decides to do with that will be another matter”.
“The women and the descendants who are still being discriminated against deserve to have everything done possible to see if we can persuade the government to stop the discrimination and just clean up the law,” she said.
You can follow Yolande Cole on Twitter at twitter.com/yolandecole.