The devastating effect of Indian residential schools is well known. Approximately 150,000 Aboriginal children were taken from their families and sent to these church-run institutions, where many faced horrific abuse and endured cultural genocide.
Up to 6,000 died, according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.
But that wasn’t the only appalling outcome of colonialism.
Wendy Grant-John, a former regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations, discovered another legacy while studying at the University of Northern British Columbia.
The councillor and former chief of the Musqueam Indian Band was curious to know about the history of Indigenous women when she came across an astonishing document from the distant past.
“A senior government official and a priest were talking about the difficulty they were having in our communities to get people to a place of acceptance,” Grant-John told the Georgia Straight during an interview on her home deck on the Musqueam Reserve near the Fraser River. “The quote that I put in my paper said—this is the government person talking to the priest in writing—‘You need to teach Indian men how to treat their women. Their women have too much power.’
“I’m not kidding you,” Grant-John continued. “What they said is, ‘You need to teach them how to beat their wives and make sure, as we do, that the stick you use is no bigger than your little finger.’ ”
Grant-John explained that this was how many European men dealt with women in the 18th and 19th centuries.
“If we look at the history of Indigenous women—probably throughout the world but, more importantly, in those countries that were colonized by the Europeans—you can see the idea that the European concept of relationships between men and women was very much about power of men over women,” she said.
That colonial attitude of men’s superiority, according to Grant-John, led to a decline in respect for women in First Nations communities in Canada. This, in turn, led to the “destruction of the relationship between men and women” on many Indigenous reserves.
“When you look at how they took the children away, that was terrible enough,” she said. “It’s horrific. But the other part of that is they broke the relationship that was of an equal place of men and women.”
She pointed out that in many instances during colonial times, European men in North America would take Indigenous women into their homes because there was a shortage European women.
“Those [Indigenous] women would become much like wives,” Grant-John noted. “But once they brought the European women over, they would send the Indian women to the backyard, so they were much like slaves. They would have had children with those European men.”
She then pondered how many generations have passed with this patriarchal European concept of men and women in place. And she reflected on the long-term impact in communities already scarred by the residential-school experience, poverty, alcoholism, drug addiction, and discrimination.
Vancouver conference will shine light on gender equality
These are some of the ideas that Grant-John hopes to discuss when she shares the stage with Sophie Grégoire Trudeau at Women Deliver 2019 in Vancouver. It’s the world’s largest conference on gender equality and the health, rights, and well-being of girls and women. Over four days, it will include a culture night, film festival, youth zone, workshops, and high-profile and influential speakers from many countries.
That will include several Indigenous delegates and people from trans communities, as well as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. It begins on June 3, the same day that the National Inquiry Into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls will release its final report.
“There’s 9,000 women coming with a number of leaders from around the world who think it’s important to ensure that the voices of women come out,” Grant-John said.
She doesn’t like to use the word conference to describe Women Deliver 2019 because that connotes an agenda and a bunch of speeches. She sees it as being a much richer experience than that, with women and men interacting with one another, examining how the values of dominant cultures have been manifested over more marginalized people, then taking this information back to their communities.
“What they’re doing is looking at women across the spectrum,” she said. “It’s not about overpowering men.”
She has thought a great deal about the role of women in First Nations communities, emphasizing that there are still misconceptions.
For example, when men sat at the front of a longhouse and women were at the back, this reflected a time when the Musqueam were a warring people. She insisted that it did not represent sexism.
“The men were at the front to protect the women,” she stated.
Similarly, if Indigenous men were walking in front of women in deep snow, it was not because they were trying to be overpowering. They were merely breaking the snow to make it easier for women to follow, according to Grant-John.
She’s proud of the fact that the Musqueam elected one of the first female chiefs in the country, Gertrude Guerin, after the Indian Act was changed to allow women to run for the top position.
Grant-John herself is one of six women on the Musqueam’s 11-member legislative body.
She was also chief when it won the first landmark Indigenous-rights case in the Supreme Court of Canada following repatriation of the Constitution.
Grant-John described herself as a “nosy girl” growing up on the reserve. Children weren’t allowed to attend political gatherings, so she would stand outside the door and listen.
“The women always had the strongest voice in the meetings,” she recalled. “They always had the greatest respect in the meetings. And I really kind of went to these strong women that were in the community. But they were always gentle, too.”
Even though European patriarchal attitudes permeated society and filtered into Indigenous communities, Grant-John believes that “the ancestral knowledge of who we are as women in our community has stayed strong”.
“The teaching to me was that we are at an equal place,” she said. “We are the ones who give life in collaboration with the men.”
Reserve system corroded relations between Indigenous nations
Grant-John went on to describe another unfortunate outcome of colonialism: the undermining of relations between local Coast Salish First Nations as a result of them being “compartmentalized” on reserves.
Her grandfather’s mother, whom she referred to as “Grandma Cole”, was part of one of the last families living in Stanley Park. She married a man from Capilano and she had relatives in the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation.
But in the 20th century, the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh were separated as a result of being forced onto reserves.
According to Grant-John, this corroded the bonds between these peoples as they were categorized by different legal descriptions under the Indian Act.
She saw obvious parallels between the colonial fomenting of divisions between men and women and the distancing of local First Nations.
“We were on our different reserves and separated from each other and were fighting each other,” she acknowledged. “We said, ‘Let’s stop that.’ ”
Only in recent years—most notably through the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, various public events, and the creation of a jointly owned real-estate corporation—have they renewed these historic connections.
“We had a number of meetings in the longhouse,” Grant-John said. “We had the lawyers leave and we just talked about who we are as the people at the mouth of the river, and how we related to one another.”
This is also occurring on a global scale, as shown by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Grant-John expects that Women Deliver 2019 will continue that trend.
“To me, what is the message to the world as the keepers of the river? It’s the coming-together of values that we all have.”