Indian Act's 143 years of sex-based discrimination finally ends, thanks in part to B.C. women

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      The Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs and Indigenous feminists are applauding the elimination of sex-based inequities in a federal law dealing with Indigenous peoples.

      On August 15, the Canadian government implemented provisions of Bill S-3, abolishing the last remaining gender-discriminating provisions in the Indian Act.

      "Today I am relieved, and happy," long-time Vancouver activist Sharon McIvor said in a UBCIC news release. "It has been a long struggle. We had to win the fight for equality for First Nations women both legally and politically, and it took a lot of work by a lot of people."

      McIvor fought for 22 years before gaining Indian status for her son and her grandchildren when she won a landmark case in the B.C. Court of Appeal in 2009. 

      The court ruled at that time that a 1985 amendment to the Indian Act violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

      That's because it denied status to anyone with one Indigenous parent born prior to that year and whose grandmother was Indigenous and whose grandfather was non-Indigenous.

      The Conservative government chose not to appeal the decision.

      But after this win, McIvor continued fighting for legislative changes.

      "The sex discrimination in the Indian Act has been a very effective tool of assimilation that even modern Canadian governments were not ready to give up," she stated. "The sex discrimination has helped Canada keep the pool of 'Indians', to whom Canada owes fiduciary duties, small.

      "I am proud to say that I have helped in my own way to bring this shameful part of colonial history to an end," she continued. "I want to thank all the First Nations women who have worked for this day, my lawyer Gwen Brodsky, and all my allies, especially the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs and the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action."

      (Below, you can see part of McIvor's testimony to a Senate committee.)

      In the bestseller 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act, B.C. author Bob Joseph included a section on historic sex-based discrimination in this legislation.

      "The Indian Act disrespected, ignored, and undermined the role of women in many ways," he wrote. "The dissolution of women's stature, coupled with the abuses of the residential school system, has been a significant contributor to the vulnerability of Indigenous women."

      Under section 12 of the act, which was passed in 1951, an Indigenous woman who married a non-Indigenous man lost her status. But the same did not apply to Indigenous men who married non-Indigenous women.

      Ryerson University's chair in Indigenous governance, Pam Palmater, credited McIvor and several others for the recent legislative amendments, including Mary Two-Axe Early, Jeanette Corbiere Lavell, Yvonne Bedard, Sandra Lovelace, Susan and Tammy Yantha, Stephane Descheneaux, Lynn Gehl, and Jeremy Matson. 

      "Despite all of the struggles, resources and effort it took to advocate for their rights, they persisted," Palmater said in the UBCIC news release. "These warrior women need to be acknowledged for their sacrifices and victories fighting Canada in domestic and international courts.

      "Sharon McIvor can well be considered the grandmother to thousands of babies who would never have been registered or included in their First Nations but for her persistence in the face of repeated federal denial of her rights and breach of Canada’s own constitution," she continued. "Their hard work will mean a big difference for thousands of First Nation children."

      McIvor's lawyer, Brodsky, is from Vancouver. They were assisted by two other powerhouse feminists from B.C.—Kukpi7 Judy Wilson, secretary treasurer of the UBCIC, and the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action's Shelagh Day.

      "Canada has been involved in a massive violation of the human rights of First Nations women, by privileging men and the paternal line of descent in the Indian Act since 1876," Day said in the news release. "We welcome the coming into force of the final provisions of Bill S-3, which eliminate the 143 years of discriminatory treatment of First Nations women and their descendants. Finally, after a long struggle, First Nations women have achieved formal equality in the law."