One of the joys of having an extended family across the globe is the ability to discover new places and people, all while being hosted and entertained and shown around spots that the travel guides don’t tell you about. So a late summer trip to Canada brought us the joys of bears in the woods, stand-up paddle boarding, hiking, kayaking and a memorable day spent at the Canadian Museum of History in Ottawa.
The museum hosts a wealth of beautiful and extraordinary artefacts and information, but for this dame some of the stories about life as a First Nation woman were especially fascinating. How about Elsie Marie Knott, who made history in 1952 when she became the first woman to be elected chief of a First Nation – Curve Lake First Nation in Ontario? Deeply committed to improving the lives of community members, she won several other campaigns over the next 15 years. Her election was only made possible when an Indian Act clause that had banned women from voting in or running for elected office was removed in 1951.
Traditionally, indigenous women had considerable social and political independence. Responsible for medical knowledge and for leading specific ceremonies, they also participated in political decision making within their communities. Patriarchal church and state systems targeted the important roles that women held in their families, clans and nations, and ultimately destroyed this balance.
It did not help that before 1985 the Indian Act of Canada stipulated that Indian-status women who married non-indigenous men were no longer considered members of their communities. Over the years, indigenous women have led political and juridical battles through Canadian courts and at the United Nations Human Rights Committee in order to have their rights recognised and their status restored. Figureheads such as Jeanette Corbière-Lavell, Sandra Lovelace and Sharon McIvor have campaigned to expose the sexist bias of the Indian Act and achieve important gains for gender equality.
A stark fact is that the homicide rate for indigenous women is four and a half times higher than that for other Canadian women. Violence against this group is the tragic result of systemic social and economic marginalisation. As of 2016, almost 1200 indigenous women have been officially documented as missing or murdered in Canada, prompting a National Inquiry by the Government into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
To highlight this appalling statistic, Métis artist Jaime Black created the REDress project to draw attention to violence against indigenous women. This picture shows an artwork created by Fiona Legg to commemorate 1181 missing and murdered indigenous women identified by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in 2012. Each circle contains a ribbon with the name of a community, demonstrating that this issue affects all people. Each hand-crocheted strand of wool represents a woman who can no longer wear a dress of beauty.
And to end on a lighter note, in 1980, during the campaign for Quebec independence, Minister Lise Payette, a well-known feminist and TV host who supported the proposal, lost her temper and criticised sexist school textbooks for encouraging girls to become submissive housewives or ‘Yvettes’. She labelled the wife of the ‘No’ side’s leader an Yvette, which spurred federalist women to band together as ‘Yvettes’. Payette’s side lost, and Quebec is still part of Canada, despite a second referendum in 1995.
All the women named in this article were unknown to me, yet with just a little exploration a rich history indeed was revealed.