Gender, the Indian Act and Missing and Murdered Women

Sharon McIvor remembers a case she worked on 25 years ago: a First Nations man in B.C. was charged with giving fish to someone who wasn’t entitled to it, and had his nets confiscated.

“Who he had given the fish to was his daughter,” says the lawyer and professor, descended from B.C.’s Lower Nicola First Nation. “She had married out and was no longer status. It broke up their family and he got a criminal record.”

Gender discrimination within the Indian Act has been making certain lives less liveable while contributing to the national crisis around missing and murdered Indigenous women for decades, says McIvor, who has been pressuring the Canadian government to change the legislation since the 1980s.

“Missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls are connected to this act. If you want people to disappear, don’t give them full membership,”

In 2007, she succeeded in part through the Supreme Court, forcing the federal government to change some of the act through Bill C-3, also known as the “McIvor amendment.” Since then, McIvor has filed a petition with the United Nations Human Rights Committee saying that the remaining unequal treatment of women under the act violates international law.

While McIvor had the full support of the Liberal opposition during the drafting of Bill C-3, last week the Liberal government filed a request with the UN to drop McIvor’s petition, on the grounds that Canada wants to perform further consultation before making any more changes to the act.

“I was shocked and dismayed to hear that they are asking for the petition not to be heard at this time,” McIvor says. “The Liberals were our allies.”

For 20 years, the federal government had McIvor’s case adjourned from court until, in 2005, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Carol Ross ordered it to move forward, eventually siding with the plaintiffs and ordering the government to amend the act. McIvor believes the Liberals’ call for more time to consult is just another stalling tactic.

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Today, there are thousands of Indigenous women and their descendants still unable to hold and transmit Indian status based on their gender. While some of the law was changed in 2011, ensuring that eligible grandchildren of women who lost status as a result of marrying non-Indian men are entitled to registration, they continue to be registered under a different section than men who did the same. Those who lost status through other means are not eligible.

Beyond deciding who gets status and the subsequent benefits, McIvor says the rules around gender within the act create a divide between who is a “real” Indian and who isn’t, making those without status more vulnerable to displacement and harm, and contributing to the high rates of violence against Indigenous women.

“Missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls are connected to this act. If you want people to disappear, don’t give them full membership,” says Sandra Lockhart, a Yellowknife-based Indigenous activist who is raising awareness about McIvor’s petition in the North. “It’s not just about the petition. It’s much broader. It impacts entire nations because women are the heart of every culture.”

She says McIvor’s petition is necessary to ensure that the federal government does what it promised to do years ago.

“This has been a long, long, long fight. There’s nothing and nobody to consult on this. You can’t consult about women’s rights and dignity. Just eliminate the discrimination.”

McIvor questions the “spirit and intent” behind the recently launched inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, considering the Liberal’s reluctance to amend the Indian Act, despite several reports documenting the role the Act plays in the disproportionate statistics around violence.

“Not only do people off-reserve look at you as inferior, but people on the reserve look at you as inferior,” says McIvor. “The number of women and girls who are missing, murdered, abused and living in poverty, a lot of them track back to women who lost their status. It’s one of the root causes of the situation Indigenous women are in today.”

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