Indigenous Women’s Rights

Indigenous or Aboriginal women have a long tradition of resisting colonial domination and racism, fighting for the survival of their people and their communities, challenging the failures of governments to recognize and respect the treaties, and organising to demand their rights as Indigenous women.

The people whose ancestors lived on the lands which are now part of Canada define themselves by their own traditions, languages, genealogies, band memberships, ties to the land, and community practices. They are also subject to colonial state legal definitions. The Indian Act of 1876 defined which people were legally considered “Indians” ( The repatriated constitution of Canada of 1982 used the term Aboriginal to include three groups: Indians (as recognised by the Indian Act), Inuit (peoples of the far north), and Metis (various groups of people of mixed Aboriginal and European ancestry). All of these general terms are controversial, reflecting the history of colonial domination and indigenous resistance. (

In the 1960s to the 1980s, Indigenous women organised around issues specific to their communities’ concerns. Many fought to retain or regain their lands. They fought to keep their children. Some challenged the federal government’s policies and laws. Some allied with other women’s groups around specific women’s issues.

Indigenous Women’s Rights and the Indian Act

The federal Indian Act Section 12(1)b declared that a married woman’s status was determined by her husband’s. Status Indian women who married non-Indian men lost their status, and so did their children. They also lost their treaty rights: health and tax benefits, the right to live on their reserve, the right to inherit their family property and the right to be buried on the reserve. If they married Status Indian men, they ceased to be legal members of their own band or tribe and became part of their husband’s group. If they were widowed or abandoned by their husbands, they lost legal Indian status. In contrast, Status Indian men who married non-Indian women conferred legal status on their wives and children.

1968 – Mary Two Axe Early made a submission to the Royal Commission on the Status of Women protesting the Indian Act.

1971 – In June of 1971, Jeannette Corbiere Lavall, an Anishinaabe from Manitoulin Island, Ontario, took her complaint regarding the sex-discrimination in section 12(1)b of the Indian Act, which removed Indian status from Indian women when they married non-Indian men as defined by the Indian Act to the Ontario County Court. Lavell lost, as the judge determined that she “had equal rights with all other married Canadian women” and as such, there was no sex-discrimination.  Race was not factored into the court’s decision.

In the fall of 1971, Lavell appealed to the Federal Court of Appeal.  At this stage of the process, the three judges determined that Indian women had fewer rights than status Indian men when they became non-status through marriage.  The judges concluded this to be a violation of the guarantee of non-discrimination within the Canadian Bill of Rights.  Now, both gender and race were factored into the decision. The Crown, with their goal of getting ridding Canada of Indians, was not happy with this higher court decision and appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC).

1971 – Yvonne Bedard, Onondaga from Six Nations in Ontario, also filed a complaint in the Ontario High Court regarding the sex-discrimination in 12(1)b of the Indian Act.  Since the Lavell case had already been heard at the Federal Court of Appeal, the two cases were joined together when the Crown filed their appeal to the SCC.

1975 – As part of the International Year of Women, Mary Two-Axe Early presented a brief on the discrimination faced by Native women in Canada to the United Nations Conference on Women in Mexico City.

1979 – Jeanette Corbière Lavalle and Yvonne Bedard took the Canadian government to court, claiming that Section 12 of The Indian Act violated the Canadian Bill of Rights. They lost their case at the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC). The SCC ruled that Lavell and Bedard had not been discriminated against as Indian women because the Canadian Bill of Rights only guaranteed equality BEFORE the law, not equality UNDER the law.  Equality before the law was interpreted by the court as meaning equality in the administration or application of the law.  Basically, this meant that the Canadian supreme court defined equality in terms of the administration of law rather than the discrimination inherent in the law. Since all Indian women were equally discriminated against, it was not considered discrimination.

1979 – A group of women from Tobique reserve in New Brunswick undertook a 110-mile march from Oka (Kanesatake), Quebec to Ottawa to mark the 110 years of injustice to Native women since the passing of the Indian Act and to protest sex discrimination in the Indian Act and housing conditions on reserves.

1981 – Sandra Lovelace, a Maliseet from the Topique reserve in New Brunswick, took her case to the United Nations. The United Nations Human Rights Committee found Canada in breach of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that protects a minority’s right to belong to their cultural group.

1985 – Under the Charter of Rights and Freedom, the federal government passed Bill C-31, allowing women to regain their status, and pass it on to their children but not to their grandchildren. In 2009, Sharon McIvor challenged Canada on this, insisting that it was not in line with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

1989 – The Quebec Native Women’ Association presented a brief at the National Aboriginal Inquiry on the Impacts of Bill C-31.


The following is a (partial) list of organisations with their start dates:

1967 – Equal Rights for Native Women Association was formed in Quebec, headed by Mary Two-Axe Early, a Mohawk of Kahnawake. In 1971, it contributed to forming a national organization, the Indian Rights for Indian Women Association.

1968 May – early 2000s – The Indian Homemakers’ Association of British Columbia was formed as an association of Indian Homemakers’ Clubs in BC. These clubs started in the 1930s with funding from the Department of Indian Affairs (DIA) to facilitate women’s domestic skills. The women in these clubs became active in identifying the poverty and inadequate conditions on reserves and in lobbying DIA to improve the state of life on reserves ( The DIA cut their funding, so in 1968, under the leadership of Dr. Rose Charlie of Chehalis, B.C., then president of the Vancouver chapter, the clubs amalgamated into an independent association working to improve the well-being of Indian women and their communities. They published “Indian Voice” from 1969 to1984 (available in LAC).

1971 – Ontario Native Women’s Association (

1973 – The National Native Women’s Association of Canada (

1974 – The Quebec Native Women’s Association (QNWA): In 1976 QNWA published “Réveille-toi Femmes Autochtones! Wake-Up Native Women!”, a document recommending that Native people keep their status even if they marry a non-native person. (

1974 – Native Women’s Association of Canada (

1984 – Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada (

1984 – Saskatoon Native Women’s Association

1988 – Qulliit Nunavut Status of Women Council (

1998 – Liard Aboriginal Women’s Society  (