Transcript: Indigenous Women’s fight to end sex-based inequities in the Indian Act

Introduction: Until 1985, the Indian Act removed the rights of women with Indian Status if they married someone without status. In the 1970’s Indigenous women began to bring cases against the Indian Act to eliminate sex-based inequities in the Indian Act and to restore their status rights. These women included Jeannette Corbiere Lavell who describes to Rise Up her long struggle to regain her status under the Indian Act. Although finally successful in winning her status rights, Jeannette also discusses the ongoing problems for the children of Indigenous women after two generations of intermarriage with non-status partners, thereby limiting the ability to transfer status to one’s children.

Sue: Good morning, Jeanette. We’re here today to do an interview about this incredible struggle that you and many women endured in order to win your claims for status rights for Indian women. And first of all, I want to say my name is Sue Colley and I’m with the Rise Up Feminist Digital Archive Collective and we are, as you know, recording the history of the women’s movement and every part of the women’s movement from 1970 till 1998 – roughly.

Jeannette: Good morning to you and yeah. And I want to say Miigwetch for the invitation to be part of this initiative. I think it’s worthwhile and I know it’ll be good. So Miigwetch.

Sue: Miigwetch.

Jeannette: Just giving thanks to the creator as part of our teachings when we’re starting anything to give thanks to the creator and just for everything we have been given because it is all here for our benefit and for us to share and to maintain for our future generations to come. So this is what my grandparents and especially my grandmother has always insisted and, you know, just encouraged us to do. So, I believe it’s a good way to start our conversation.

Sue: It’s very nice. Probably it would be really nice if we had a translation so we could educate people about what you’re saying.

Jeannette: Definitely. Well, I could do it now. What I have just said is my Anishinaabe name is North Star which is Giiwedanang given to me many, many years ago by a chief, a Delaware chief, when I was only in my 20s and at the time I didn’t realize that Giiwedanang is in Anishinaabe – but he was Delawhenware but we are all in this part of our territory here in North America or Turtle Island as we refer to the land that we’re living on here. And at the time, as I said, I was only in my 20s. I had newly arrived in Toronto and it was at a function that I had been asked to attend.

Now when I look back and this is what, 60 years later almost, I realize the significance of that name because my younger son who works now in Mozambique – he works for the UN and he said, “Mom,” he said, “Do you realize your Anishinaabe name Giiwedanang, North Star, it’s the light, eh? The centre point of the universe, the guiding light. And so, what you have done is been the star, that light to guide many of the women to what our destination is.” Is to that role within our communities, within our homes and generally within our place in society to be that focal point, to be that centre and to assist – and to bring people back to that understanding that this is who we are. We are women and we are the caregivers and we are the ones who bring life into the world.

So and I – and this is my youngest son who said this – and I said, “That’s right. It’s so significant.” And I appreciate it now more than I did at the time because this would have been in the 60s and at the time we weren’t talking about being proud of who we are, our uniqueness, and our tradition and our backgrounds. You know, in very many places many of us and many of our people would deny having that indigenous heritage. So, it’s, I guess, realizing that, and our teachers say this, you know, our elders, that we all have a role to play when we come into this world. And having a name that will challenge us and will be significant is one of our teachings and so being given this name gave me that challenge and inevitably, I had to do it.

Sue: Did your parents know the meaning of the name when they gave it to you?

Jeannette: Well, they knew what it meant in Anishinaabe which is North Star, but didn’t really follow through on the meaning other than this was in the 60s and right across Canada we were just starting to revitalize our culture and our traditions and make it more part of our daily living. So that was the significance I believe. And so when we start each day, I’ve been advised that the first thing you do is you acknowledge the creator. You give thanks and that’s what I said. Miigwetch. Thank you for giving us another day and thank you for all the beauty and the goodness that is here for our use. And I also said we will do our best to preserve and to protect all those resources.

I didn’t really do the long version. I just did it quickly. But usually, we will say Miigwetch for the water, the land, the birds, the animals, all animals. And it’s really grounding, I guess, to be able to do that because it even makes you realize how insignificant we are when we consider the rest of the environment around us and our responsibility to maintain the environment and the whole ecosystem for not only our children and grandchildren but all the future generations to come. So that was my opening prayer, yeah.

Sue: It’s beautiful. It’s beautiful. Thank you.

Jeannette: Miigwetch, yeah. And then of course that’s my Anishinaabe name but I was given Jeannette Vivian as my Christian name and then my maiden name is Corbiere and my married name is Lavell, so. And I’m from the Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory which is on Manitoulin Island situated in the big waters of Georgian Bay. So Miigwetch.

Sue: Thank you. All right. Well, now that’s a very good background to what brought you to take on this enormous struggle, I think. So maybe you could tell us a bit about how that happened. I know that you left your reserve, right, in 1970 and perhaps you could take the story from there.

Jeannette: OK. Actually, 1970 is the year I challenged the Indian Act and challenged it in the court system, but I left the reserve when I was 18, 19 and came to Toronto just because as you know, many of our reserves and communities, we don’t have any places of employment. So I had finished high school, had a business certificate and went to Toronto and Indian Affairs gave me – or didn’t give me – but they helped me find a job downtown Toronto in an insurance firm and I worked there for a year.

So, this was my introduction to the big city life. I didn’t care for it. This would have been in 1962, I guess. I didn’t care for working in an office so I quit that and got some more education and training and then I worked at the Indian Friendship Centre in Toronto which was on Church Street at the time and I would have been about 20 then I guess. And, because we didn’t have – or the organization, the Indian Friendship Centre was called the Toronto Indian Friendship Centre – didn’t have much money for specialized workers, I was trained to do court work and work with our people who were getting in difficulty with the justice system.

So, I became the court worker and following that I ended up being the youth worker working with our young people who are coming into the city in Toronto and they were coming from all over and – all over Ontario mostly. So we had our group and then I met some other Anishinaabe people and we formed an organization called Anishinaabe Institute which was an educational organization to look at education and also our own culture and see how we could bring both together to make it more relevant and meaningful.

So, within that Anishinaabe Institute my own awareness and knowledge of systems, especially government, increased, and then I realized that there are such protections as human rights. We had the Canadian human rights legislation in place and then looking at other legislation, then the Indian Act. And once realizing all these pieces of legislation and laws that were governing us, of course, growing up on the reserve you realize how limited. Everything had to go through the Indian agent and I remember – well, I’ll tell my story first but I was just going to relate a little story about my mother and her confrontation with our local Indian agent but it’s just …

I guess thinking back to those days of being under the control of the Indian Act and right down through the Indian agent who had the utmost authority and control over us as members of our reserve because at the time the Indian Act said that we weren’t considered persons. We weren’t Canadian so we were members of a band and the band was under the control of the Indian Act.

OK. Well, this is just a little story just to show you how ridiculous it is. She was an entrepreneur. She had a little store that she was running. She also had a couple of school buses. She was a go-getter. Between her and my dad, they were always well providing for the family. I’m the oldest in my family and I have two brothers and a sister. So, always working and in the fall or in the summer my mom and my dad had little piglets that they were given or they purchased and they fed them. So, in the fall, they wanted to get some money for other things, Christmas coming.

So, my mother heard that in the next little white town close to us that the local butchers would buy these little piglets for $25 each and so that was going to be like $150 there. But in order to sell them, she had to go through the Indian agent. So, she went in there and said, you know, “I need permission to sell these little piglets.” And he looked at her and he said, “No, not signing that.” He says, “I will buy them from you so you can get some money.” And she said, “Well, how much are you going to give me?” And he said, “I’ll give you $25 – $5 for each piglet.” And of course, she was devastated, you know. And being stubborn and being a woman, she said, “No. I’m taking them all back home.” And that’s what she did.

But she in turn – she just sold them privately – but it goes to show you what we had to deal with on a regular basis with these white Indian agents. But that’s the story of what we had to deal with every day like living on the reserve and not too long before that you – in order to leave the Reserve – you had to get permission from the Indian agent to leave the reserve.

But that was a few years earlier. But coming to Toronto then and working in the Friendship Centre and learning about, you know, what other Canadians were entitled to. First, we didn’t vote. Well, we weren’t eligible until …

Yeah. Well, I guess they could have but we weren’t used to it because we never did on the reserve like vote in Canadian elections or get involved in politics. And coming to the Indian Friendship Centre when I was the youth worker, we had coffee houses and music and bringing young people together and that’s where I met my husband David, David Lavell. And he’s Canadian, non-indigenous, and a musician. He was tall, good looking, had curly hair, and blue eyes. So, after a while, we were married in 1970, April 11, 1970. And then after that, a couple weeks later, I received this letter in the mail and it said Jeannette Corbiere, you are no longer a member of the Wiikwemkoong Unceded Reserve. Here is a cheque for $35, that’s it. And I was – I knew because my cousins had been in the same situation but I didn’t – no one ever challenged it. No one even thought about changing that. We just took it. That’s usually what happens.

So, when I got this letter David and I were looking at it and I said, “I don’t feel good about this. It’s like this is my community. This is the only family, relatives, community I’ve ever known. I grew up in Wiikwemkoong. I’ve never went anywhere else. Didn’t do much travelling even.” So, I said, “How could I not be part of that?” And I also realized that if anyone complained or even if the Indian agent said you’re no longer able to come to the reserve, then I would have been charged with trespassing even going home.

So that was a big barrier and David and I talked about it and I had met Clayton Ruby because he was just a young lawyer coming up at the time and he had put out this little booklet called LaLaLa for young people, you know, and their rights. And we had talked about this at the Friendship Centre, talking with young people, these are your rights. If you get confronted on the street, you know, just refer to this and just state, you know, what you know and what your rights are. And thanks to Clayton, we were aware of that.

And so, this was on a Wednesday. Thursday evening David and I called up Clayton and I said, “Can I talk to you about something?” And he,Clayton, said, “Sure. Come over.” So, we went over to his office Thursday evening and explained. I said look at this letter. I said the Indian Act – then he referred to the Indian Act and it says under Section 12 (1)(b) if an Indian woman marries a non-Indigenous – I think it said non-Indian man or a man with no status – then she automatically loses her right to status and membership in her community as well. That was Section 12 (1)(b). It didn’t apply to men, just to women. So, it also said if you married an Indian man who didn’t have status you automatically also lost your status rights.

So, he looked at it and he said this isn’t right, you know, because it only affects women. He says it’s obviously discriminatory. And he says under the Canadian Bill of Rights we could challenge this. And then read further on. He says, “Jeannette, if you want to do something about this you have to do it tomorrow.” The next day. And so David and I looked, and he says do it, you know, because this is important. So, Clayton filed the appeal on that Friday at the very last day that he could have done so – we could have done so. And that started the whole ball rolling I guess you would say.

Sue: How did you meet Clayton by the way?

Jeannette: Well, he came to the Friendship Centre with my youth group and spoke to the young people and brought us all booklets because he was just a young lawyer just getting out and getting in the media as well and I called him up and he came – to visit us, yeah. We’ve been friends ever since, you know, yeah.

Sue: Yeah, yeah. I met him in 1971 also and he hired me to go with him to the Kingston Penitentiary where he was investigating the riots and so I had to go and take notes and do all of that. So yeah, I got to know him quite well. It was good. Anyway, all right. So, you’re in Toronto and you go to Clay and you and David decide you’ve got to do it and you get the application in on just under the wire. And OK. So, what happened?

Jeannette: Well, being very naïve I figured like with Clay – Clayton and he said well, we have to take it to court, you know, the first thing. So, he challenged it and we went to the county court, the very first court. And I naively thought well, the judge is going to see this as very discriminatory and it was Judge Grossberg at the time and we went into this big courtroom on University Avenue and we were sitting there. Clayton was there and he presented his argument, obviously discriminatory because it’s only women, Indian women who were getting excluded – with marriage. And Judge Grossberg didn’t see it that way. He said “Well, sounds to me like …” And he was looking at me. Sounds to me like you want to have your cake and eat it too and I didn’t understand what he meant. And further on he said, “Well, we know what Indian women are like and you should be glad a white man married you” is what he said to me in the court. And I was devastated. You know, I think Clayton was too taken aback, you know. This was in a court of law that he said this. And I couldn’t handle it. I just broke down and said “ridiculous”. And Clayton very calmly said, “Don’t worry. This is just the first step.”

So, we went on to appeal again and then it went to the federal court of appeal which was the three judges and very quickly and calmly said “obviously discriminatory”, Section 12 (1)(b) should be removed from the Indian Act. Then I thought good, now I’ll be able to get my status back. But of course, the Attorney General of Canada didn’t see it that way and Indian Affairs didn’t like it that way and the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, everywhere. And then my own people got into it.

The Indian chief, the Union of Ontario Indians, National Indian Brotherhood at the time. They were all opposed, and they said no, this is the way it always has been. This is the Indian Act and they didn’t want to see that particular section removed even though there had been sections of the Indian Act that had been challenged. The one on drinking for instance. I forget what year that came into being, ’59 maybe. But no one questioned that, but they really questioned removing Section 12 (1)(b) out of the Indian Act.

And then looking at all our leadership within the Indian organizations – as I said, they were the Union of Ontario Indians, the National Indian Brotherhood and those were the main ones, and many of our chiefs in Ontario. Many of them had non-Indigenous wives and still, their wives gained status when they married their husbands and maybe that was the fear. That if I was able to keep my status then their wives would lose their status. Maybe that was a consideration. I don’t know what the reasoning was behind it but anyways, they were all opposed to it.

So in 1973 when the Attorney General and all the Chiefs from right across Canada came to the Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa, of course, they were all funded.

We won at the federal court of appeal with three judges. They said it’s discriminatory. That particular section should be removed from the Indian Act. And there had been some media prior to that, you know, saying Indian woman challenges Indian Act and so that spread right across Canada. And I would try and go and get support from, I mentioned, the Union of Ontario Indians and the National Indian Brotherhood just to ask them and try and explain. I said this particular section isn’t part of who we are as Indigenous people, as Indian people within our communities because growing up on the reserve and looking at our community and listening to my grandmothers and aunts and my mom, I realized how strong our women in their community and they always were part of that whole community and they were treated with respect and they were – that balance was there.

They had their role. The men had their role. It was all coming together. And I would say this to the Chiefs, and they didn’t like to hear that, and we couldn’t get our voices heard. And then other women right across Canada – like I got calls from Jenny Margetts in Alberta and others from Manitoba and then Mary Two-Axe Earley from Quebec. This would have been 1970, I guess when I first started. She contacted me and said, “Jeannette,” she says, “I’ve been trying to do this for years but within the Quebec system, but through getting support just through publicity and trying to bring her story to light because she lost her status. And she said, “I want to be with my people.” She was starting to get elderly and she said, “That’s who I am.” She says, “Right now,” she says, “I can’t even go home to be buried, you know, at the end of my life.” Because she didn’t have her status. And she said, “They bring the dogs from Westmount or in Montreal. They’re buried on the Reserve, but I can’t be.” And she said that was her wish.

And you know, it’s heartbreaking when you hear some of the stories our women had to go through. And they were contacting me and then in Thunder Bay some women called me, and they said we hear your story. Let’s try and get together. This would have been in 1972. And no money because we were just individual women right across Canada. So I found some money from friends in Toronto. The Anishinaabe Institute gave me money passage and I went to Thunder Bay and by then I had my son, Nimkee. He was born and so I just took him everywhere I went and we went to a meeting in Thunder Bay. We got together about 15, 20 of us as women and we founded the Ontario Native Women’s Association. I was one of the founding members and … And right across. And the other provinces set up their own women’s organizations at the time.

At least it gave us the voice because we were just being bought. And so, in 1973, the Native Women’s Association of Canada had been formed but believe it or not, when I – we – first approached them as the Ontario Native Women’s Association with this issue they wouldn’t support us. The woman who was head at the time didn’t agree. They didn’t agree that this was an issue that they wanted to look at. And in 1973 when we went to Ottawa there was only very few of us who were there supporting me.

I was there. I was president of the Ontario Native Women’s Association at the time. I had some friends. We had to do our own fundraising like usual stuff that as women we did. We had bake sales. We had bingos. But we all were able to get enough money to get on trains and we left Toronto. We went to Ottawa, a few of us, and we had to share our rooms and slept in church basements and the usual thing but it was so strong. Some of those women to this day are still friends. They were sisters. Many of them have passed on into the spirit world but just that feeling we’re here and we’re committed.

This is something that’s important to us because them being traditional they knew and he says no, we’re connected to our communities, our grandmothers, our aunts and we’re doing all these ongoing visits and communicating and the only difference being that they didn’t have status but we were denied other things. Like we couldn’t live on the Reserve. We couldn’t get any education, funds or no housing, nothing. And that potential of always being challenged and kicked off the Reserve was there too.

So Supreme Court of Canada, millions of dollars given to the Indian organizations by the federal government and it was – you could see it. The irony of seeing all the Chiefs in their regalia on one side opposing. And they were supporting the government, the attorney general, and the other – the Chief of the Six Nations Reserve, he was on the document as well opposing the Section 12 (1)(b) being removed. And there was just us, my sister, Yvonne Bedard, had gone through the Ontario courts and she had lost there too. So, they put her case with mine. Clayton says at least we’ll have another case to support us as we go to the Supreme Court of Canada. So, her case was there and her lawyer. But there was just so few of us went into the Supreme Court. Nine judges and I – my impression was that they were all very elderly men and most of them, I would say, were 70 and 80 years of age.

I’m not saying that – you know, ageism. I’m not going that route, but they just were not listening, not tuning in. The only one was Bora Laskin who was from Thunder Bay and he had just been appointed and he was the one who was vibrant, asking. And I could see that the questions had to do with well, why is this, and why is that and you know? And I thought it would work, but his opposition was Ritchie who had okayed changing the Indian Act, parts of it anyways when it had to do with liquor. You know, getting access to alcohol. But he totally opposed my challenge in Section 12 (1)(b). So, time went by and – Yvonne Bedard and she was a member of the Six Nations Reserve and her Chief was on the opposition – but her case came with mine to the Supreme Court of Canada. And so, her lawyer was there too. So, there was the two of us then that were challenging this removal of Section 12 (1)(b). And unfortunately, we lost by one vote. Bora Laskin had three other judges supporting that this was discriminatory under the Canadian Bill of Rights and Ritchie had five on his side. So, we lost by one vote.

It was really sad, disappointing. This was in 1973 and at that point I had … Well, I still believed in justice and I still believed the legislation and the intent of the Bill of Rights and Human Rights but I also realized the Indian Act and what as Indian people we had been through under the Indian Act right from the beginning under John McDonald. It was always – we weren’t considered people. We weren’t considered persons and that kept coming through all the way even to our treaties and you know, disrespecting that – those legal documents, you know, within our treaties and it just continued.

So, it was really disappointing for me to realize that and so I went into a different realm for a while and I raised my son, then I had my daughter, Dawn. Well, Memee. And my son is Nimkii Forest Michael. So, my grandmother gave them their Indian names. Nimkii is thunder and Memee is white dove and then when my youngest son was born his name is Ahzbik, which is mountain. And this – these are the names that they use. I just introduced you to my daughter who was here, and we all call her Memee That’s dove. And Nimkii, my son. Everyone at home in the community knows him. He’s Nimkii. You know, he’s the land-based teacher and he’s with the environment and children, students, love him because they’re learning. And he’s very outgoing just like his dad too.

Sue: So, then what happened?

Jeannette: Well, this would have been 1973, ’74 and things were quiet for a while but then women said no, we’re not letting this go. So, we started little committees, speaking out. And we still had the – I was still with the Ontario Native Women’s Association. By then we had a different president and we brought this issue back up to the forefront again and kept talking about it and bringing it up to different organizations, different governments. And right up to the constitution you know, the great train that came across Canada just before 1982. But prior to that, there had been committees before the senate, standing committees on the Indian Act and stuff like that, but we just weren’t getting our voices heard.

In the constitution, we had women from right across Canada. Some of them were joining that train of Indigenous people that went to Ottawa. I think they went to Charlottetown first and tried to say this has to change.

Sue: So, when was this indigenous train that went across Canada?

Jeannette: That would have been prior to the constitution. So, must have been ’80, 1980, ’81.

Jeannette: Doing all the consultations on the constitution.

Jeannette: Well, I suppose because it – I thought it was prior to 1982. Didn’t we get the Canadian constitution under Pierre Elliott Trudeau in 1982?

Jeannette: The Charter of Rights and Freedoms came into being in 1985.

Sue: Yeah, that’s right.

Jeannette: And when the Charter of Rights and Freedoms came into being as legislation in April 1985, Section 12 (1)(b) then was removed from the Indian Act.

And so indigenous women who had lost their status like me and Mary Two-Axe Earley, then we were able to get our status back. But it wasn’t the same level of status. It was a secondary level of status. Once again, we were discriminated against. You know, just not being treated properly, equally. And Mary Two-Axe Earley was still alive, and she was so happy. She was one of the first ones to get her status back and she got her – well, she was able to return to her community and that’s where she was buried, on her reserve.

So I got my status back in 1985 and it was a secondary level. It was “1b” or something. I forget. But it wasn’t the same that I had. The full status would have been 1a, you know. Bill C, 1a.

Sue: Is this the problem where you can’t pass your status down to your … You can pass it to your children but not your grandchildren, was that it?

Jeannette: That’s right. That’s right. It was a secondary level of status. So that was what happened in 1985.

Sue: OK. Now, in 1985 when you said it was removed from the Indian Act did this happen automatically, or did somebody bring this up as part of the negotiations or did you –

Jeannette: Well, prior to that there had been ongoing consultations with the – with the federal government and Indian Affairs and they were saying well, they realize, I guess, that they’re going to have to revise the Indian Act and change it because there had been ongoing committees and discussions and you know, the writing was on the wall. They knew that they would have to change it. So, the question then is how will they put all the women and our children and our descendants back in? How will we be recognized?

Once again, they went with lower level. We didn’t have the same rights as the men. So, the men could still marry non-Indian women and those non-Indian women still were given Indian status. But us, we had our status back secondary. Our children had a secondary level of status as well and it only went to them and we couldn’t pass onto our grandchildren.

Sue: But I guess this was part of in 1982 when they passed the constitution and the charter of rights they then – the reason it didn’t come into operation till ’85 was because all the governments had to put in place the necessary changes to make – you know, to make the charter operable. So, I guess it was because of that and your consultations that it was in that period they just took out – they just corrected it because they knew they had to.

Jeannette: Yeah, but the constitution came in 1982, Canadian constitution. The charter of rights and freedoms came into being 1985 and that’s when all this work they had been doing then was put into legislation. That’s when we were able to get our status back, 1985. And they had in place all the secondary levels by then. And so that was there until ’89 then when Sharon McIvor challenged it because of her grandchildren. And so that was Bill C-3, Sharon McIvor’s case. And by then our women’s organizations right across Canada, we had been always talking about this issue because it’s important.

You know, we are the centre of our communities as women and you know, we’re the teachers. We’re the ones with the role of teaching language and taking care of the lands, the water especially. The whole recognition of protecting our water came through one of our – one of my relatives from Wiikwemkoong and that’s Josephine Mandamin. She’s the water walker. And we were always working together, and she was part of the Ontario Native Women’s Association.

So, our women really were always constantly there, wouldn’t give up, very stubborn. My husband used to say yeah, Anishinaabe women are stubborn. They just will not give up [laughs]. And it’s true, you know. I see it with my grandmothers, all the women in our community. You want something you work through it until you get it.

Sue: So, you were also the president of the Native Women’s Association at some point, weren’t you?

Jeannette: That’s right.

Sue: When was that and what were the issues at that time?

Jeannette: Well, as I said, in the early stages of the Native Women’s Association of Canada they would not support this issue because it was too controversial and all the chiefs – well, most of the chiefs right across Canada would not support us but … at at a period of time they started changing because our organizations provincially said this is important. So gradually they started to change their mindset and they started supporting removal of Section 12 (1)(b) out of the Indian Act. And then the whole question of stopping violence against our women. That was another issue and that came through the Ontario Native Women’s Association and that would have been in 1989. And then once again we were criticized. That’s our dirty laundry. Don’t bring it out. But our women said no, we have to talk about it. We have to make people aware in our services, in our governments, that this is not right, and it has to be changed.

So from there then we started hearing more about the Indigenous women in Vancouver, missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and that whole issue came up. And by then, I was an honorary member of the Board of Directors with the Ontario Native Women. So, I had been with the Ontario Native Women all along and not as a board member. So I had the freedom once I retired in – when I turned 65, I was elected president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada.

That was in 2009 until 2012. And the issue I was able to bring to the government as a resolution by our women was to support the inquiry, national inquiry on missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. So that happened when I was the president and that was one of the last official positions that I had then really with the Native Women of Canada. But I’m still with the Ontario Native Women’s Association.

And then more recently and we’re still talking with government right now is Bill S-3 which is the Descheneaux case which refers to grandchildren and great-grandchildren being able to keep our status from the women’s line because we still had – didn’t have all those same rights. We still had a lesser degree of status until last fall, last summer under Bill S-3. So now I called my reserve. I have 1a status, level 1a which is the same status that the Indian men have.

So finally now we’re on the same level of status that all of our people should have but it’s taken all this time and many challenges by and it’s all been our women who’ve led this because it is important and what we’re saying is this is our tradition among our people. This is our history: our people had those rules through our teachings. The grandfather’s teachings and our moon teachings and our – as living together, you know, a way of life and we call that Anishinaabe Bimaadiziwin, living the Anishinaabe way. We all had our roles and we had to respect them, and those teachings are so important.

So only now has that been recognized within legislation. That has just come into being. Still being implemented and we still have to deal with Minister Miller and say any discrimination that’s still there has to be removed. Why should certain people still be discriminated against just because they’re Indigenous or descended from Indigenous women? So hopefully, that is going to happen in the next little while. Well, it should happen. Legislation has been passed.

Sue: Congratulations actually.

Jeannette: Well, it’s taken a long time.

Sue: Yeah. And you still have a lot of issues before you, don’t you?

Jeannette: For sure, for sure.

Sue: What do you think the major issues facing indigenous women today are?

Jeannette: When I look around what I see is the healing that has to take place within our communities and that is a result of the residential schools and the legislation that belittled us and took away that way of living of respect and love and kindness towards each other. That really was impacted by the residential schools and by the violence and by legislation and just the treatment by non-Indian governments and by provincial rules, the justice system.

It’s all there and it’s still there and that’s still our challenge and … But on the other hand, when I look and see our young women, they’re into universities and they’re getting good education. We have lawyers. We have people in the health care system, our women. And also, now we’re realizing the importance of the environment, protecting the environment, and many of our young people, a lot of our women are going into those fields and saying we have to do something not just for us Indigenous people, but for all Canadians.

So, I am really glad to see that happening. And as an example, I look at my daughter right now and she’s been president of the Ontario Native Women’s Association for the last 25 years. She was the youngest one to ever get that role and she’s been doing so much good and you know, we’ve advanced from a small, little organization. We were bankrupt for a while, but now we have a budget in the millions, you know, and doing all kinds of really good work. And our students are coming from the smaller isolated communities. Coming into cities and going to the universities and getting that education.

And right now my daughter Memee, Dawn Lavell-Harvard, is head of the Indigenous House of Learning. So, we’ve got all that support there and that’s really developing at the … It’s just so beneficial for our young people. They’re able to stay in their course of study because we’ve got that community there and we have our traditions. We have our own teaching lodges available. And in our communities as a former educator – I retired from teaching in my community and the irony is my mother was one of the first teachers on my reserve and I always said I’m not going to be a teacher, I’m not, but I ended up being a teacher. My aunts are all teachers and my sister. We all went into the teaching field because traditionally that was our role. We were the first teachers. So it’s natural I guess that we went into those roles.

I was one of the first teachers in our local high school that was built in our community and I retired from there. I was the art teacher, the business teacher, and family studies teacher. And my son now is there and he’s the land-based teacher, you know, teaching students about the environment and about animals and just such a good program and it’s working. So, I believe we will be successful and get more young people through the whole education system and be able to proceed into other fields like modern technology. There’s a lot of interest. So, they’re not fooling around like I’m doing right now with technology.

Sue: Yeah. Fantastic. Well, that’s a very full story. I really appreciate it.