R v. Bedard (1971) challenged section 12(1)(b) of the Indian Act, which concerns the rights of Status Indian women in Canada. The appellant in the case, Yvonne Bedard, took the federal government to court after losing her rights as a Status Indian because of her marriage to a Non-Status man. In 1973, before the Supreme Court of Canada, the Bedard case merged with AG v. Lavell, another case concerning gender discrimination (see Status of Women) in the Indian Act. Although Bedard ultimately lost her reinstatement claims, her case inspired future legal battles regarding women’s rights and the Indian Act, including Lovelace v. Canada (1981) (see Sandra Lovelace Nicholas) and the Descheneaux case (2015).
In May 1964, Yvonne Bedard — a Haudenosaunee woman from Six Nations of the Grand River in Ontario — married a non-Indigenous man and had two children with him. The couple separated in 1970 and Bedard returned to the Six Nations reserve with her two children to live in the house that her mother, Carrie Williams, had left her in her will.
However, Bedard was no longer listed as a member in the registry of Six Nations because she had married a Non-Status man (see Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Canada). Therefore, the Six Nations band council argued, she had no right to live at her mother’s house. The council sought to evict her because, under the Indian Act, Bedard could no longer own property on the reserve as a Non-Status woman. The council notified her that following her 14-month residency, she was expected to dispose of the property and to leave the Six Nations reserve.
In order to meet the council’s request, Bedard transferred ownership of the property to her brother, who was a registered member of the band. He was then granted a Certificate of Possession (see Reserves) of the property on 15 March 1971 by the Minister of Indian Affairs, as dictated by the Indian Act. With her brother’s consent, Bedard and her children remained in the house.
On 15 September 1971, the Six Nations band council passed Resolution 15, requesting that the Brantford District Supervisor serve notice to Bedard that she and her children had to leave the reserve. Bedard challenged her eviction, and the case appeared before the Ontario High Court of Justice that same year. Bedard’s lawyer filed an injunction to restrain the council from expelling Bedard and her children from the reserve and requested a ruling on the prevailing interpretation of race and sex distinctions in Indian Act legislation.
Early Legal Battles
Yvonne Bedard took her case to the Ontario Supreme Court (see Judiciary in Canada), where Judge Osler ruled that the Indian Act “discriminate[d] by reason of sex with respect to the rights of an individual to the enjoyment of property.” It also, he stated, produced “a different result with respect to the rights of an Indian woman who marries a person other than an Indian” than it did for a “male Indian [who] marries a person other than an Indian, or an Indian who is a member of another band.” Judge Osler declared section 12(1)(b) of the Indian Act inoperative under the Canadian Bill of Rights and invalidated “all acts of the Band [Council] and the District Supervisor” in revoking Bedard’s status and attempting to evict her from her property. Bedard was granted an injunction to restrain the Six Nations band council from expelling her from her home, and an order was passed, overturning the resolution by the council that Bedard dispose of her property.
The Supreme Court of Ontario’s recognition of Bedard’s right to occupy property on the reserve was met with resistance not only by members of the Six Nations reserve, but by other Indigenous organizations that saw the ruling as an interference in the band’s self-governance and counter to the idea of Indigenous self-determination (see Indigenous Self-Government in Canada). The National Indian Brotherhood (now the Assembly of First Nations) supported the argument that gender discrimination against First Nations women had been instituted in the Indian Act of 1876 as a benevolent process to protect First Nations communities from white men who sought to marry First Nations women.
Supreme Court of Canada Decision
In January 1973, the Bedard case merged with AG. v. Lavell, another case concerning gender discrimination in the Indian Act: in 1970, Jeanette Corbiere Lavell of the Wiikwemkoong First Nation (see Reserves in Ontario) on Manitoulin Island married David Lavell, a non-Indigenous man from Toronto. Upon being denied her legal status, Corbiere Lavell filed a legal suit against the federal government.
After the merger, the case became known as A.G. of Can. V. Lavell—Isaac v. Bedard. Ultimately, the Supreme Court ruled against Lavell and Bedard in a five to four decision. Among other reasons, the ruling noted that, since section 12 of the Act only affects a specific group (Status Indian women who married Non-Status men) as opposed to the entire First Nations population, racial discrimination did not exist. Furthermore, the court decided that since enfranchised Indigenous women gained the same citizenship rights as white women,gender discrimination could not be present. In the 28 August 1973 issue of the Globe and Mail, Lavell’s lawyer, Clayton Ruby, is quoted as saying “The Court has decided that rights associated with being an Indian are not fundamental rights.” Because of this decision,the Indian Act was exempt from the application of the Canadian Human Rights Act in 1977. The Supreme Court’s decision also influenced the phrasing of section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms; it was drafted so that the concept of equality rights as being distinct from – and higher than – any laws created by Parliament.
The Lavell and Bedard legal battles significantly influenced the Canadian legal system, as it pertains to the rights of First Nations women. After the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms was enshrined in the Constitution Act in 1982, and the United Nations International Human Rights Commission ruled that the denial of Indian Status based on gender was contrary to international law, Section 12(1)(b) of the Indian Act was eventually repealed in 1985. That year, Bill C-31 amended the Act to allow approximately 117,000 women to regain their status. However, Bill C-31 did not completely rid the Act of gender discrimination. Future cases, such as Descheneaux case (2015) and Gehl v. Canada (2017), have similarly sought to provide equality under the law for First Nations women in Canada.
On 17 April 2018, during an event to mark Equality Day, Yvonne Bedard, along with Jeannette Vivian Corbiere Lavell, Senator Sandra Lovelace Nicholas, Dr. Sharon McIvor (see Native Women’s Association of Canada), Dr. Lynn Gehl, and Senator Lillian Dyck, were recognized in Ottawa for their activism directed towards equality for Indigenous women under Canadian law. These women are sometimes collectively referred to as the “Famous Six,” and they have all, in various ways, challenged gender discrimination. The celebration coincided with Bedard’s 80th birthday.