Jeannette Vivian Corbiere was born on 21 June 1942 to Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) parents, Adam and Rita Corbiere, on the Wikwemikong Reserve on Manitoulin Island, Northern Ontario. Raised in her community, she attended the day school on the reserve that was administered by the Catholic Church and funded by the Canadian government. Corbiere’s father taught her the Ojibwe language, and her mother — a teacher and community organizer who co-founded the Wikwemikong “Wiky” Powwow — taught her English. (See also Indigenous Languages in Canada and Powwow.)
Once Corbiere entered grade 10, she travelled to North Bay, Ontario, and completed high school and then business college. Upon graduation, she secured employment as an executive secretary in Toronto, Ontario. While in Toronto, she grew her portfolio as a social advocate and community builder, engaging with the Native Canadian Centre as a youth and social services worker and court worker, assisting Indigenous people in the court system. She went on to travel with the Company of Young Canadians, facilitating outreach and development in Indigenous communities across the country. She was selected as the “Indian Princess of Canada” in 1965, which increased her media visibility.
AG v. Lavell: Case and Ruling
In 1970, Jeannette Corbiere married David Lavell, a non-Indigenous man from Toronto. Due to section 12(1)(b) of the Indian Act, which denied Indian status to women who married non-status men, Corbiere Lavell lost her legal status as an Indian. Outraged, Jeannette Corbiere Lavell filed a legal suit against the federal government on the basis that it was in violation of the 1960 Canadian Bill of Rights because it discriminated against women on the basis of sex.
As litigation moved through the court system, the Lavell case became associated with a related legal dispute, R v. Bédard, which was about how another woman — Yvonne Bédard — lost her Indian status. However, they were met with some resistance from within the Indigenous community. As the court cases played out, the National Indian Brotherhood (now the Assembly of First Nations) argued that women who challenged section 12(1)(b) were selfish and “anti-Indian” because they fought against the very law (the Indian Act) they viewed as guaranteeing the right of Indigenous self-determination. Nevertheless, the claimants continued to press on.
Judge Grossberg first presided over the Lavell case and dismissed Corbiere Lavell in the York County Court system. Justice Grossberg concluded that she had not been deprived of equality under the law, since the Bill of Rights afforded her the same protections as other non-status women. Unsatisfied, Corbiere Lavell then petitioned and won her 1971 appeal in the Federal Court of Appeal. The judges in this court outlined that the Indian Act did not afford equality to Indigenous women and recommended that the Indian Act be repealed for failing to adhere to the laws established in the Bill of Rights. However, on 27 August 1973, the Supreme Court of Canada overturned the lower court’s ruling in a controversial decision, stating that the Bill of Rights did not invalidate the Indian Act.
Aftermath of the Lavell Case
Although the Lavell case ultimately failed, Indigenous women continued to bring this rights issue to the fore. Sandra Lovelace Nicholas, a Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) woman, launched her own court case, Lovelace v. Canada, about the same issue. This case and others resulted in international critique of Canada’s record of human rights. In 1981, the UN Human Rights Committee ruled that gendered status provisions in the Indian Act were contrary to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. By taking on the Canadian state, Jeannette Corbiere Lavell, Sandra Lovelace and Yvonne Bédard directly contributed to section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982, which was amended in 1983 to guarantee that Aboriginal and treaty rights would be equally accessible to men and women under the law. (See also Rights of Indigenous Peoples.) These efforts culminated in the parliamentary assent of Bill C-31 in 1985, which repealed section 12(1)(b) of the Indian Act in an effort to bring this element of legal code into accordance with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In 1985, Corbiere Lavell was among many Indigenous women who regained their Indian status.
Despite these gains, status provisions in the Indian Act remained exclusionary because Indian status was separate from band membership. This means that, while Bill C-31 may have reinstated some women’s status, they could still have their membership to a band or First Nation revoked by the band council. The “second-generation cut-off” also contributed to the persistence of inequity: grandchildren of women whose status was reinstated under C-31 were prevented from inheriting status unless the grandchildren’s parents were both Status Indians.
More recently, two major court cases have further challenged gender-based status provisions. In the 2009 McIvor v. Canada case, the British Columbia Court of Appeals ruled that the Indian Act discriminated against the descendants of Indigenous women who married non-Indigenous men, prompting changes to the law. In the 2015 Descheneaux case, the Québec Superior Court found that subtle forms of sexual discrimination persisted under the Indian Act and ordered the government to reform the law comprehensively. (See also Indigenous Women and the Franchise.)
In November 2017, the federal government pledged to amend the Act to fully remove gender restrictions against women. Among other provisions, the revised Act will enable women to pass down their status to their descendants and reinstate status to those who lost it before 1985. The bill has yet to pass into law.
Jeannette Corbiere Lavell was a founding member of the Ontario Native Women’s Association (ONWA), a non-profit organization established in 1971 that supports and empowers Indigenous women. From 1972 to 1973, she served as vice-chairwoman, and from 1974 to 1975 she was president; she currently serves on the ONWA board. In 1987, the ONWA established an award in her honour — the Jeannette Corbiere Lavell Award — which is given to Indigenous women who demonstrate the same qualities and dedication to women’s causes as Corbiere Lavell.
She has also been involved in other Indigenous organizations, such as the Native Women’s Association of Canada (president); Debajehmujig Creation Centre, a professional on-reserve theatre company (board member); Nishnawbe Institute, an educational organization (president); Indian Rights for Indian Women (co-founder); Native Women’s Organization of Canada (founding member) and Anduhyaun Inc., a non-profit organization that creates safe spaces for Indigenous women and children (president). Her daughter was also president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada.
Corbiere Lavell attended and graduated from teachers’ college at the University of Western Ontario. She eventually became a school principal and teacher. Corbiere Lavell also performed government work. She served on Ontario’s Commission on the Native Justice System and as a community consultant for the Government of Ontario.
Corbiere Lavell co-edited the 2006 anthology Until Our Hearts Are On the Ground with her daughter D. Memee Lavell-Harvard. This collection lets Indigenous women tell their own stories about experiences of motherhood, womanhood and citizenship in Canada.
Jeannette Corbiere Lavell is mother to three — two sons and a daughter — and is also a grandmother. She lives and teaches on the Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve.
Beyond her record of human rights activism and her efforts to challenge Canadian law, Jeannette Corbiere Lavell is a celebrated figure of the Indigenous rights movement and the women’s movement more broadly. Lavell’s mobilization happened at a crucial time for organized resistance against institutionalized patriarchy and sexism in Canadian legal code, and during a significant period of grassroots social justice activism and protest among Indigenous people nationally and internationally.
Awards and Honours
Governor General Michaëlle Jean awarded Corbiere Lavell in 2009 with the Persons Award, an honour that recognizes those who fight for women’s rights in Canada.
In 2016, York University granted Corbiere Lavell an honorary doctorate of laws.
She became a member of the Order of Canada in 2017.