The Native Women’s Association of Canada works “to advance the well-being of Aboriginal women and girls, as well as their families and communities through activism, policy analysis and advocacy.” NWAC sees itself as a “Grandmother’s Lodge,” an important political and cultural association that relies on the participation of “aunties, mothers, sisters, brothers and relatives” to advance its shared goals. NWAC lists education, employment and labour, environment, health, human rights, and violence against Indigenous women and girls as its priority policy areas (see also Indigenous Women’s Issues).
Founding of NWAC
The late 1960s saw the beginning of increased activism among Indigenous peoples who were striving to protect their culture against assimilative government policies (see also The White Paper, 1969). It was during this time that a number of national Indigenous political organizations began to take root, including the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples (founded in 1971 as the Native Council of Canada) and the Assembly of First Nations (founded in 1982).
Indigenous women also began organizing on a national scale at this time. Indigenous women united in an effort to confront aspects of Canadian law that they found sexist, racist and imperialistic, such as section 12(1)(b) of the Indian Act, which denied many women their Indian status if they married a non-Status man (see also Indian and Indigenous Women and the Franchise). In 1974, Indigenous women and their allies, including non-Indigenous feminists active in the women’s movement, formed to officially create the Native Women’s Association of Canada. Members concerned themselves with the preservation and continuation of Indigenous culture on a local level, while focusing nationally on addressing the inequity in status conditions for women under the Indian Act.
Selected Work of NWAC: Past and Present
In the 1970s and 1980s, the Native Women’s Association of Canada emerged as a powerful advocate for Indigenous self-determination. In collaboration with other activists, NWAC supported the success of Bill C-31, an amendment to the Indian Act, made law on 28 June 1985, that reinstated Indian status to many Indigenous women who had lost theirs as a result of section 12(1)(b).
In the 1990s, NWAC continued to fight for women’s inclusion and equality in politics. In 1992, after NWAC was left out of discussions that resulted in the failed Charlottetown Accord, members of the organization formally challenged the government’s unwillingness to include the voice of women in the debates over constitutional and Indigenous self-determination. This legal challenge was mounted, in part, by the efforts of the vice-president, Sharon McIvor, in collaboration with the British Columbia Native Women’s Society. In 1994, the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) ruled against the claimants in the case Native Women’s Association of Canada v. Canada. The SCC ruled that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms had not been violated by the federal government’s decision not to include NWAC in constitutional debates. While NWAC was not successful in this case, it did raise the profile of Indigenous women’s grievances and demonstrated the urgent need to involve women in the law-making process.
In recent years, NWAC has been instrumental in the push for a national inquiry on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG). The Canadian government officially launched this inquiry on 1 September 2016. In January of the following year, the organization released its first report card on the inquiry, arguing, among other points, that the commissioners failed to effectively communicate with the families of the missing and murdered during the preliminary inquiry. NWAC intends to produce quarterly report cards on the inquiry until its eventual conclusion in 2018. By speaking out publicly about the inquiry and promising to hold the government accountable to its promises, NWAC supports and lends its voice and platform to the families of the missing and murdered. Every 4 October, NWAC hosts Sisters in Spirit Vigils across Canada to raise awareness for MMIWG.
Governance and Structure
The Native Women’s Association of Canada is headed by a president who is elected to a three-year term and acts on behalf of a board of directors. The board is composed of designates from each of the provinces and territories, as well as Indigenous elders and youth who represent the four directions: North, West, East and South. The president is the official spokesperson for NWAC.
The Native Women’s Association of Canada has become a lead advocacy group for Indigenous women and girls in Canada. NWAC remains at the forefront of civil rights work in Canada, working to promote education, health care, violence prevention and safety for Indigenous women, as well as reducing the poverty, mental illness and incarceration experienced by Indigenous peoples across the country.