There has been scholarly debate about the extent of women’s role in Indigenous governance systems. The historical view stems from perspectives usually written by non-Indigenous men. There were a variety of governance systems at work in North America before and after European contact, reflecting the rich diversity of Indigenous cultures.
Perhaps the most famous example of this is the Haudenosaunee Confederacy that has a matrilineal governance system in which clan mothers hold a great degree of political power. Other nations had matrilineal systems of social organization and kinship. Most Indigenous societies had some form of gender complementarity, in which men’s and women’s roles were different but valued equally because of their importance to the community.
As contact with Europeans increased, the patriarchal nature of the legal system in British North America undermined the status of Indigenous women, as well as Indigenous governance systems as a whole. As a result, colonial forces complicated Indigenous gender roles.
The Indian Act and Assimilation
Even before Confederation, legislators were keen to introduce laws that both racialized Indigenous peoples and aimed to assimilate them. The Gradual Civilization Act, passed in 1857, gave the franchise and land to First Nations men (and to their wives and children) deemed to be “sufficiently advanced in the elementary branches of education and […] of good moral character and free from debt,” if they assimilated. Indigenous people met such policies with little enthusiasm. Faced with assimilation and the loss of well-established systems of governance, only one person chose to go through the process as outlined in the Gradual Civilization Act.
This British emphasis on the gradual assimilation of Indigenous peoples meant that, following Confederation, the Canadian federal government sought to reshape the internal power structures of their communities. In 1869, the Macdonald government passed An Act for the gradual enfranchisement of Indians, which encouraged the adoption of elected systems of government within Indigenous communities. As legislation pertaining to Indigenous peoples was consolidated in the Indian Act (1876), both Indigenous men and women, if categorized as status Indians, faced increased surveillance and assimilative policies. This act sought to destroy any surviving Indigenous governance systems by imposing elected chiefs and councils. The act was amended several times during the next decades in order to codify Indigenous identities, impact political participation, change rules for both voluntary and involuntary enfranchisement, and restrict spiritual and cultural practices.
The Indian Act was never a static piece of legislation and was often revised in reactionary ways. Several revisions impacted political participation, both in communities and in Canadian elections. In 1880, university graduates were automatically enfranchised as they were deemed to have assimilated to the western education system. In 1885, John A. Macdonald introduced the Electoral Franchise Act, which gave Indigenous men in Eastern Canada, who held property, the right to vote without having to give up Indian status. Again, the focus on property ownership indicated the government’s expectation that Indigenous men would internalize western concepts of private ownership, a hallmark of assimilative policy. The Act included First Nations men in Eastern Canada while specifically excluding “Indians in Manitoba, British Columbia, Keewatin and the North-West Territories.”
In any case, the Laurier government repealed these developments in 1898. Therefore, the possibility of voting without having to go through the process of enfranchisement was lost; involuntary enfranchisement for Indigenous men was introduced in 1920, repealed in 1922 and reintroduced in 1933. It was not present in the amended Indian Act (1951), although this version of the law would have a negative impact on women who were status Indians under the law, particularly when it came to “marrying-out” (marrying a non-status Indian male).
It was not until 1960 that the federal franchise was extended to status Indians without their having to give up status (see Indigenous Suffrage).
Inuit and Métis women
The Inuit have a distinct history in Canada. They were largely ignored in Canadian Indigenous policy until 1924, when the Indian Act was amended, and they came under the jurisdiction of the Department of Indian Affairs. The amendment was repealed in 1930. In 1939, the Supreme Court classified Inuit as Indians. However, the 1951 Indian Act was amended again to exclude the Inuit. The Inuit had been given the franchise in 1950 after having been excluded in the 1934 Dominion Franchise Act, but what impact this had on their political participation is questionable; ballot boxes were not brought into the Arctic until the 1962 election.
Métis people have diverse identities throughout the country. Administratively, the federal government emphasized their distinctness from status Indians, and the Indian Act sought to differentiate them based on what is now referred to as “blood quantum” (the amount of Indigenous “blood” possessed by an individual, as determined by their ancestry). They have therefore not encountered the same legislative barriers to voting.
“Marrying-Out,” Activism and Bill C-31
A specific and gendered form of compulsory enfranchisement for many First Nations women was the policy of “marrying-out.” Their legal Indian status was obtained first through their fathers and then through their husbands. The 1951 revisions to the Indian Act permitted women to vote and hold office in First Nations elections for the first time. But at the same time, these revisions tightened control over the marrying-out policy; Indigenous women with Indian status who married non-status men were involuntarily enfranchised and lost their rights and privileges as band members, as did any of their children. This meant that women could not hold or inherit property on the reserve, nor could they access services.
In contrast to the assimilation requirements for voluntarily enfranchised Indigenous men, women did not have to prove their self-sufficiency. From the federal government’s perspective, their marriages to non-status men were indicative enough of their assimilation to Canadian culture. To demonstrate the stark differences between voluntary and involuntary enfranchisement, between 1965 and 1975, 5,035 women and children were involuntarily enfranchised, in comparison to the approximately 263 voluntary enfranchisements of both men and women.
Although the marrying-out policy led to the franchise for Indigenous women before 1960, it prevented women and their children from accessing services and living or being buried on reserve. These changes were also non-reversible, meaning that even in the event of widowhood or divorce, First Nations women could only regain their status if they remarried a man with Indian status. Meanwhile, non-Indigenous women were granted Indian status if their husbands were registered under the Indian Act.
Women from across the country raised awareness of the sexist clauses of the Indian Act through activism and legal challenges. Mary Two-Axe Earley (Mohawk) fought her eviction from Kahnawake reserve in Québec and publicized it at the International Women’s Year conference in Mexico in 1975. In 1973, the Supreme Court heard the discrimination cases of both Jeannette Corbiere Lavell (Anishinaabe) and Yvonne Bedard (Haudenosaunee). In 1977, Sandra Lovelace (Wolastoqiyik) brought her case to the United Nations Human Rights Committee. The Committee ruled in her favour on 14 August 1979.
Once the federal government amended the Indian Act in 1985, Bill C-31 reinstated more than 100,000 Indigenous women and their children, as well as others who had been involuntarily enfranchised. This failed to address, however, both the continued sex discrimination inherent in the Act and what became known as the second-generation cut-off. The 2009 McIvor decision resulted in more changes to the Indian Act in 2011, which means that women who had lost status are now “on an equal footing with their male siblings when it comes to passing Indian status to their grandchildren.” It did not, however, address other cases of gender discrimination in the Indian Act or the second-generation cut-off rule.
The activism of the 1970s and 1980s led to the formation of political organizations such as the Native Women’s Association of Canada, the Women of the Métis Nation, the Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada and other provincial and territorial organizations that represent the interests of Indigenous women in Canada.
Indigenous women have faced a double burden of racial and gender discrimination. A key difference in discussions of suffrage for Indigenous and non-Indigenous women is that, until relatively recently, Indigenous women’s right to vote came at the cost of rights under the Indian Act and Indigenous rights more broadly. Gaining the vote can therefore be seen as a paternalistic and colonizing process, rather than one that signalled political liberation.