Imagine losing your home, your culture and your familial history because you decided to marry someone outside of your culture?
Indigenous women living in Canada did up until 1985 and, while this has changed to some extent, the discrimination still exists. The members of the First Nations, Metis and Inuit people make up Canada’s Indigenous population. Their relationship with the Canadian government has always been and continues to be challenging since Canada’s Confederation in 1867.
But the efforts of women like Mary Two-Axe Earley, today’s woman making history feature on WomanScape, is an unlikely voice for change. She helped to repair some of the discriminatory and racial prejudices when she decided one woman, one voice, could make a difference.
Mary was born in 1911 on the Kahnawàke reserve in Quebec, Canada. She was an unlikely hero who brought attention to the plight of women and the need for changing Canada’s archaic system of justice. Over the course of three decades from the 1960s through the 1980s, Mary fought discriminatory practices that affected women and the people she loved in her rural farming community next to Canada’s scenic St. Lawrence River.
As a member of the Six Nations community and the Mohawk band (there are over 360 different bands in Canada), Mary had a happy childhood with her mother who was a teacher and nurse to many of the undeserved people in her community.
When Mary’s mother passed away from the Spanish flu that ravaged many countries after World War I, Mary’s grandfather stepped in to help raise her.
Sadly, by the time Mary was 18 years of age, there weren’t many job prospects for Mary in her Montreal neighborhood, so she moved south to New York and settled into a community Mohawk people in Brooklyn.
There, she met and married Edward Earley, an Irish-American electrical engineer. They were prosperous and happy, and Mary gave birth to two children – Rosemary and Edward, Jr.
Unfortunately, because Mary had left her ancestral home, Mary knew she had lost her Indian status under the Indian Act. It meant Mary could not return to her native reserve and her status within the community was revoked. This was because the laws in the Indian Act only protected male Indians (this term was still used until it was replaced with Indigenous).
Legal property and Indian status was decided on the basis of male lineage. So men could always own their land and any who married women outside of their band retained their status. For women who married outside of their community or divorced their Indian husband, they lost their status unless they remarried another Indian.
Even more egregious, the female descendants of an Indian woman who left the community automatically forfeited their Indian status as well because of their mother’s disinheritance. Like their mothers, they could only regain it if they married an Indian man.
It’s easy to see how these laws worked in favor of the Canadian government who was focused on assimilating its Indigenous population. This would make it easier for the government to lay claim to valuable land properties with little resistance and they could invoke laws established centuries earlier.
With additional government initiatives like the Residential School Programs from the 1960s, a horrible program that forcibly removed children from their parents’ homes and placed them with white families, the threat of losing their Indian culture was intensified.
Mary realized that eliminating the land claims of Indigenous women institutionalized male privilege.
It also lead to crushing social conditions that oppressed women even further, whether they were living on or off the reserve.
This was a serious concern for Mary not long after she married and had children. She comforted many of her friends and realized the injustice of their devastation. They were forced to endure the loss of culture and connection to their ancestral heritage. Some who had simply left their reserve in search of employment and a better life experienced deep feelings of isolation and depression.
In 1966, when one of her close friends died in her arms from a heart attack, Mary believed the stress of losing her native home and her Indian status had caused her friend’s death. She decided she had to do something and established the Equal Right for Indian Women Association.
While still living in New York, she started writing letters and speaking to other Indigenous women. She also wrote to Quebec Senator Therese Casgrain, who suggested she submit a letter to the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada (RCSW). This set the wheels in motion and Mary began to mobilize other women to rally against these unjust laws.
When Mary’s husband Edward died in 1969, the importance of her work escalated to a new level. It became a personal cause. Tomorrow, we’ll examine Mary’s work and more about the plight of Canada’s Indigenous women.