Mary Two-Axe knew it was time to return to her birthplace after her husband died in 1969.
She started speaking and writing on behalf of all of her Indigenous sisters, hoping others would join her fighting for their rights. To do this, she shared the faces of the many women who were denied their Indian status and property rights.
Except, that there was one problem. In order to return to Canada and fight the battle from her ancestral reserve, Mary needed to transfer ownership of her house to her daughter who, thankfully, had married a Kahnawàke man.
Had this not happened, Mary would have had no legal right to be on the property she owned.
Sadly, Mary’s community was not very welcoming but they accepted her anyway because of her daughter’s reclaimed Indian status.
As well, her involvement with the Indian Rights for Indian Women Association (IRIW) had started to garner attention so her name was becoming more prominent.
Eventually, Mary’s hard work paid off in 1982 when the Royal Commission on the Status of Women recommended, together with a UN Human Rights Committee, agreed that Indian women should have protections and equality under the law. But the Canadian government and the National Indian Brotherhood (which became the Assembly of First Nations) ignored these findings.
The National Brotherhood of Indigenous men wanted to keep Indigenous women from marrying outside of their culture; so the conditions for Indigenous women didn’t change until the passage of Bill C-31.
In 1985, government legislation finally amended the Indian Act to “outline a process of reinstatement for women who had lost their status because of marriage or divorce.”
As a result, Mary’s Kahnawàke status was reinstated in Toronto with a letter from the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development. I remember this day because I was living in Toronto and a student at the University of Toronto. The newspaper headlines announced the Minister of Indian Affairs, David Crombie, had personally restored Mary’s status.
Mary rejoiced saying, “Indian women and men should enjoy the same rights and privileges in matters of marriage and property as all Canadians.” Her efforts united Indigenous women across Canada who wanted the right to live, own property, die and be buried in their ancestral homes. It also highlighted larger discriminatory practices embedded in the laws that Indigenous people faced.
Kahnawàke, Quebec ceremonial costume
Sadly, this fight for racial and gender equality did not end here even though it was a step in the right direction. Like many Indigenous populations around the world who have been dominated by invading cultures, the legacy of discrimination take years to repair the damage and to change the law. The archaic laws of Canada’s Indian Act date back to 1867 when Canada gained its independence from Britain. In reality, however, they can be traced even further back to King George’s Proclamation of 1763 which led to Canada’s Confederation.
It’s amazing to think that it seemed inevitable in 1982 when Canada enacted its own Charter of Rights and Freedoms that this in itself should have provided greater protections for all Canadians, including the Indigenous people. But the truth is that the enforcement of new laws can take an equally long time.
To date, there are still cases before the Canadian courts and in the country’s capital city of Ottawa, where women are fighting for their rights. In one such case, Indigenous Rights advocate Sharon McAvir said:
“First Nations women and their descendants still do not have the same right to Indian status and to the transmission of status as their male counterparts. I do not have the same full Indian status as my brothers, and that is only because I am a woman.
This discrimination is a disgrace to Canada, and the Government of Canada knows it has to end.” (Quebec Native Women Inc.)
Without equality, many adverse social effects have made it even more difficult and dangerous to be an Indigenous woman in Canada.
This is evident in the thousands of Indigenous women who have gone missing and murdered in Canada. It’s become a national crisis, stemming from domestic violence and unjust treatment even in their own homes on Indigenous lands.
Studies have shown that Indigenous women are more likely to suffer violence and go missing in Canada, particularly in the province of British Columbia (B.C.). The Native Women’s Association of Canada says the number of victims is much higher than reported and a highway in B.C. where 19 women have been found murdered has been aptly called The Highway of Tears. As many as 4,000 Indigenous women have gone missing in Canada and without protections and law enforcement, women will continue to suffer unjustly.
Photo credit: Library and Archives Canada
Before Mary died in August of 1996, she received many awards and her heroic efforts are finally being recognized. These include the Governor General’s Person Case Award presented to Mary in 1979 for her work contributing to the advancement and rights for women and girls, and an honorary Doctorate in Law from York University in 1980.
After receiving the Officer of the National Order of Quebec to commemorate her National Aboriginal Achievement Award in 1996, Mary died shortly later that year. She is buried in her birthplace and considered a pioneering architect of the Canadian women’s movement for Indigenous women. Her political activism helped to forge a coalition of allies that continues to this day, to challenge Canadian laws that discriminate against Indigenous women.