By Terry Poucette
In early June, the final report of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls inquiry was finally released. The report determined that the disproportionate level of violence against Indigenous women was genocide that originated from Canada’s colonial ideologies and policies including the Indian Act. It continued that “targeting victims in a gender-oriented manner” destroyed Indigenous communities and left lasting scars.
According to UBC’s Indigenous Foundations website, when the Europeans arrived in North America, they brought with them patriarchal beliefs about the role and importance of women. Europeans believed in universal male dominance. Settler women had few individual rights, were ruled by their husbands and treated as their property.
European patriarchy was imposed on First Nations through the Indian Act and discriminated against Indigenous women in several ways. First, the Indian Act ruled that to qualify as an Indian, you had to be an Indian male, be the child of an Indian male or be married to an Indian male. Whether a woman was an Indian depended on her relationship with a man. Should she marry a non-Indian man, she lost her Indian status. The act’s sexual double-standard was brash for not only did an Indian man marrying a non-native woman keep all his rights, his wife gained Indian status. What’s more, the Indian Act did not allow Indian women to possess land or martial property. If an Indian woman’s husband passed away or they separated, she and her children could not stay in the family home and left with nothing. Although Canada was forced by lawsuits and the Charter to amend the legalized gender discrimination of Indigenous women through Bill C-31, inequality still exists in that the generational offspring of an Indian woman that married a non-native man will eventually become ineligible for Indian status.
Another way the Indian Act discriminated against Indigenous women was by excluding them from governance. Traditionally, Indigenous women participated in governance as advisors or decision makers. Based on the European patriarchal belief that women were not fit for politics, the Indian Act implemented a male-only elective system. Indian women were not allowed to vote in band elections or hold political office. In 1951, the Indian Act was amended, and Indian women were finally allowed to vote in band elections and run for office.
Research suggests that the colonial discrimination against Indigenous women through the Indian Act, Indian residential schools and other means subjected them to violence. The colonial racialization and sexualization of Indigenous women resulted in stereotypes that made violence against them acceptable. Indigenous women are 3.5 times more likely to experience violence then non-native women. The homicide rate for Indigenous women is 7 times higher than non-Indigenous women. Given these statistics, it’s not surprising that since the 1970s, it is estimated that up to 4000 Indigenous women have been murdered or still missing in Canada. Some federal and provincial leaders denied the murder of thousands of Indigenous women was genocide. One of the UN’s criteria for genocide, however, is the “intent to destroy in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.” These leaders only need to review the Canadian government’s historical records to see the intent of the Indian Act was exactly that.
Terry Poucette is a member of the Wesley First Nation and PhD graduate in public administration (UVic). She is now an assistant teaching professor at UVic