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Before First Contact with the Europeans, women had a strong political
role to play in many Aboriginal
societies. This role has been diminished over time, to the point
where their political voices have been silenced and violence against
Aboriginal women has become a huge societal ill. The Indian
Act played a large role in this: it stripped women of their
status to be a legal Indian
on their own - a woman had to have an Aboriginal husband or father
in order to receive the privileges and rights that came with being
Role Of Aboriginal Women Before European Contact
Causes of Gender Inequality and Violence
The Indian Act, 1876
Role of Aboriginal Women Before European
In many Aboriginal societies, women had a important role. In some
Eastern nations such as the Iroquois,
men could be chiefs and hold the balance of day-to-day decision-making
responsibilities, but clan mothers were the ones responsible for
voting on and selecting these chiefs within their nation. If the
clan mothers later found that they did not like their selection,
they had the right to revoke a chief's power and assign it to someone
else. Therefore, male chiefs ultimately had to answer to women,
who clearly held the balance of power.
Prairie Aboriginals were more patriarchal, as men held more power
than in other Aboriginal cultures. There was still respect, however:
any abuse or harm that came to any members of their nation could
impact their own survival.
Causes of Gender Inequality and
Some argue that it was the Europeans who fostered the idea of inequality
and redefined male/female gender roles in Aboriginal society. For
instance, male European fur traders refused to deal with Aboriginal
women, even though females were usually responsible for preparing
the fur. Eventually, Aboriginal males had to take over these negotiations
to successfully do business with the Europeans.
Even though Scottish and French men started families with Aboriginal
women during the fur trade, some Europeans began to propagate myths
that such women were somehow more promiscuous in nature. These notions
made it easier for all men to unfairly blame or victimize Aboriginal
women for their problems, and made them especially vulnerable to
physical and sexual violence.
This was only furthered when Aboriginals moved into reserves on
the Prairies in the 1800s and were forced to take up agriculture.
Many men who had been great hunters or fishermen turned out to be
dismal farmers, which was a source of shame and anger. These feelings
sometimes boiled over into family life, leaving their wives or daughters
as easy targets of displaced rage.
Many women felt their own self-confidence erode in these conditions.
There was little recourse - if they moved off the reserve to escape
the violence, they lost their Indian status under the old Indian
Despite social and legal changes in recent years, the problem has
not gone away. One out of three Native women can expect to be beaten
by their partner.
The Indian Act, 1876
The Indian Act of 1876 effectively made women second-class citizens
within Aboriginal society, and was particularly instrumental in
helping erode their self-confidence and status as a group.
The act explicitly states that only males could be considered Indian
in their own right. The only way women had access to the privilege
of being called an Indian was to be directly descended from a father
or to marry an Indian man.
If a woman with Indian status through birth married a non-Aboriginal
person, she was enfranchised
into mainstream Canadian society and automatically lost the
- Be called an Indian.
- Live on an Indian reserve.
- Be buried on an Indian reserve with the rest of their family.
However, if a non-Aboriginal woman married an Indian man, then
she was considered to be an Indian who could live and be buried
on a reserve beside her husband, even if she had no prior Aboriginal
From 1869 laws predating the Indian Act, until the Indian
Act's 1951 revisions, an Aboriginal woman could not do any of
- Run for the position of band
- Hold any other position on a band council.
- Vote in any band-related elections.
Things did not get better for Aboriginal women with respect to
their Indian status rights until 1985. That was when Bill C-31 was
introduced and passed in the federal legislature. This bill reinstated
Indian status for women and children who had lost it by marrying
a non-Aboriginal or moving off a reserve.
These changes, however, caused outrage in Aboriginal communities,
since they allowed more women and their children to share land,
financial and other resources - resources that had been stretched
thin by 1985. What should have been a cause of celebration fractured
some Aboriginal communities even further.
Despite the changes made to the Indian Act in the mid-1980s,
Aboriginal women are still unsatisfied with the law. They feel it
continues to be sexist and unfairly favors men. They would like
to see parts of the act rewritten to better reflect changes in society.
For instance, if an Aboriginal woman living on a reserve wants
to divorce her husband, she can be barred from her own home without
any recourse. The house, more often than not, will go to the ex-husband,
according to the Native Women's Association of Canada, who, in 1999,
launched a lawsuit against the Government of Canada over this issue.
At the start of this century, slightly
less than 30 per cent of all Aboriginal women
in Canada were living on reserves, most likely
due to personal safety concerns and a lack of
satisfying job opportunities. Most Native women
leave reserves immediately upon becoming an adult.
Life for some Aboriginal women may be better than it was under
the most restrictive years of the Indian Act in the late 1800s and
early 1900s. By 1974, the Native Women's Association of Canada had
been created as a political vehicle to have their concerns heard
across the country. (It and other grassroots Aboriginal women organizations,
however, receive very little funding and often have to struggle
to get heard.)
The following are just some of many outstanding issues that need
to be dealt with regards to Aboriginal women's rights.
- Aboriginal women have yet to obtain an equal voice in regular
Nations organizations and band councils, which are male-dominated.
Native men leading such bands and organizations have, in the past,
focused more on treaty rights concerning land, hunting and fishing.
While these rights are also a concern of Aboriginal women, they
often overshadow other issues such as child welfare, housing and
- Aboriginal women are still easy targets for violence, due to
long-standing issues discussed earlier. They also have had serious
trouble obtaining police help during domestic disputes or life-threatening
situations in some areas of the country due to racial and cultural
- Aboriginal women are more likely to go to jail than other women,
caused by long-standing male victimization and other societal
factors like poverty. For instance, Aboriginal women are more
likely to not afford being able to pay small fines, and are incarcerated