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Indigenous advocate Nellie Carlson remembered for perseverance, willpower

Nellie Mildred Carlson is being remembered as a persistent advocate who fought for the status rights of Indigenous women and successfully lobbied for changes to the Indian Act. 

Founding member of group that helped restore treaty rights for thousands of women

Nellie Carlson in 2013 at a book signing for her oral autobiography, Disinherited Generations. (Courtesy Myrna Sirett)

Nellie Mildred Carlson is being remembered as a persistent advocate who fought for the status rights of Indigenous women and successfully lobbied for changes to the Indian Act. 

Carlson died in Edmonton on Sept. 10. She was 93 years old.

"She was single-minded, nothing swayed her," Myrna Sirett, Carlson's daughter said. "If it were me, I would have let a lot of people talk me out of how big that job was. But she did not allow that. She gave no space for failure." 

In the early 1970s, Carlson was one of the founding members of the group Indian Rights for Indian Women, along with Kathleen Steinhauer and Jenny Margetts.

All three women were born Indigenous with status under the Indian Act and married non-status men.

Promise made by Nellie at age 16

Under The Indian Act, which dated back to 1876, when a status woman married a non-status man, she lost her Indian status and had to leave the reserve. The act was based on male bloodlines, so if a status man married a non-status woman, his wife and any children they had would gain status.

Carlson was just 16 when her mother and stepfather asked her to promise to do what she could to return treaty rights to all the women who were losing their status under the Indian Act. Carlson made that promise — and then made good on it.

"She didn't understand, at that point, what she was saying yes to," said Sirett. 

Sirett said her mother's commitment to the cause was tough on her family.

Carlson had nine kids and Sirett remembers her mother being on the phone all the time, talking about her work at the dinner table and being away for weeks at a time. She would meet with the likes of then-prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Jean Chrétien, the Indian Affairs minister of the day, and former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed.

"She wasn't intimidated by power," said Sirett. Carlson did all of this with a Grade 8 education from a residential school. 

Nellie Carlson lost her status under the Indian Act in 1947 when she married Elmer Frank Carlson, a Metis man who did not have status (Courtesy of Myrna Sirett)

Carlson and the other members of Indian Rights for Indian Women were considered radicals. There were death threats. The RCMP considered Carlson a "person of interest," monitoring her and her family. Sirett said the family believes the surveillance extended to phone calls.

"We would be on the phone and I can remember all kinds of clicking going on," said Sirett.

Carlson also faced backlash from her own community, with many extended family members on reserve favouring the status quo.

"They were fighting not just the government itself, but their own people," June Carlson, one of Carlson's other daughters, said in a documentary film shot for the Royal Alberta Museum three years ago.

Nevertheless, she persisted.

"The government of Canada thought they would get their way," Carlson herself said in the documentary. "Little did they know that there were some bull-headed women born in this country."

Parliament passed Bill C-31 in 1985, which made changes to the Indian Act and allowed women to retain their status. It also restored status to thousands who had lost it.

A 2005 interview with Nellie Carlson, a Cree woman who lost her Indigenous status when she married a Métis man, then fought tirelessly to change the law. Carlson died Sept. 10, 2020. 1:56

In 1988, Carlson won a Governor General's Award in Commemoration of the Persons Case. The awards honour Canadians who advance gender equality.

In her later years, Carlson served as an elder for Edmonton colleges, including NorQuest. It was there she met Karen McKenzie, a Métis businesswoman and instructor at the college.

"We are all missing her but we know she is on her journey home," McKenzie told Edmonton AM on Monday. "She has left such a legacy for all of us to follow, great moccasins to walk in."

McKenzie said she was struck by Carlson's passion for helping Indigenous students connect with their culture.

"She was such a tireless teacher in a good, quiet way," said McKenzie. "She modelled the behaviour and she told the stories of our people and she invited everyone to come and learn.

"At that time, students attending NorQuest, and young Indigenous people who had lived in the city all their lives, were disconnected from their culture. Nellie gently brought them, including me, into a greater knowing and pride of who we are." 

In 2013, she published her oral autobiography, Disinherited Generations: Our Struggle to Reclaim Treaty Rights for First Nations Women and their Descendants.

A leader in the women's movement in Canada - who fought for the status rights of Indigenous women - died in Edmonton last week. We'll talk about her legacy. 7:31

Nellie Carlson School, in south Edmonton, posted a tribute to its namesake after the news of Carlson's death.

"Mrs. Carlson embodied what it meant to strive for excellence, equality and community," the school wrote on its Facebook page. "We are proud to have Nellie Carlson as our namesake, and we are committed to maintaining her legacy of excellence."

Carlson will be remembered at a funeral at St. Faith's Anglican Church on Thursday. The size of the funeral will be capped, in accordance with COVID-19 regulations.

With files from Ariel Fournier

About the Author

Emily Senger is a journalist with CBC Edmonton.

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