Saddle Lake 'miracle' women honoured in new museum exhibit

The women from Saddle Lake First Nation who their battle with the federal government over Indigenous women’s rights are being honoured by the Royal Alberta Museum.

'Indian Rights for Indian Women' movement to be showcased at new Royal Alberta Museum

One of the founders of the 'Indian Rights for Indian Women' movement, Kathleen Steinhauer, is shown with her daughter in a film that will be part of an exhibit at the Royal Alberta Museum. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

The women from Saddle Lake First Nation who won their battle with the federal government over Indigenous women's rights are being honoured by the Royal Alberta Museum.

When the new museum opens in 2018, one exhibit will tell the legendary story.

The exhibit "Disinherited Love: Matrimony and the Indian Act" includes a film featuring Nellie Carlson, one of the founders of the group called Indian Rights for Indian Women.

"It's an honour for her to be recognized," Normie Carlson said of her mother.

Normie Carlson is featured in a film as part of the exhibit the museum is currently putting together. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

In the late 1960s, Nellie Carlson, Kathleen Steinhauer and Jenny Margetts began a protest against the Indian Act, which at the time stipulated that women lost their treaty status when they married non-status men.

That's exactly what happened to all three women, who then vowed to get the law changed to win back their rights.

Chris Robinson, the Royal Alberta Museum's executive director, said their fight for justice went on for nearly 20 years and deserves to be celebrated. 

"They protested to the government of Canada that you shouldn't have legislated sexism," Robinson said. "And eventually, in 1985, Bill C-31 was passed, and 127,000 women and their children regained their rights and status."

Kathleen Steinhauer died in 2012, at the age of 73. But her daughter, Celina Loyer, appears in the film that is part of the museum's exhibit.

"For a lot of them, it was basically losing the right to go home ever again," Loyer said in the film.

Celina Loyer says the legal battle her mother won was like 'having a mouse fight an elephant.' (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

She remembers the women meeting at her family home in Edmonton. She also remembers the sense of pride she felt as a child when the movement her mother helped start spread across the country.

"Of all groups in Canada, First Nations women are at the bottom," she said. "It was like having a mouse fight an elephant."

Jenny Margetts died soon after the women won their case.

The museum's display includes the shawl Nellie Carlson wore when she accepted a Governor General's award for her activism.

The exhibit also has Kathleen Steinhauer's red hat and Indian status card, along with court documents and correspondence with the federal government.
Chris Robinson says the story of the Saddle Lake women was an inspiring one that deserves to be featured in the museum. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

Normie Carlson said her mother, who is now 90, still has the kind of persistence and belief that helped her in her long battle.

She called the fight "nothing short of a miracle" and said the museum's decision to highlight the story is a fitting tribute her mom is excited about.

"It's a tremendous legacy," Carlson said.

Loyer said her mother would be shy and humble about such an accolade but is personally thrilled she's being remembered.

"I'm surprised and honoured," she said, adding the story is one everyone should know about.

It will be some time before people can see the exhibit. The museum is currently installing some 5,300 objects in its 84,000 square feet of exhibition space.

Robinson would not predict when the Royal Alberta Museum will be ready to open, other than to say it will happen in 2018.
A shawl worn by Nellie Carlson is part of the display, which also includes the Indian Status card of Kathleen Steinhauer and a red hat she wore. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)