The Current

'This is our birthright': Indigenous senators call on PM to end discrimination against women in Indian Act

Why has inequality for Indigenous women been a part of law for more than 140 years?
Indigenous Senators Lillian Dyck (L) and Sandra Lovelace Nicholas, along with other advocates, are urging the Liberal government to change Bill S-3, and to accept a Senate amendment that would eliminate sex-based discrimination under the Indian Act. (Jason Warick/CBC/

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Since it was created in 1876, the Indian Act has enshrined discrimination against Indigenous women, who have been less able to pass on their Indian status to their descendants than Indigenous men.

Over the decades, court cases have removed some of these obstacles. 

And now, in response to a recent court case, Bill S-3 is designed to finally bring the Indian Act in line with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. 

Senate amendment targets sexism in the Indian Act

But the Senate says it doesn't go far enough.

Senators have proposed an amendment that would remove all sex-based discrimination from the Indian Act, which they say the law in its original form doesn't do. But they're facing resistance from the Liberal government, which wants to pass the bill without the amendment.

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That made me feel like an outsider.- Senator Sandra Lovelace Nicholas

For two senators, both appointed by Paul Martin's Liberal government, this fight is personal.

Senator Sandra Lovelace Nicholas lost her Indian status when she married a non-Indigenous man. In 1976, she divorced and wanted to move back to the Tobique First Nation in New Brunswick, where she'd grown up. But without status, she could no longer live there officially. She and her young son slept in a tent and couch-surfed in the community for several years.

"That made me feel like an outsider," Lovelace Nicholas told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti. 

"There was a lot of people skeptical because they thought I was taking away their part of funding, which I wasn't. They told me to go back to where I came from … I was born there."

Lovelace Nicholas took her human rights case for Indian status to the UN, and won in 1981.

In June, Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett urged other MPs to pass Bill S-3 without an amendment that would eliminate all sex-based discrimination from the Indian Act. She said the amendment goes too far. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)
It really broke our connection to the community- Senator Lillian Dyck

Senator Lillian Dyck's mother, who was from the Gordon First Nation in Saskatchewan, lost her Indian status when she married a Chinese man. That meant that her children didn't have status either.

"What that did to us is it really broke our connection to the community, so consequently we lost all the culture that belonged to the Cree side of the family," Dyck told Tremonti. 

"We didn't fit anywhere, because we were neither what could be called Native or Indian, nor were we Chinese."

Dyck did get Indian status in 1985, after changes to the Indian Act following Lovelace Nicholas' case. But it took another 25 years and another amendment before she could pass on her status to her son.

Not having connections to your community, not having your status, is one of the root causes of our women being made vulnerable to violence.- Senator Lillian Dyck

Beyond taking away access to benefits — from dental coverage to post-secondary education funding — lack of status has also meant that Indigenous women have had to live away from their communities and their families.

"Not having connections to your community, not having your status, is one of the root causes of our women being made vulnerable to violence," said Dyck. 

"And that's why there are so many of us that have gone missing or been murdered."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is facing increased public pressure to accept a Senate amendment of legislation on sex-based discrimination under the Indian Act - 'Because it's 2017,' said Indigenous Senator Lillian Dyck. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Dyck and Lovelace Nicholas are fighting back against the government's resistance to the Senate's amendment to Bill S-3.

This is our birthright.- Senator Sandra Lovelace Nicholas

"It's about time they undo the injustice that they created themselves," said Lovelace Nicholas.

"It's not fair for the women now who are waiting for status, and their children. This is our birthright."

It's time for this to change, said Dyck, pointing to Prime Minister Trudeau's reasoning behind appointing a gender-balanced cabinet was "because it's 2015." 

"Well, it's 2017 and we demand to have equal rights to Indian men."

The court has set a deadline of Dec. 22 for the government to resolve this issue. The deadline has already been extended twice.

The Current requested an interview with Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett, but that request was declined.

Listen to the conversation above.

This segment was produced by The Current's Kristin Nelson.