Unreserved

Reconciliation cannot happen without gender equality, Mohawk leader says

Ellen Gabriel’s gentle, clear, strong voice was the voice for the Mohawk during the Oka resistance. Gabriel is Kanehsatake Mohawk, turtle clan. And she has not stopped advocating for the rights of Indigenous peoples since then. Recently, she gave a speech called Age of Reconciliation: Restoring the Roles Women Traditionally Play.
Ellen Gabriel is a longtime Mohawk activist and artist from Kanesatake. (Laurene Jardin/CBC)
Listen7:28

For 78 days in the summer of 1990, she stood in the midst of a firestorm known as the Oka Crisis.

On one side, the people of Oka trying to expand a golf course onto Mohawk land. On the other, the Mohawk who vowed to protect land they called sacred. From the front line of the barricade to the spotlight of mainstream media, a fresh-faced young Mohawk woman emerged.

Chosen by the People of the Longhouse, Ellen Gabriel's gentle, clear, strong voice was the voice for the Mohawk during the resistance. Gabriel is Kanehsatake Mohawk, turtle clan. And she has not stopped advocating for the rights of Indigenous peoples since then.

Recently, she gave a speech called Age of Reconciliation: Restoring the Roles Women Traditionally Play.  

In the Mohawk culture, women are equal to men. However, government assimilation policies and church interventions undermined the Mohawk way of life, Gabriel says.

"Women pass on the clans, the language, the culture. Women have title to the land. They are the ones in charge of the land, everything that happens on the land. And just sovereign in their own right."

But all that changed with contact and the eventual introduction of the Indian Act.

"It undermined the authority of women. Title to the land was taken away and under the Indian Act, it automatically went to the men — just like any other nation. Status went through the men instead of the women, and it did not recognize the authority of women, land — how it's used — and just really totally changed our society."

Gabriel says reconciliation cannot happen unless the issue of gender discrimination is addressed. In order for that to happen, the band council system needs to go, she says.

"The band council system was designed to promote the leadership of men. And in a sense, they didn't really have power, because the minister of Indian affairs has to rubber stamp every single thing that goes on in our communities."

She says that women have always resisted colonization.

"Women have been experiencing discrimination since time immemorial. They were resisting colonization. And we have still been resisting colonization. There is no post-colonialism. Colonialism is still alive and well."