'It broke my heart': Waneek Horn-Miller fought Kahnawake's 'marry out, get out' policy — and won

She is a proud Mohawk who grew up in Kahnawake Mohawk Territory. She represented Canada at the Olympics and was only 14 when she joined the Oka occupation, to stop a golf course from being built on Mohawk land. But Waneek Horn-Miller didn't think she would have to stand up and speak out against her own community.
Waneek Horn-Miller, who has competed in the Olympics as part of Canada's water polo team, challenged a law that forbade her from living in Kahnawake with her non-Indigenous partner. (Submitted by Waneek Horn-Miller)
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She is a proud Mohawk who grew up in Kahnawake Mohawk Territory.

She represented Canada at the Olympics and was only 14 when she joined the Oka occupation, to stop a golf course from being built on Mohawk land.

But Waneek Horn-Miller didn't think she would have to stand up and speak out against her own community.

A membership rule, better known as the "marry out, get out" rule was passed in 1981. It required residents of the Mohawk reserve to move out if they married a non-Indigenous person and suspended other membership entitlements. The council said it was the only way to prevent Kahnawake from being taken over by non-Mohawk.

In 2000, Horn-Miller met and fell in love with Keith Morgan, a fellow Olympian competing in judo at the Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia.

"He was just a fun loving guy with a lot of love in his heart and a kind respect for me as an Indigenous woman," she said.

Waneek Horn-Miller and her partner Keith Morgan (left) have three children. (Waneek Horn-Miller)
The couple were together for eight years before welcoming their first child in 2010 and had two more in 2013 and 2016. It was during her first pregnancy daughter that Horn-Miller felt the pull to return to Kahnawake to raise her children in her culture. She started building a house there while her partner attended medical school in the Caribbean. But things didn't go as planned.

"I got backlash I didn't expect," she recalled.

A petition was circulated to halt the building of Horn-Miller's house and she received hate mail directed at her unborn child.

"I was just devastated. I really couldn't ... believe my community would attack me, especially when I was pregnant and at my most vulnerable."

She said an eviction list was developed and circulated, naming those who may be in relationships with a non-Indigenous partner. Her name was at the top of the list.

"It broke my heart a bit," she said. "I remember competing in the Olympics and one of the most proudest moments ... was my community is going to see me. They're going to see me do this. I'm here representing them and I hope they're proud of me… and when people turned on me, it really… it broke it."

"I believe in my heart of hearts that, that's not the way my people are," Waneek reputed. "I felt strongly that I needed to do something about it."

Horn-Miller decided to try to engage with the community members who wanted her to leave. She attended community meetings — including with a pro-eviction group — spoke with chief and council and tried to engage as many people as possible to broker some kind of resolution.

"I was really worried there was going to be violence," she said.

This concern pushed Horn-Miller to take legal action. She was the lead plaintiff among 16 others who launched the case.

'Marry out, get out' violates Canadian Charter

"It was not my most proud moment to do it. But I know why I did it. I did it out love for my community. I did it with an understanding of our past and who we are and a hope for the future where we are not just a people that are based in our DNA but we're a really a strong, powerful nation of people that are going to stake our claim in this country."

They fought the law, all the way to Quebec Superior Court.

In April, Justice Thomas Davis ruled the law violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Judge said the "marry out, get out" provision of the Kahnawake Membership Law is "largely (if not solely) grounded in a stereotypical belief that non-Native spouses will use the resources and land of the Band in a way that is detrimental to it and that will have a negative impact on the ability of the Band to protect its culture and its land."

Horn-Miller thought the ruling was fair.

"[Justice Davis] thought long and hard about how he worded a lot of things. He understood that this is a very sensitive and very emotional issue in our community and that he was looking at the future where we could get to some kind of resolution of it."

Horn-Miller is quick to add that the backlash she felt from community members wasn't representative of everyone living there. 

"It really wasn't everybody in Kahnawake ... I would even say [it was] a small group of angry people. 

As for moving back to Kahnawake now that the ruling has come out, ​Horn-Miller remains hopeful.

"It is my dream, I would love that ... Kahnawake is a big place full of a lot of people. And there's a lot of really amazing people in my community that love me and love my kids and love Keith. And I focus on that love."