Sandra Lovelace, a Maliseet woman from the Tobique Reserve in New Brunswick, belongs to the second wave of feminism of Canada. Thanks to her successful appeal to the Human Rights Committee of the United Nations, Native women in Canada no longer lose their status under the Indian Act through marriage to a non-Native man.
Sandra Lovelace was born on the Tobique Reserve in New Brunswick in 1947. In 1970 she married American Airman Bernie Lovelace and moved with him to California. When her marriage ended a few years later, Lovelace and her children returned to the Tobique Reserve and found they were denied housing, education and health care provided to those with status under Canada’s Indian Act. It took her nearly ten years to have her status restored.
The Indian Act, which still provides the legal framework for the relationship between First Nations people and the Canadian government, was first passed in 1869. For many years it reflected the dominant European-Canadian assumption that men should be the heads of the household and that the legal status of the women in their families is determined by the status of the male household head. What this meant in practice was that women and their children lost their “Indian” status when they married non-Native men but Native men did not when they married non-Native women.
In the early 1970s two Native women’s organizations, Indian Rights for Indian Women and National Native Women’s Association, began to campaign to change the law. With the support of non-Native women’s groups such as the National Action Committee and the Voice of Women, they took direct action such as sit-ins, marches, and appeals through the courts. In 1974, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld the Indian Act. Sandra Lovelace joined the campaign in 1977, and in July 1979 the Tobique women’s group organized a 100 mile walk of women and children from the Oka Reserve, near Montreal, to Ottawa to draw attention to their problem. They were supported along the way by people who provided them with food and cold drinks.
Lovelace also took her case to the Human Rights Committee of the United Nations. The Committee acted slowly. In August 14, 1979 the Committee asked for more information and allowed the Canadian government to defend it actions. The Canadian government claimed that it would like to change the law, but did not feel it could without the agreement of First Nations people, who were divided on the issue. In 1981 the UN committee found Canada in breach of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Even after the UN ruling, the Canadian government acted very slowly. Politicians were concerned that the male leadership within First Nations communities opposed the change, and hesitated to interfere. In July 1981, the Canadian government began granting exemptions from the UN ruling to Indian bands who requested it and in 1985, despite the opposition of many male-dominated band governments that opposed reform, the Indian Act was finally revised. Native women who married non-Native would no longer lose their status, nor would their children.
Sandra Lovelace’s success in changing Canadian law through an appeal to the United Nations Human Rights Commission provides us with an example of the impact one woman can have when she sets out to correct an injustice. Women within racial and ethnic minority communities face special obstacles in their pursuit of fair treatment under the law, and for Lovelace this meant not only challenging the Canadian government, but also the male leadership within the First Nations. Her most important supporters were among the aboriginal and non-aboriginal women’s organizations of the second wave of feminism.(
(The Centre for Canadian Studies at Mount Allison University, 2001)
Using this article, and two other articles that you find relating to the Indian Act, reflect on how this piece of legislation might impact Aboriginal women today.
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