Indigenous Women and Gender


Indigenous women were especially affected by the gender norms imposed by European colonialism. Colonial interests in the North-West sought to prevent the mingling of European and Aboriginal people by erasing successful past intimate relations, by presenting Indigenous women as a threat, and by encouraging the immigration of white women. British assumptions about the moral superiority of their version of marriage regarding the protection and empowerment of women, for example, was one way that it legitimized its rule over others.  In the same way, a strictly monogamous legal conception of marriage was part of the Canadian national agenda, particularly in the west where other legal frameworks of marriage pre-existed and co-existed with the colonial norm.  To preserve the purity of marriage it demanded no deviations, no divorce, and no remarriage. 

Canadian law was not only biased against women, it was also a direct challenge to much more flexible Indigenous laws concerning marriage and was used to interfere in the lives of First Nations and Métis people.  It served as a tool of racial segregation, keeping white and Indigenous people apart.  It was also used to justify the surveillance and policing of the sexuality of Indigenous women, supervising them to see that they conformed to the Canadian marital norm.  Residential schools were complicit in this system – they sought to remake Indigenous women to fit European domestic and marital norms.  Scholars have noted that gender along with race were the sharp edge of colonial policy, politics, and programs designed to transform these social realities and replace them with a proper form of “civilization.”  Others have posited that attention to indigenous female labour after WWII provides insight into coercive federal Indian policies which continue to affect Indigenous lives in Canada, contributing to their dispossession from land and their poor economic situation.  For example, the training Indigenous girls received in residential schools directed them towards the bottom rung of the wage labour economy as domestic servants.  This class and gendered approach to work force training revolved around closely supervised cleaning and food preparation work in the residential schools and related duties in the homes of government and church staff and led to jobs in places like private homes, hotels, tourist resorts, non-Indian hospitals, and homes for the elderly. Government programs to train women for the workforce were informed by prejudices against Indigenous women and placed them in jobs where they were subordinated to men and also paid significantly less.   

The 1869 Gradual Enfranchisement Act replaced traditional and matrimonial forms of governance with the Indian Act, modelled after colonial sensibilities of the day. Of particular importance to the government was expediting civilization and management of Indian lands. In order to accomplish these goals government defined Indian identity based on registration entitlement. As such, early Indian legislation targeted Indian males while excluding Indian women. An Indian woman who had married a non-Indian was disenfranchised and not entitled to live on reserve. Her children were also excluded, measures which were in keeping with British Canada’s civilization, segregation and racial purity ideals. The 1869 Act’s s. 6 introduced the loss of status clause which affected Indian women who married non-Indians. Children were required to remain with father’s band. The 1869 Act also restricted the transfer of property to an Indian woman with inheritances passed to the children. The 1876 continued the 1869 loss of status provisions with respect to Indian women but at the same time provided for the acquisition of Indian status by non-Indian women who married an Indian man. Indian Act amendments also allowed for the withholding of annuity payments if a childless Indian woman lived with another man. In 1879 the Act included clauses specific to Indian women and prostitution. Western legal concepts regarding private property does not find a corollary in First Nations culture. The long-term civilization objectives in the Indian Act is built on the acquisition of private property and ultimately citizenship through the allotment of land holdings by individuals through Certificates of Possession (previously Location Tickets). In 1999 the First Nation Land Management Act was passed by Parliament. Fourteen First Nations across Canada were signatory to the Agreement with an opt-in opportunity for other First Nations. Once a First Nations opts into the FNLMA those sections of the Indian Act pertaining to land no longer apply. Instead, a community consultation process determines the content of a requisite land code and other provisions which fall under the Land Management regime. Land Codes are approved by INAC which must consider how matrimonial real property will be addressed.  


Suggested Readings:

  • Sarah Carter,Capturing Women: The Manipulation of Cultural Imagery in Canada's Prairie West, (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1997) 
  • Sarah Carter, The Importance of Being Monogamous: Marriage and Nation Building in Western Canada to 1915 (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2008)
  • Cornet, Wendy and Allison Lendor.Discussion Paper: Matrimonial Real Property on Reserve. Cornet Consulting & Mediation, November 28, 2002 
  • Mary Jane McCallum,Indigenous Women, Work, and History, 1940-1980 (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2014). 
  • Adele Perry,On the Edge of Empire: Gender, Race, and the Making of British Columbia, 1849-1871 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001). 
  • Allison Hargreaves,Violence Against Indigenous Women: Literature, Activism, Resistance (Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2017)