Gender Equality Within the First Nations

Gender has always played an important role in Canadian politics. In Sarah Nickel’s book, Assembling Unity: Indigenous Politics, Gender and the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, she focused on the influences on Indigenous movements in British Columbia from various perspectives, including gendered political expressions, reinterpretations of constitutions, and struggles for sovereignty. The author draws heavily on the struggle of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs (UBCIC), which was formed to fight against the 1969 White Paper Proposal. This essay argues that gendered norms played a critical role in Indigenous political movements, in that while they initially determined the structure of roles in the UBCIC and Indigenous society, women’s liberation movement worldwide encouraged Indigenous women to challenge this gendered structure both within and outside organization. Nickel’s illustration of global feminist ideological currents is a good exploration.

For Nickel, gender roles influenced the formation of Indigenous organizations by initially foregrounding men’s roles. Taking UBCIC as an example, men dominated the leadership roles. When the organization was advocating for its political agendas such as sovereignty and freedom, it was mainly men who debated them on behalf of the association.[1] Alternatively, women had minor roles in the UBCIC, even if they did, they were only supportive workers.[2] Hence, indigenous women had to defend a native nationalism that discriminated them.[3]This phenomenon was ironic as UBCIC was responsible to strive for the rights and freedoms of Indigenous people, but the leaders of the group failed to tackle the social hierarchy within the organization. The social dynamics at that time did not focus much on gender equality, which can be seen from Indigenous women’s acceptance on taking up relatively unimportant duties. As Nickel mentions, some women still remain distanced with feminist ideologies.[4]

However, the unfairness did not last long, as this male-dominant narrative in UBCIC was challenged by the uprising of feminist ideologies. Starting from the late 1960s, feminist consciousness became popular, and it began to influence women worldwide through recognizing that gendered social structures had to change.[5] This consciousness can be reflected in the sudden and proactive change of women’s struggles in UBCIC. They no longer accepted their secondary roles due to gender stereotypes, and they were willing to take the initiative to fight for their own rights. For instance, First Nations women participated in conferences like the 1967 Royal Commission on the Status of Women.[6] These actions had increased the Indigenous women’s political voices, and the UBCIC gendered operations were inevitably challenged. When feminism gained more and more supporters, organizations like BCIHA (British Columbia Indian Homemakers’ Association) and BCNWS (British Columbia Native Women’s Society) used the popularity to force the UBCIC to open their membership doors for women.[7] As American scholar Renya Ramirez recognizes, sovereignty “no longer means Indigenous men have the right to control women’s lives”, but “involves engagement with indigenous women’s rights and claims”.[8] In particular, Nickel mentions many Indigenous women had pressured the UBCIC to recognize that Indigenous sovereignty included gender inequality.[9] Thus, gendered norms began to deteriorate in First Nation’s social movements, while equality between both genders started to occupy a heavier role.

This unequal gender power relationship went beyond specific organizations to broaden Canadian society. Analysing discourses in feminist movements is critical, because samples of language in use illustrate the contestations between genders.[10] The 1876 Indian Act greatly contributed to racialized discourses by devaluating Indigenous women, such as men with Indian status could pass on but women could not. [11] This laid structural racialised languages in both the provincial government and within the Indigenous community. For instance, Indigenous women’s “natural” inclinations made them being coded as mothers and community caretakers.[12]This serious gender inequality narrative was influential as it unconsciously shaped women to cope with these racialized languages, consequently demotivating them from fighting for fairness and rights.

Inspired by the feminist discourses in the late 1960s, First Nation women attempted to confront this social narrative. The increasing discussions of Indigenous’s feminism reflected the progressivity of gender equality. Their resistance such as the 1971 New Mexico’s international conference of Indigenous women redefined the grounds of Indigenous struggles to a global perspective.[13] Further, women’s challenges against the Canadian government were also recorded, such as calling upon members to pressure councillors and officials to put BCIHA’s objectives into action.[14] Although these pressures and redefinition did not guarantee the immediate increase in women’s political participation, they successfully influenced the public to rethink gender inequality. For example, leaders of BCIHA like Rose Charlie would openly discuss sexism in media articles and interviews, and their voices forced some male leaders to admit women’s exclusion in Indigenous politics.[15] What is more, feminist discourses had encouraged more women to involve in equality movements. In 1973, Indigenous women’s efforts led to the creation of the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC), which was a national feminist association formed by thirteen women associations.[16] With more platforms for female political voices, the role of gender was getting attention from the public in First Nation’s struggles.

Indigenous women’s social struggle extended to broader feminist politics when they began considering the gendered roles of political activists. Apart from the two perspectives above, gendered norms were also inserted into political goals as “male goals” and “female goals”. Within those indigenous organizations, various kinds of goals were promoted and advocated. However, deeply influenced by the gendered environment, those organizations’ leaders tended to think men were the only ones to fight for larger socio-political goals.[17] This shows that gendered stereotypes not only discriminated against the participation of women, but also despised what they were contributing to the Indigenous community. Undoubtedly, Indigenous women had resisted these distinctions, because they would not want to be inferior during the process of First Nation’s struggles. BCHIA did resist through cooperating with other mainstream feminist organizations to express how fragmented it was, especially on double identities–an Indian and a woman.[18] It gained support from non-Indigenous women, since they had no experience of being subjugated from sovereignty discussions within their own community. Those support had made Indigenous women strive for more political representation and involvement.

As Nickel mentioned, the definition of sovereignty had changed over time, particularly when there were increasing demands to include women in those discussions. It was not only about what roles they were carrying within those Indigenous organizations, but also how their concerns became the pillar of Indigenous movements. The distinction of “male goals” and “women goals” no longer exist, as gendered norms were abandoned as the criteria to pursue a goal or not. For instance, child welfare was usually treated as a “woman goal”, and was undermined by male Indigenous leaders, but had later became a critical part of the UBCIC’s sovereignty platform.[19] This shows the pursuit of Indigenous sovereignty was reframed into a broader context of pan-Indigenous unity, instead of only uniting a part of the community. In short, gender inequality has always been a serious problem in the Indigenous movements. When we traced back to the 1876 Indian Act, it empowered Indian men with all the rights and privileges to overcome Indian women.[20] From the perspectives of indigenous organizations’ formation, public discourses and political goals, they show how influential gendered norms were, and how the Indigenous women were awakened by the global feminist ideological currents. Ultimately, a more progressive gender equality has to be achieved to reach a broad Indigenous unity.

[1] Nickel 2020, 68

[2] Nickel 2020, 65

[3] Ramirez 2007, 25

[4] Nickel 2019, 112

[5] Klatch 2001, 792

[6] Nickel 2019, 63

[7] Nickel 2019, 65

[8] Nickel 2019, 157

[9] Nickel 2019, 154

[10] Cameron 1998, 948

[11] Barker 2008, 261

[12] Nickel 2019, 80

[13] Nickel 2017, 315

[14] Nickel 2019, 108

[15] Nickel 2019, 156

[16] Nickel 2019, 158

[17] Nickel 2019, 110

[18] Nickel 2019, 158

[19] Nickel 2017, 321

[20] Barker 2008, 259

Thomas Yue
Thomas Yue
Thomas Yue is currently pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in University of Toronto. His major are Contemporary Asian Studies and History. His research interests include development and modernization of east Asian cities, Canadian politics, and Asian social movements.