Sandra Lovelace Nicholas (April 15, 1948-)
By Kelsey Wrightson
The life and career of Sandra Lovelace Nicholas exemplifies how a single individual can transform democratic governance. Lovelace Nicholas worked within government institutions to tackle injustice and discrimination, especially against Indigenous women and children. In the 1970s and 1980s, she challenged the gendered discrimination of the Canadian Indian Act. Subsequently, she continued her battle for justice and equality as the second Aboriginal woman appointed to the Canadian Senate.
Lovelace Nicholas has had many different careers. She studied at Fredericton’s St. Thomas University for three years and later trained in residential construction. Prior to her Senate appointment she worked as a treaty researcher, adult care program director, training coordinator and carpenter. However, she is best known for her political activism for which she received membership to the Order of Canada (1990) and a Governor General’s Award in Commemoration of the Persons Case (1992).
Lovelace Nicholas’ objections to the Indian Act were rooted in personal experiences and observations. She was born in New Brunswick’s Tobique First Nation (Maliseet) in 1948, twelve years before First Nations men and women were allowed to legally vote federally (1960). Raised by a single mother, she grew up with two sisters, surrounded by aunts and cousins. On the Tobique First Nation she experienced the pervasive poverty and prejudice associated with the Indian Act.
In 1970 she married non-First Nations American Airman Bernie Lovelace and moved to California. With the end of that marriage, she returned to the reserve only to be denied housing, education, and health care under the Indian Act: marriage between an Aboriginal woman with Indian status and a non-status man entailed automatic loss of status and rights for her and her children. She could not regain status, even if she divorced her husband or was widowed. In contrast, Aboriginal men marrying outside their community paid no such penalty. Unable to access band services or housing, she was forced to live with her young son in a tent. In 1977 she joined a group of women who non-violently occupied the Tobique band office for four months, demanding an end to discrimination.
The New Brunswickers were not alone. Many Aboriginal women’s groups and their allies opposed the Indian Act. In the early 1970s, supported by the Report of the federal Royal Commission on the Status of Women (1970), Indian Rights for Indian Women and the Native Women’s Association of Canada campaigned to change the law. They found themselves opposing both the federal government and many men in their own communities. In 1971, Jeannette Corbiere Lavell (b 1942), an Ontario Anishnabe and member of the Wikwemikonge First Nation, initiated legal action against Canada (Lavell v Attorney General of Canada 1971). She was followed by Six Nations Mohawk Yvonne Bedard (Bedard v Isaac 1971). Lavell won on appeal and Bedard’s victory depended on this precedent. However, in 1973, when Ottawa appealed the cases to the Supreme Court of Canada, discrimination against women was upheld.
Lovelace Nicholas nevertheless took her own case to the Supreme Court in Sandra Lovelace v Canada (1977-1981). Encouraged by the women in her community, she followed earlier Indigenous precedent to take advantage of the reputation and authority of the United Nations, petitioning its Human Rights Committee in 1979. Two years later, the Committee found Canada in breach of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Despite this condemnation, the UN lacked the substantive power to change Canadian law and Lovelace Nicholas was denied remedy.
In addition to legal intervention, Lovelace Nicholas joined activists in mobilizing public campaigns to raise the consciousness and consciences of Canadians. In July 1979, she joined 50 women and children from Tobique in a 100 mile march to Ottawa. The Canadian government found it increasingly difficult to defend the status quo. In 1982 the Constitution, newly repatriated from the United Kingdom, was amended to include the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Section 15, hard fought for by feminists, asserted the equality of every individual under the law (Kome). Finally, in 1985, despite the opposition of many male-dominated reserves, Bill C-31 revised the Indian Act to reduce (although not eliminate) gender discrimination.
In 2005, Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin, who was trying to improve relations with First Nations, appointed Lovelace Nicholas as a Liberal Senator for New Brunswick. She followed the Saskatchewan pioneer, Cree-Chinese Lillian Dyck by only a few months. In 2013, Lovelace Nicholas sat on the Senate Standing Committees on Aboriginal Peoples, and Agriculture and Forestry. Her speeches regularly address education, Idle No More, and gender-based violence. On 14 February 2013 she called for a national inquiry into Canada’s missing and murdered women, and reprimanded the Conservative government of Stephen Harper for leaving resolutions to violence against Indigenous women to the police: “in light of all the problems and horrifying accounts of the deteriorating relationships between RCMP and Aboriginal women, how can their approach to dealing with these cases be effective at all?”(Lovelace-Nicholas,14 February 2013). Lovelace Nicholas was also outspoken in her criticism of Bill C-27, the First Nations’ Financial Transparency Act, first introduced in 2011. Like many Indigenous activists, she condemned the failure to consult with affected communities.
Over the course of more than thirty years, Lovelace Nicholas has simultaneously challenged the Canadian government and male-dominated Indigenous leadership. She worked within the democratic system, using its tools to bring about reform. In the second decade of the 21st century, another generation of Indigenous activists, often women, returned to the Canadian streets in the Idle No More movement. Lovelace Nicholas, like Dyck, proved sympathetic to this shift in tactics. Both called for an alliance of elders, youth and women in a renewed quest for equality. The result suggests continuity rather than disruption in the long history of Indigenous women’s protest in Canada.
Centre for Canadian Studies, Mount Allison University, “Sandra Lovelace- Native Activist” 2001
Holmes, Joan. Bill C-31, equality or disparity? The effects of the new Indian Act on native women. Ottawa: Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women, 1987.
Jamieson, Kathleen. Indian Women and the Law in Canada: Citizens Minus. Ottawa: Advisory Council on the Status of Women, 1978.
Kome, Penney. The Taking of Twenty-Eight: Women Challenge the Constitution. Toronto: Women’s Press, 1983.
Lawrence, Bonita. “Real” Indians and Others: Mixed-Blood Urban Native Peoples and Indigenous Nationhood. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004.
Lovelace, Sandra “Questions to the Senate Thursday, February 14th 2013,” 1st Session, 41st Parliament, Volume 148, Issue 138
Lovelace, Sandra, “Questions to the Senate Monday March 25, 2013″ 1st Session, 41st Parliament, Volume 148, Issue 148,
New Federation House, Native Leaders of Canada, New Federation House, 2009
Royal Commission of Aboriginal Peoples, “Indian Act: Indian Women,” in Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, vol. 1, Looking Forward Looking Back. Ottawa: The Commission, 1996. 300-302.