The Canadian Native Women’s Homemakers’ Clubs serve as an example of how 20th century Native women used small-scale, locally-based associations to promote social justice and welfare, targeting not only their particular communities, but First Nations in general. The Clubs began officially in 1942, although similar groups, such as sewing circles and traditional women’s councils, had a long history within Native communities. By the 1950s the Clubs had become an integral part to many reserves across Canada. Their popularity grew to such an extent that Indian Affairs Agents perceived the local organizations as a legitimate “movement” sweeping the entire nation.
The Native Homemakers organized themselves in such a way to meet the needs of their people and better their society as a whole. They created healthcare projects, held annual conferences and expanded their knowledge through education programs. Most clubs had 12-18 members, ranging from young girls to community Elders. Eventually support for the clubs diminished as Native women expanded their goals. Some of the women, for instance, found the Constitution of the Clubs too rigid. The 1960’s brought about a shift in focus amongst First Nation women. While the Homemaker’s Clubs had emphasized member’s responsibility to the community in conjunction with the improvement of women’s status, new organizations were focused specifically on the betterment of First Nation women with an underlying goal of improving the community as a whole.
Take the case of Alberta’s Native Homemakers’ Clubs. By 1969, there were a mere nine active Homemaker’s Clubs in Alberta, a significant difference in contrast to the 1957 count of 34. Interestingly, the same 1969 survey indicates that although the numbers were low for the Homemaker’s Clubs, there were 26 ‘Other Indian Women’s Organizations’ in Alberta at that time. These statistics demonstrate that although there was an overall decline in the Homemaker’s Clubs by the late 1960’s, the interest and dedication of Native women to organize had not diminished. Most likely, club interests transferred over in the process of creating provincial organizations such as the Voice of Alberta Native Women (later re-named Alberta Native Women’s Association). By establishing a similar association, First Nation women modeled the new organization after the smaller localized affiliations that had been so successful throughout their short existence. Taking this one step further, and considering the high level of organization in Alberta compared to other provinces (it had the most Homemakers’ Clubs by far) it may not come as a surprise that Bertha Clark Jones, the first President of the National Native Women’s Association of Canada, was from Fort McMurry, Alberta.
Overall, the Native Homemakers’ Clubs are not only a reflection of the central role of First Nations women within their communities (past and present), but may be seen as a powerful example of how Aboriginal women in the 20th century extended their influence on local, provincial and national society. In this instance, as in so many others, ‘the local’ is a good place to start in learning political skills that may be useful at national and even global levels.
Magee, Kathryn. “ ‘For Home and Country’: Agency, Activism and Education of Alberta’s Native Women’s Clubs, 1942-1970.” Native Studies Review 18, No. 2 (2009): 27-49.
Mathes, Valerie Sherer. “Nineteenth Century Women and Reform: The Women’s National Indian Association.” American Indian Quarterly 14, No. 1. (Winter, 1990): 1-8.
Landsman, Gail H. “ The “Other” as political Symbol: Images of Indians in the Woman Suffrage Movement.” Ethnohistory 39, No. 3. (Summer, 1992): 247-284.
Since 1974, the Native Women’s Association of Canada/L’Association des femmes autochtones du Canada (NWAC/AFAC) has been Canada’s major representation of First Nations and Métis women. Its presidents have included prominent activists such as Ontario Annishinabe Jeannette Corbière Lavell and Ontario Mohawk Beverley Jacobs. Its campaigns to win recognition of the terrible costs of residential schools and missing and murdered Native women have been influential in stirring consciences and raising consciousness of racism and sexism. It has also been active in trying to ensure that women win recognition of their rights to band membership and family property on reserve lands and has been prepared to challenge the Assembly of First Nations (formerly known as the National Indian Brotherhood, which has now appointed a Women’s Council). Its research and policy reports are essential to understanding the politics of Native women in Canada. In 2004, it initiated the ‘Sisters in Spirit Campaign’ to bring attention to the high rates of violence against Aboriginal women. Three years later, it hosted the first National Aboriginal Women’s Summit, titled “Strong Women, Strong-Communities,” in Corner Brook, Newfoundland and Labrador. The three-pronged agenda of that summit–”Health, Safety and Wellness”, “Equality and Empowerment”, and “Strength, Balance and Honour”– embodied hopes for practice and principle. The NWAC/AFAC has also been noteworthy for its work with other feminist groups. In response to demands by the NWAC/AFAC and the Feminist Alliance for International Action, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women decided in late 2011 to conduct an inquiry into murder and disappearance of Aboriginal women and girls in Canada. That committee had already investigated a similar situation in Mexico, demonstrating both the global nature of violence against women and the possibility of internationally organized resistance.
Armstrong, Jeanette. 1996. “Invocation: The Real Power of Aboriginal Women” in Christine Miller and Patricia Churchryk, eds. Women of the First Nations: Power, Wisdom and Strength. Manitoba: University of Manitoba Press. p. ix – xii
Desmarais, Dierdre A. 1998. The Native Women’s Association of Canada’s Struggle to Secure Equality Rights within the Canadian Constitution. University of Regina. MA diss.
“The National Aboriginal Women’s Summit” prepared for the House of Commons Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development (NWAC/AFAC, April 28, 2008) http://www.nwac.ca/sites/default/files/reports/20080429HoCCommitteePresentationNAWSFinal.pdf.
Native Women’s Association of Canada, http://www.nwac.ca/
Native Women’s Assn. of Canada v. Canada,  3 S.C.R.627, http://femlaw.queensu.ca/Law692Law693/law692/NWACSCC1994.pdf
Miskimmin, Susanne E. 1996. “‘You Can Always Give Back’: Iroquoian and Algonquian Women’s Construction of Identity” in “Nobody Took the Indian Blood out of Me”: An Analysis of Algonquian and Iroquoian Discourse Concerning Bill C-31 PhD diss. University of Western Ontario.
Moss, Wendy. 1990. “Indigenous Self-Government in Canada and Sexual Equality Under the Indian Act: Resolving Conflicts Between Collective and Individual Rights” in Queen’s Law Journal v.15,no. 2. 279 – 305
“Sisters in Spirit,” http://www.sistersinspirit.ca/
(1947 – )
Mary Simon is a well-known Canadian Inuit leader. Born in northern Quebec, she had an early career with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Northern Service (CBC) where she established her credentials as someone committed to the north and its peoples. In 1986 she became president of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference and helped to ensure the participation of Russian Inuit. In the 1980s and 1990s she was an Inuit negotiator during negotiations about the repatriation of the Canadian constitution. In 1994, Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien appointed her the first Canadian ambassador for Circumpolar Affairs. In the 1990s, she was Policy Director for the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People. Between 1999 and 2001 she served as Canadian ambassador to Denmark. Since then she has chaired the Arctic Children and Youth Foundation and served on the Board of Governors of the University of the Arctic and as a Board Member for the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation. In 2006 she was elected president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami.
Simon, Mary. 1996. Inuit: One Arctic, One Future.Cider Press.
Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, http://www.itk.ca/