Sandra Lovelace-Nicholas

Sandra Lovelace Nicholas (April 15, 1948-)

By Kelsey Wrightson

Sandra Lovelace-Nicholas Photo from Government of Canada

Sandra Lovelace-Nicholas Photo from Government of Canada

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.

Media Coverage of Chief Theresa Spence and Idle No More Winter 2012-13

By Kelsey Wrightson

In the winter of 2012-13 the Canadian media accelerated its coverage of Indigenous peoples, largely in response to the actions of one individual and one movement. The first was Chief Theresa Spence, who had first been elected chief of the Attawapiskat First Nation in Northern Ontario in August 2010; the second were the Idle No More protests that originated in Saskatchewan in December 2010.  At its best, media coverage provides an important forum for public education and discussion, a key foundation for the healthy functioning of democracy. However, coverage of Chief Spence and Idle No More provoked both backlash and debate.

December 28, 2012 Edmonton Alberta

December 28, 2012 Edmonton Alberta

Chief Spence first came to prominent media attention in the fall of 2011 when poor housing conditions on her reserve drove her to declare a state of emergency. On December 11, 2012, Chief Spence re-emerged in Canadian news headlines when she went on a 44 day long hunger strike to highlight the desperate conditions at Attawapiskat and elsewhere on Turtle Island.  In particular, she requested a meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Governor General David Johnston (the representative of the Crown) to discuss Canada’s treaties and the obligations of a nation-to-nation relationship.

Spence’s initiative occurred at two critical junctions. First, it emerged in the context of the government’s continuing rejection of both the recommendations of the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, and the principles of the Kelowna Accord (2005) agreed upon by the previous Liberal administration. Second, Spence’s hunger strike took place just after the grass-roots protest movement, Idle No More, had begun to highlight both widespread racism in the Canadian political and social system, and the shortcomings of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) and the Canadian state-sanctioned leadership mandated through the Indian Act.

Since her emergence on a Canada-wide stage, Chief Spence has faced serious media scrutiny. In itself, this is hardly surprising. A healthy democracy requires persistent investigation by journalists. All public leaders should be subject to the same examination, and all administrations should be held responsible for financial mismanagement. In this instance, however, much of the Canadian media appear to have promoted and joined in a chorus of denunciation and personal assault.  In the process, any sense of history, especially the history of colonialism, went conspicuously missing.

In their fascination with the supposed flaws of their targets, some journalists deserted their posts as critical guardians of a well-functioning democracy. Rather than investigating the specifics of Chief Spence’s political messages or examining the structures that led to the conflicts within Canada’s Indigenous communities and between them and the federal government, many commentators in both the “mainstream” media and alternative social media forums such as Twitter, Facebook and blog sites resorted to gendered and racialized stereotypes.

The media’s coverage of Chief Spence is disturbing. When it was learned that Spence was taking fluids and traditional medicines in the form of tea and fish broth, her action was downgraded to a “so called” hunger strike. Although the World Medical Association’s Declaration of Malta on Hunger Strikers (1991) states that clear liquids can be consumed during a hunger strike, the media court largely decided otherwise. Further dismissals referred to her “liquids only diet” and questioned the danger to her health. Michael Coran of Sun media invoked a cultural (and often racist as well as sexist) ideal in prefacing his disparaging comments by saying “I mean no disrespect- but this is a heavy woman.” He was not alone in focusing on Spence’s physical appearance whle largely ignoring her political message. Sun Newspaper columnist Ezra Levant tweeted “Tomorrow is Day 40 in Chief Snackalot’s hunger strike. She still weights a deuce, deuce and a half.”  The same network held a contest for descriptions of Chief Spence. The published results included “fat, oink, garbage, chief two-chins, and Stop sucking Lysol.” Only certain kinds of people, with particular kinds of bodies are effectively credited with endangering themselves on hunger strikes. Nor was this all. Another Sun reporter further trivialized her protest by targeting “Theresa Spence’s mood swings.” Like many others of her sex, she was effectively deemed biologically predisposed to be unreliable.

The repeated dismissal of Chief Spence’s fast reveals the media’s pervasive ignorance of Indigenous ways of life. As Leanne Simpson has highlighted, fish soup serves as a key signifier in Anishinaabeg history and governance. The designation of Chief Spence’s fast as a “liquid diet” originates in a modern western discourse of enormous privilege. For her community, fish broth serves instead as a potent symbol of  hardship and sacrifice: the yoke of  “colonialism” left little else but watery soup for “generations upon generations.” Much like the potato symbolized physical and cultural suffering in British ruled Ireland, fish broth is both a metaphorical and literal invocation of the starvation experienced by colonized peoples in Canada.

Chief Spence also become the primary media target of accusations of financial mismanagement of Attawapiskat funds. While the independent audit by Deloitte and Touche reveals shortcomings, it does not directly condemn the chief. The National Post, however,  typically singled her out with its headline “Federal Government audit ‘severely critical’ of Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence. ” Most media chose to ignore the joint responsibility for spending and the fact that Spence was chief in only one of the five years audited. Such assessment left the public prey to  ready prejudices about the supposed extravagance and mismanagement of both Indigenous people and women.

Racist and gendered stereotypes went well beyond Spence herself. Social media forums have attacked contemporary Indigenous protest generally, notably Idle No More. In a typical example, one Twitter user claimed non-racism even as he repeatedly invoked old arguments that justified imperial occupation: “You see that’s the problem with a good percentage of F[irst] N[ations] there (sic) uneducated and know very little about what’s really going on in the world.” Particularly worrying have been threats of violence.  When a human skull was found north of Toronto, National Post readers responded with “jokes” about Chief Spence. One twitter user posted photos of his gun and ammunition when he insisted that no blockade would stop him getting to work.  The Winnipeg Free Press had to delete numerous abusive comments from its coverage of both the movement and the hunger strike. One editorial by Matt Henderson concluded that much of the outpouring was “so offensive that one wonders where this hatred comes from. The comments attack indigenous people in this country because of who they are and what they look like.” Even his outrage, however, did not deter observers determined to flaunt their distain for Indigenous people.

The efforts of the Winnipeg Free Press demonstrate the existence of an alternative, more respectful point of view. A few mainstream journalists have taken their colleagues to task. Of particular note is Stephen Hume of the Vancouver Sun. His column on 25 January challenged rampant hypocrisy in the treatment of Attawapiskat spending. Perhaps still more important are the ways that Twitter and Facebook have hosted diverse discussion and practices of ‘speaking back to power.’ On Twitter, a user employing  the hashtag #Ottawapiskat brilliantly took official Ottawa to task in a devastating portrait of ill-spent millions, including the apparently doomed F-35’s. Elsewhere, the commonly progressive Huffington Post Canada has republished critical blogs, most notably a detailed breakdown of Attawapiskat funding by Chelsea Vowel. has also supplied alternative perspectives that address the historical context of colonization and systemic racism and sexism.

Unfortunately, this alternate discourse still struggles for space. Given the racism and sexism, detailed in the recent Missing Women Commission of Inquiry reports (November 22, 2012), this is not surprising. The coverage of Chief Spence and Idle No More cannot be disconnected from a history of oppression. Until more of Canada’s press does its homework in investigating relations between Native and non-Native Canada,  the legacy of colonialism will hobble Canadian democracy.

Newspaper Articles:

Coren, Michael “Chief Theresa Spence and Attawapiskat Exposed” Sun News Network January 3, 2013

Driscoll, Kent “Chief Spence meets the spin cycleAPTN January 4, 2013

Henderson, Matt “Idle No More commenters could use some lessons in critical thinking,Winnipeg Free Press, January 19, 2013

Hume, Stephen “Finger-pointing at Attawapiskat more than a little hypocriticalVancouver Sun, January 25, 2013

MacCharles, Tonda “Federal government audit ‘severely critical’ of Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence,The Star, January 7, 2013

Morrison, Kristopher “Human skull found on highway on-ramp north of TorontoNational Post, January 14, 2013

Piapot, Ntawnis, “Racial Tensions rise along the edges of Idle No More Rallies” January 3, 2013

Simpson, Leanne “Fish Broth and Fasting,” Divided No More, January 16, 2013

Taylor-Vaisey, Nick, “What is Known about Chief Spence,” Macleans, January 10, 2013

Vowel, Chelsea “The Idiot’s Guide to First Nations TaxationHuffington Post, December 13, 2011


Further Resources:

Ipsos Reid Poll “Fast Fallout: Chief Spence and Idle No More Movement Galvanizes Canadians Around Money Management and Accountability” January 15, 2013

National Film Board, “People of Kattawappiskak River”  2012


Liberalism’s blindspots = exclusionary Canadian democracy

Photo via LAC, Toronto Star, members of the Single Men's Unemployed Association, Toronto c 1930.

Photo via LAC, Toronto Star, members of the Single Men’s Unemployed Association, Toronto c 1930.

In a recent op-ed about the Idle No More campaign I argued that liberalism, as a political philosophy, has blindspots. As a foundational philosophy in Canada and as the centre of our politics, liberalism, I suggested, has left many of us unable to understand where marginalized groups, such as Indigenous Canadians, are coming from when they try to advance so-called “special” claims that run counter to the liberal belief in pure equality and freedom. There are many such blindspots, and their history is complicated, but it’s worth identifying some of them and tracing their provenance.

In its simplest form, liberalism is about liberty. From that point onwards proponents and critics of liberalism diverge about what the philosophy, at its core, espouses, represents, and prescribes. But from that foundational principle of liberty emerges a common, though not universal, claim that to the extent that an individual is prevented from doing something, s/he is unfree. As liberalism is elaborated and applied, certain restrictions on freedom are granted, but the main idea is that the maximization of liberty is the first principle when it comes to designing a society: as much as possible, people should be left to do their own thing.

Liberals (and I do not mean members of the political party) tend to believe in the need for liberty because of their conception of human agency. For them, humans are conceived as individual, naturally free, choosers of ends who are capable of making and revising plans for themselves, and seeing those plans through. So, what we get is a broad claim that not only should people should be left alone to choose for themselves, but they should also be held responsible for the successes or failures of their personal projects. But this claim is flawed, since the reality of lived experience for many is far removed from the foundational claims of liberalism.

Liberalism in Canada is blind to structural oppression and disadvantage because so many Canadians buy fully (or nearly fully) into the liberal imaginary that I’ve outlined above, and are unable to understand how individuals are shaped, constrained, or flat-out oppressed before they ever have a chance to make and pursue life plans. And a disproportionate number of the individuals who are met with structural barriers are part of identifiable groups: women, Aboriginals, or the economic lower-class. And when liberals forget that the promise of liberalism is philosophical, while the reality of liberalism is grounded in the everyday experience of these groups (and others), the liberal promise of the opportunity to maximize one’s agency through the provision of liberty falls on its face. Oops.

But don’t believe my admonitions from the Ivory Tower. Let’s take a quick look at some numbers for some groups of Canadians. First, the poor.  In Canada, 3.5 million people are considered poor, and 1 in 10 children walk the line between having their basic life needs met or not. Of these 3.5 million Canadians, 770,000 use a food bank each month; 40 per cent of those users are children.[1] Ever tried to maximize your freedom on an empty stomach? Or while freezing?

When it comes to gender, the statistics are equally discouraging. According to a 2005 study by the Royal Bank of Canada, the lost-income potential of women, due to the wage gap and lower rates of promotion, is somewhere around $126 billion per year.[2] At the same time, the wage gap for full-time, full-year employment sees women make a mere 72 per cent of what their male counterparts do. Thus, freedom and equality remain, but women pay on average a 28 per cent premium for these basic human rights.

Meanwhile, every day, 3,000 women seek refuge from domestic abuse in emergency shelters. In a year, at least 427,000 women are sexually assaulted in Canada (those are just the reported numbers, which might represent only 10 per cent of actual assaults).[3]

Furthermore, politically, the Royal Bank report noted that Canada ranked 38th in the world for number of women in the national legislature, with barely 21 per cent of members of Parliament being women. By 2012, that number was a mere 25 per cent, supported by a New Democratic Party Caucus made up of 39 per cent women (versus 17 per cent for the Conservative and Liberal parties).

Indigenous Canadians live, on average, seven years fewer than non-Indigenous Canadians; they have an infant mortality rate two-to-four times higher; deaths due to HIV/AIDS are twice that of other Canadians.[4] And a 2010 report released by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives revealed that Aboriginal incomes in Canada were 30 per cent lower than those of other Canadians ($18,692 compared with $27,097).

On their own, these statistics prove nothing. They’re simply indicators. But underneath them is the story of liberalism’s blindspots. Built into the social structure of Canadian liberal-democracy is a legacy of privilege that militates against groups of people. Not individuals. Groups as groups, as evidenced by central tendencies observable in the data mentioned above. And while the lot of women, Indigenous Canadians, and other groups has improved in recent years, short-term improvements cannot make up for decades (or centuries) of neglect, abuse, or full-blown oppression.

If Canadians, in their capacity as liberal individuals, fail to understand the role of persistent oppression in preventing certain groups of people from achieving even base-level equality of opportunity, then liberalism will remain blind to disadvantage. Ultimately, it’s not liberalism as a philosophy that turns its back on those who fall outside its privileged space. It?s the people who believe in that philosophy.


Further Reading & Resources

[1] Accessed Jan. 6, 2013.

[2] Accessed Jan. 6, 2013.

[3] Accessed Jan. 6, 2013.

[4] Accessed Jan. 6, 2013.