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.
Diminutive in stature and self-deprecating in manner, Muriel McQueen Fergusson possessed an incisive mind and sharp wit. A lawyer by profession, she served as New Brunswick’s Regional Enforcement Counsel for the Wartime Prices and Trade Board during the Second World War and subsequently as Regional Director of Family Allowances and Old Age Security. Called to the Senate in 1953, she was appointed its first female Speaker in 1972.
Born in 1899, in Shediac, New Brunswick, Muriel McQueen was the middle child and only daughter of Julia Jackson and James McQueen, a lawyer. When, during the First World War, she entered Mount Allison University, many of her male peers were at the front, resulting in a gender balance at the university unmatched until the 1980s, when women first took the lead. An active participant in campus life, Muriel represented Mount Allison at the founding meeting of the Student Christian Movement (S.C.M.) and served on the national executive. By the time she graduated in 1921, returning veterans, including Aubrey Fergusson (1894-1942) who shared both Muriel’s love of acting and her ambition to study law, had swelled the undergraduate ranks.
Muriel’s hope to attend Dalhousie Law School was frustrated by her mother, who saw this as a waste of money for a daughter who was already planning to marry. As an alternative, her father encouraged her to read law in his office. Following the traditional apprenticeship route did not slow her progress. Along with Aubrey, she passed the bar examinations in 1924 and, in 1925, became the fourth woman admitted to the New Brunswick Bar. At the urging of her father, a leading member of the provincial Liberal Party, Muriel also gained political experience during this period, delivering speeches encouraging women to support the Liberal candidate in a 1924 by-election.
Married in 1926, Muriel and Aubrey moved to Grand Falls, N.B., where he practised law and sold insurance, and she, apparently true to her mother’s prediction, settled into a more traditional woman’s role. She took up gardening and volunteer work. In Shediac she had been a C.G.I.T. leader and at Mount Allison she had been a leader in the newly emerging S.C.M. In Grand Falls she became involved with the Girl Guides, the Red Cross and the Women’s Institute, and was a founding member of the Grand Falls Literary Club. In 1931, she established a bed and breakfast and tea room. Then, as Aubrey’s health deteriorated and as no children arrived, Muriel gradually took over his practice as well as the insurance business. In 1935 she was appointed New Brunswick’s first female judge of probate. By 1941, she had effectively inherited Aubrey’s positions as acting county court clerk, circuit court clerk, supreme court clerk, and crown prosecutor.
After Aubrey’s death in 1942, Muriel became dissatisfied with life as a ‘country lawyer’. ‘Restless and anxious to spread [her] wings’, she applied for the new post of assistant regional enforcement counsel for the Wartime Prices and Trade Board in Saint John, and not only landed the job, but also negotiated an increase in salary. A year later she became chief enforcement counsel and, at war’s end, was invited to serve on the New Brunswick Reconstruction Council. Since moving to the city, Muriel Fergusson had become a member of the local Women’s Council, the University Women’s Club and the group with which she identified most closely, the Business and Professional Women’s Club. She soon emerged as a leader in these groups, and a popular speaker on such topics as wills and pay equity. As the Reconstruction Council concluded its work, Muriel set her sights on becoming provincial Director of Family Allowances, although the ad was directed to male persons. The letter writing campaign undertaken by her women’s groups resulted in a revised job description and the appointment of their candidate.
Fergusson had earned such support. In 1945 she campaigned to gain the municipal franchise for Fredericton housewives and, later, for women’s right to be elected to City Council. She urged the use of the franchise: ‘When you consider that over 50 percent of the voters of this country are women, you will realize what a tremendous power we have in our hands.’ She believed women should seek public office and, in 1951, became the first woman to run for Fredericton’s City Council. Elected by acclamation, she embarked on a long public career as an advocate for the less privileged, very often women.
Shortly before her 54th birthday, Muriel McQueen Fergusson was appointed to the Senate. While this was undoubtedly a reward for decades of loyalty to the Liberal party, she was likely not too far from the mark when she suggested: ‘My own opportunity, I feel, was due mostly to involvement in women’s and welfare organizations and being an alderman in my home city.’ Aware of the significance for women of her appointment, during more than 20 years in the Senate, Senator Fergusson rose again and again to question legislation that privileged men over women. She served on Senate committees investigating unemployment, divorce, women’s prisons, poverty, and old age. Her energy, incisiveness and good judgement were recognized in 1972, when Pierre Elliott Trudeau appointed her to be the first female Speaker of the Senate. She never ceased to work towards equality of the sexes. In 1974, less than a year before her retirement, she asserted that the Liberal government had been too slow in implementing the 1970 recommendations of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women.
Senator Fergusson stands among the generation of women whose activism has been less recognized and recorded than that of the suffragists of the ‘first wave’ of feminists or the women’s liberationists of the ‘second wave.’ Marriage and professional training were early preoccupations, but widowhood changed the course of Muriel’s life, propelling her back into a career she had all but abandoned. But her political trajectory was grounded in the research and activism undertaken among the community of women she found in the Business and Professional Women’s Club, under whose auspices she became involved in campaigns to improve the lot of widows, women in poverty, separated and divorced women and women prisoners.
After her retirement from the Senate in 1975, until her death in 1997, Muriel McQueen Fergusson continued to work for women, lending her name and public support to numerous endeavours, ranging from a women’s halfway house in Ottawa to the Muriel McQueen Fergusson Centre for Family Violence Research in Fredericton.
Further Reading & Resources
Campbell, G. G. (2010) ‘“Are we going to do the most important things?” Senator Muriel McQueen Fergusson, feminist identities, and the Royal Commission on the Status of Women.’ In J. Guildford and S. Morton (eds.). Making up the state: Women in 20th-century Atlantic Canada. Fredericton: Acadiensis Press.
Irving, K. (1974, May 4) ‘Senator Muriel McQueen Fergusson: A lifetime of service to her country’, Ottawa Journal.
Muriel McQueen Fergusson Papers, MS 1372, Provincial Archives of New Brunswick.
‘Laws which affect women and children’, Speech to the Moncton Local Council of Women, 1946, Box 51.
Letter to ‘Ferg’, 29 October 1943, Box 22.
Letter to Prime Minister Lester Pearson, 25 September 1964, Box 31.
Rough notes for speech to Insurance Women in Saint John, 1975, Box 51.
‘The Senate of Canada’, Speech to Administrative Assistants/ Private Secretaries, Toronto, Ontario, 25 October, 1971, Box 51.
Waite, P. B., Lord of Point Grey: Larry MacKenzie of U.B.C. (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1987).
Born 1929 near Sussex, New Brunswick; first woman elected to the New Brunwsick Legislative Assembly; first woman Cabinet Minister in New Brunswick; appointed to Canadian Senate 1984; active in the Progressive Conservative party, various social causes and profession of home economics.
“Brenda Mary Robertson,” Celebrating Women’s Achievements, Library and Archives Canada, HYPERLINK “http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/women/030001-1329-e.html” http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/women/030001-1329-e.html
James A. Taylor, “Brenda Robertson: A Woman Worth Watching”, United Church Observer, no. 36 (September 1972): 26-28, 44.