Political mobilization occurs in different sites. Canada’s Indigenous populations both resist within Canadian state structures and outside or against state laws and institutions. They may also do both. The choice of where to mobilize, and the implications and limits of those choices, persists as a central challenge for members of Indigenous communities.
The noted Indigenous theorist and Bear Clan Mohawk member, Taiaiake Alfred, argues that “the most important and immediate imperative” of the Canadian settler project “is to assimilate indigenous peoples culturally” (2005, 56). The only effective response is an anti-imperial struggle grounded in indigenous cultural resilience.
He argues that practices of resistance must “transcend colonial culture and institutions” (2005, 23). The first target should not be the Canadian state. Indigenous politics need to locate political practice outside and against colonial institutions. The initial goal should be the creation of a distinctly indigenous political base that builds resilience. This may include working within communities to revitalize language and cultural practices through “language nests” or actively building connections between generations through cultural education. Such strategies are essential for future vitality and resilience.
Alfred’s focus on centering political practices within Indigenous communities stems from his conclusion that “how you fight determines who you will become when the battle is over” (2005, 23). From this perspective using Canadian institutions will not result in practices that honour indigenous politics; politics will instead will be defined, determined and practiced according to the law of the colonial state. Leading Indigenous intellectual Andrea Smith has further argued that indigenous political action must include the creation of “organizations, movements and communities that model the world we are trying to create” (2007, 106). Alfred and Smith’s perspectives invoke the message of Audre Lord that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (1984).
However, Alfred’s is not the only position taken by Aboriginal scholars and activists. Others argue that because Canadian state institutions and laws are never going to disappear, it is important to engage effectively with state institutions. One indigenous advocate of this strategy is Dartmouth university professor and Teme-Augama Anishnabai, Dale Turner. Turner says that indigenous traditional forms of knowledge must be understood “in relation to the legal and political discourses of the dominant culture” (2006, 98).He argues that if Aboriginal peoples want to argue that “differences ought to matter in the political relationship between Aboriginal peoples and the Canadian state, they will have to engage the Canadian state’s legal and political discourses in more effective ways” (2006, 5).
According to Turner and others, while the Canadian state may be limited, the institutions and legal framework carry a great deal of power for good or bad. It may be possible to use the ‘master’s tools’ to gain particular political rights and move towards equality. Thus, state institutions and law should be employed to forward the interests of Indigenous peoples.
One example of working within the Canadian institutions is employing the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to challenge gender discrimination in the Indian Act. Prior to 1985 the Indian Act, rooted in traditions of European patriarchy, assigned First Nations women the same status as their father or husband. In other words, the Indian Act imposed a model of European legal patriarchy (Irving). When they married, non-status men they lost legal Indian status and rights. In equivalent situations, men did not. The 1982 adoption of the Charter gave a legal foundation within the Canadian court system to challenge this clear gender discrimination. Challenges produced useful, if modest, gains. Joyce Green, professor of Political Science at the University of Regina and of English and of Ktunaxa and Cree-Scot Metis descent, argues that while changes to the Canadian Constitution have not “erased the consequences of state-sponsored sex and race discrimination and colonialism, constitutional changes have gone some distance to identifying these matters and creating legally enforceable rights” (141). For example, scholars Bonita Lawrence and Andrea Smith both argue that gendered oppression is fundamental to colonial dispossession and marginalization. Although the gains made by Indigenous women are significant, there are the limits to the legal route of political transformation. Thus, resistance to oppression has often advanced on multiple levels.
There are three key critiques of working within the state institutions. First, Canadian state institutions are by their nature not Indigenous and therefore, cannot fully consider or include the complexity and diversity of Indigenous political and legal thought. Second, working within Canadian state institutions may ‘infect’, mutate or otherwise influence the Indigenous thinking and acting to conform to the values of the state. The third argument is that working within the Canadian state institutions will not transform the political relationship between Indigenous peoples and Settlers.
This debate about working within and without existing state governance shows no sign of resolution. Indigenous scholars, activists, and others are engaged in a longstanding and familiar struggle about how to engineer equality that while honouring the potential and the reality of difference.
Alfred, T. (2005). Wasase. Ontario: Broadview Press, Ltd.
Green, J. (2007). Balancing Strategies: Aboriginal Women and Constitutional Rights in Canada. In J. Green (Ed.), Making Space for Indigenous Feminism (pp. 140–159). Winnipeg: Fernwood Publishing.
Irving, Helen. (2012). “When Women Were Aliens: The Neglected History of Derivative Marital Citizenship,” Sydney Law School Research Paper No. 12/47, http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2110546
Lawrence, B. (2003). Gender , Race , and the Regulation Native Identity in Canada and the United States : An Overview. Hypatia, 18(2), 3–31.
Lorde, Audre. (1984). Sister outsider: Essays and speeches. California: Crossing Press.
Smith, A. (2007). Native American Feminism, Sovereignty and Social Change. In J. Green (Ed.), Making Space for Indigenous Feminism (pp. 93–107). Winnipeg: Fernwood Publishing.
Turner, D. (2006). This is not a peace pipe. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Alfred, T., & Corntassel, J. (2005). Being Indigenous: Resurgences against Contemporary Colonialism. Government and Opposition, 40(4), 597–602.
Smith, L. T. (1999). Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. University of Otago Press.
by Sandy Mayzell, Founder and Director of Dancing with the Octopus
This question launched the 1st Annual International Women’s Day 3-minute video contest, hosted by the Dancing With the Octopus: Women and Politics (DWtO) project.Women from Canada, India, S. Africa, Turkey, Afghanistan, France and Switzerland imagined, and submitted their scenarios. The winning entry, “What if…”, was created by Victoria, BC’s 13-year old, Rebecca Hansen, and can be viewed along with the 5 top finalists at www.dancingwiththeoctopus.com.
Rebecca is a 13-year old with a bold vision and, from what I hear, she’s not the only one! Recently, friends and colleagues have been raving about the passion, intelligence and willingness of their tween daughters to engage in leadership activities. But what happens to these girls as they move along into their later teens and twenties? Their confidence seems to take a major blow. The pressure to conform, the media’s portrayal of the unachievable perfect body image, fear of being a little too smart as they vie for boys’ affection and approval, and the message that women don’t count, have all emerged as explanations for why women past their early teens are reluctant to get politically involved. This could also help explain the rise in youth voter apathy.
But since recent research shows that 1 out of every 2 human beings is a woman, in a perfect world 1 out of every 2 politicians would be a woman too! Ok, the U.N. calculates that a little less will do – critical mass to create change can begin to be achieved at 1 in 3. Here in Canada we’re at 1 in 4, tying us with Australia in 46th place for women in government, just behind Mexico, Iraq and Sudan. Clare Beckton, Executive Director of Carlton University’s new program, Centre for Women in Politics and Public Leadership, maintains that the only way to get great decisions is by having both men and women weighing in equally. Neither perspective is better than the other, shemaintains, but menand women do bring different things to the table for consideration. When both are present a balanced decision is more likely to be reached. But how do we get there when women are so hesitant to step up?
It is critical that we, as adults, plant the seeds of leadership and validity early enough that girls understand what’s at stake. Young women need to learn that they count, their vote counts and there is a place for girls in every conversation and political arena.
So that’s where DWtO comes in – it’s a multi-media, non-partisan project inviting women of all ages into a creative conversation on how to get more of us elected and engaged in the political process.
Each of its 8 ‘tentacles’ uses a different medium to playfully expose and deconstruct myths and obstacles that typically deter women – partisan nastiness, character assassination and judgment by the media, lack of privacy, travel, long demanding hours, fear of a family-work imbalance, and not feeling qualified, to name a few.
And it appears that the absence of role models is a big factor – the stories of the strong women who helped to build this country are not typically taught in school. DWtO’s solution? Let’s put women’s social and political contributions from the past into the public curriculum, and make it easy for overwhelmed teachers and unmotivated students to access.
The newest DWtO tentacle in development is an educational peer-to-peer online tool entitled, Dancing Backwards: Let’s Get Canada’s Political Women into History. This replicable, accessible web-library resource will be made up of videos of very short, storytelling presentations – puppet shows, skits, slide shows, cartoon or graphic representations, etc. – created by both school-aged girls and boys. It will be fun, informative and entertaining; role models as seen through the eye of the demographic that needs them most.
The hope for this project has been reinforced by positive feedback from educators, coupled with personal experience in the field from DWtO. By introducing young students to the history of women in politics, their stories and their contributions, more boys will view girls as intellectual partners after seeing the courage and accomplishments of our foremothers. Certainly young women and girls will show more interest in shaping their own world and will believe that they have the right and the wherewithal to do so.
by Ursula Kroestch
When I ask myself why it is important for women to be involved in politics, I always come back to the same conclusion; to me, women’s involvement in politics indicates that our social norms are changing and we are progressing towards gender equality. We are a unique group in society, and our access to political participation reflects the value society places on our gender rights. Unfortunately, despite several generations of legislative and policy changes, we have yet to eradicate unequal gender relations in Canadian politics. Instead, when you compare the number of female politicians to male politicians, our numbers remain shockingly low despite the fact that we represent 50%+ of the general population. As women, we continue to experience social, cultural, economic and educational barriers that prevent us from entering politics and that uphold gender inequality in the public sphere.
While I am hopeful that one day women will no longer face gendered barriers to political participation, I am also amazed at the role these barriers play on our lives and how they affect our opportunities. As someone who works in social services, I have seen how low-income women are additionally limited to participating in politics. Many of my clients are single mothers who, like me, face socio-economic barriers to entering politics. They are generally held responsible for the wellbeing of their families above and beyond the responsibilities prescribed to fathers. These women are asked to be primary caretakers, homemakers and ultimately, to put the needs of their families above and beyond all else, including themselves. Subsequently, they are further pushed into the private sphere away from the public sphere, where they have little to no participatory role in politics.
I value female participation at all women at all levels of government. The rights of low-income women, must also include the ability to participate. To continue to move forwards, I think women should oppose the barriers that prevent all of us from equal representation. We should push our way into the public sphere, where we can finally protect our right to equality.