Due to colonization, Indigenous women have been subjected to many historical atrocities, among them: small pox, Residential Schools, and The Indian Act.  Each of these incidents have impacted them in profoundly detrimental ways and the effects remain visible in Indigenous communities across the country.  As Anderson (2000) states “colonization is a process that began five hundred years ago and it continues today” (p. 58).   In order to understand the current realities facing Indigenous women and the ways that colonization continues to affect their lives, it is necessary to come to a deeper understanding of their past experiences.

Small Pox
The small pox epidemic of the 1600s caused a large and sudden reduction of the Indigenous populations.  This enormous loss contributed to a loss of cultural knowledge, morale, and weakened the traditional structure.  This destructive epidemic paved the way for missionaries to succeed in their efforts through promising survival if conversion to Christianity occurred and opened the door for other Eurocentric ideals of patriarchy that promoted the concept of ‘women as property’ (Horn-Miller, 2005, p. 60).

Residential Schools
Children from Indigenous families were taken from their homes and placed in residential schools where the goal was to assimilate the children into Canadian society as well as eliminate Indigenous cultures and resistance to colonialism.  Within residential schools girls and boys received differential treatment.  Generally, there was a gendered division of labour with boys taught vocational skills, while girls were trained to fulfill ‘duties of the home’ (Forsyth, 2004).  It is here that many values of patriarchy were instilled into the minds of young Indigenous children and traditional language and culture, which stress equality and balance, was actively de-valued and undermined.

The Indian Act
The Indian Act was a massive piece of legislation that worked to control every aspect of Indigenous life.  It was characterized by massive deprivation of land, the banning of traditional practices and was designed to facilitate the eradication of Indigenous cultures.

This act enforced Western patriarchal ideals within Indigenous communities through legislation.  Anderson (2000) explains that the Indian Act

“took away long-established rights for Native women and left with with fewer rights than Indian men. Native women were categorically denied the right to vote in band elections.  They could not hold political office, nor could they speak at public meetings” (p. 68).

In addition to limited their political and community involvement, The Indian Act also eliminated the ability for Indigenous women to pass along ‘status’ and property, even in matrilineal societies (Anderson, 2000, p. 69).  For example, if an Indigenous woman married a non-“Indian” she and her children would lose their ‘Indian’ status and any related benefits such as access to land on the reservation, post-secondary education, health care, housing and tax free status (Horn-Miller, 2005).  Wenona (2007) writes that, “Eurocentric and patriarchal legislation has adversely impacted the roles and responsibilities of Aboriginal women to the point where Aboriginal men have began to internalize Eurocentric and patriarchal beliefs while conveniently forgetting traditional teachings” (p. 21).  Eventually through the perseverance of Mary Two-Axe and other Indigenous women at the international level, Bill C-31 was passed and an amendment was made in 1985 that allowed an Indigenous woman to keep her status if she married someone who is not Indigenous.

Mi’kmaq author Pamela Palmetar, in conversation with Suk Yin Lee (October 27, 2012) on Definitely Not the Opera, explains how these colonial imposed pieces of legislation have impacted her.  In this interview she describes how her grandmother married a white man and as a result Pamela did not have the same access to her culture that her relatives had.  

Because the Canadian government had the power to define who was and who was not ‘Indian,’ many in her community understood this to mean who was or was not Mi’kmaq.  She was not allowed to live on the reservation, which meant that she could not live near her elders and be around those who spoke her Indigenous language (Lee, October 27, 2012).  

The Indian Act, which continues to be enforced today, still contains many sections and policies that discriminate against women.  According to Lynda Gray (2011), “once significant area that is lacking is matrimonial real property rights, which cover the on-reserve land and house that related to a common-law or married couple” (p. 193).   She explains that when an on-reserve relationship ends, Indigenous women currently have no legal right to property, and thus can find themselves evicted from their home with no where to go (Gray, 193).