Marginalization of Aboriginal women

A Brief History of the Marginalization of Aboriginal Women in Canada

Aboriginal women in Canada frequently experience challenges and discrimination that are not necessarily shared by non-Aboriginal women, nor are by Aboriginal men. Aboriginal women have been described as facing a “double-burden” – that for being discriminated against as a woman, and further for being Aboriginal. To begin to understand this situation, and why the circumstances of Aboriginal women deserves their own careful consideration, we must examine how both Native/non-Native relations and gender relations were developed throughout Canada’s colonial history, where these two types of relations intersect, and where they diverge.

As non-Aboriginal settlers first arrived in what is now Canada, they brought with them their patriarchal social codes and beliefs, and tried to make sense of Aboriginal society through a patriarchal lens. As the colonies consolidated to form the Dominion of Canada, Crown policies were created throughout the country with the goal of assimilating and “civilizing” First Nations peoples based on a European model. These policies had profound effects on Aboriginal women across the country.

By outlining these early histories of gender relations we aim to give the reader a sense of how initial colonial assumptions resulted in the drastic alteration of women’s influence and social systems in a relatively short time. These impacts continue to be felt by Aboriginal women across Canada today.

Aboriginal Women’s Traditional Roles & Power

Women were respected for their spiritual and mental strength and men were respected for their spiritual and physical strength. Women were given the responsibility in bearing children and were given the strength and power to carry that responsibility through. Men had always respected that spiritual and mental strength and women respected the men’s physical strength. There was always a balance between men and women as each had their own responsibilities as a man and as a woman.

Beverley Jacobs,
Former NWAC president and Mohawk activist,
“International Law/The Great Law of Peace,” 35.

Despite the vast socio-cultural diversity amongst Canada’s hundreds of First Nations, historians and experts largely agree that a balance between women and men’s roles typically existed in pre-contact Aboriginal societies, where women and men had different, but complementary roles. Many First Nations were matrilineal, meaning that descent – wealth, power, and inheritance — were passed down through the mother.

Historians and scholars have emphasized the various capacities in which women were able to hold positions of power and leadership in their community. Lisa J. Udel, for example, explains that motherhood was honoured and revered as key to the thriving of the culture, and was not always strictly defined by its biological role, but was understood as a position of leadership and responsibility for caring for and nurturing others.1 The role of the Clan Mother is frequently cited as an example of a powerful political role, central to the Haudenosaunee Six Nations confederacy. While many Nations had male chiefs, in some societies such as the Haudeonsaunee, women selected the Chief and were also able to take his power away.2 Historians and other experts also emphasize that women across many First Nations were responsible for land holdings and allocation of resources—they controlled access to certain areas as well as distribution of its products.

Ultimately, however, as women’s roles varied greatly between First Nations, they shared similar characteristics.  Scholar Rebecca Tsosie identifies three common characteristics:  gender roles were not ranked hierarchically but rather considered to be complementary, in many cases women were able to transcend gender roles, and “the central role of Native women within their societies is often reflected in the religious or spiritual content of their cultures.”3
And, as scholars Shari M. Huhndorf and Cheryl Suzack point out, “although Indigenous women do not share a single culture, they do have a common colonial history. The imposition of patriarchy has transformed Indigenous societies by diminishing Indigenous women’s power, status and material circumstances.”4

For further readings on Aboriginal women’s traditional roles, see Paula Ann Gunn, The Sacred Hoop (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986), and Laura E. Donaldson, “’But we are your mothers, you are our sons’: Gender, Sovereignty, and the Nation in Early Cherokee Women’s Writing.” In Indigenous Women and Feminism: Politics, Activism, Culture. (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010), 43-55.

Settler mischaracterization of Aboriginal women’s roles

As settlers arrived in what is now North America, they brought with them a foreign patriarchal European value system. European settlers imposed their own frameworks of understanding onto Aboriginal social systems, which had particular ramifications for Aboriginal women.  As schoalr Julia V. Emberley describes, settlers made sense of Aboriginal societies by viewing them through a European, patriarchal lens, assuming that Victorian principles represented the natural order of things. For instance, many settlers held onto Victorian beliefs that women were delicate and ill-equipped for hard labour, and thus viewed Aboriginal women who worked the land as proof that Aboriginal men treated women as inferior, for they were doing the men’s work. The power and agency of Aboriginal women were invisible to them.

Scholar Laura E. Donaldson provides another telling example of Eurocentric mischaracterization. She describes the Cherokee role of Ghigau, or “war woman,” a figure who becomes known as “the most beloved woman” after she reaches menopause:

The Ghigau sat in council meetings with both the peace and war chiefs, decided the fate of war captives, prepared the purgative Black Drink at the centre of many Cherokee ceremonies, and led the women’s  council. In his Diary of the American Indians, which was published originally in 1755, James Adair derided this unique political institution as a petticoat government—a direct jab, according to Paula Gunn Allen (Laguna Pueblo) at the power of the Ghigau. Indeed, Allen argues that the honour accorded her by the Cherokee people offended the Euro-American belief in universal male dominance.5

Sexual Policing of Aboriginal Women & Constructing Deviance

European men further believed that a woman should remain chaste and “virtuous,” according to their cultural and religious beliefs.  Settlers developed and held onto the mythical archetype of the virtuous Indian Princess willing to reject her own people for Christian civilization.6 Thus developed the Indian Princess/Squaw dichotomy, or, what Rayna Green terms “the Pocahontas perplex,” placing Aboriginal women into a restrictive binary based on European patriarchal values. If a woman could not be virtuous by strict Victorian standards, which, as Green points out was nearly impossible, she was deemed unworthy of respect. These concepts were written right into the Indian Act, with certain rights afforded to men and women of “good moral character,” as determined by the Indian agent. The Indian agent became, therefore, a sort of sexual policing agent. Indian agents had the power to act as justices of the peace or magistrates, giving them legal authority to monitor and control their Indian charges. Any sexual relations that did not conform to monogamy in marriage were seen as un-civilized and counter to the government’s civilizing mission.7

Scholar Joan Sangster points out that female sexuality was regulated in numerous ways, with colonial law as “one crucial site of sexual regulation.”8 The Indian Act gave the agent power to jail people, and the agent’s responsibility for registering births, marriages, and those eligible for Indian status gave agents  power to punish those who did not conform. While many First Nations customary laws allowed for divorces, Indian Agents forbade them. A woman cohabitating with a new partner could be charged with bigamy and sent off to a reformatory, far from her family and homeland.9 As Sangster points out,

The fact that the Indian Affairs filing system designated a whole category for ‘Immorality on the Reserves,’ with almost all the complaints centering on sexual misbehavior, indicates the  importance of the agent’s role as custodian of sexual morality.10

The Juvenile Delinquents Act and Training School Act of the 1950s, for example, were established to train young women away from perceived “promiscuity” and into domesticity, forcing European patriarchal roles onto Native women.11 If Native women did not recognize or obey European patriarchal roles, they could be severely punished.

While written legislation provided standards for behaviour, day-to-day experiences did not always reflect these laws.  Although there are consistent threads of resistance, some aspects of colonial laws and ideals filtered into First Nations communities and individual mentalities, including gender roles and sexual relations.  Sangster draws upon sociologist Karen Anderson to explain that the internalization of these sexual double-standards, “reorder[ed] the domestic sphere on reserves ‘involved both direct coercion and the indirect ‘colonization of the soul,’ with the colonized literally coming to discipline themselves.”12 As such, legal ramifications occasionally became weapons used by community members who wrote to the Indian Agent, or directly to Ottawa, to complain about “sexual deviancy.”13 This history has led to contemporary ideas of Aboriginal women’s sexuality. As Lubicon Cree scholar Robyn Bourgeois described in an interview, the myth of the Aboriginal woman as a sexual deviant persists in contemporary Canadian society with some very real ramifications:

No, this view hasn’t changed, and yes it is something I have encountered. The myth of the deviant Aboriginal woman continues to plague us, reinforced by dominant cases that coalesce prostitution and Aboriginal women into a single entity. Contemporary Canadian society dismisses violence against Aboriginal women and girls today on the basis of these perceived deviances (addicted, sexually available). We are not even treated as human beings. Human beings have the right to a life free from violence, yet we have to convince the Canadian state to step up and protect us. And these stereotypes provide the justification for why the State doesn’t step up.14

Indian Act Gendered Discrimination

Now that we’ve explored the ways in which colonial ideas perpetuated discrimination against Aboriginal women, it is important to understand the ways in which these ideas have been retained to the present day.  This discrimination continues to be reinforced through various means, perhaps most notably the Indian Act. As such, we will explore three areas of gender discrimination which the Indian Act continues to perpetuate and normalize: regulation of the family, the reserve system and geographic exclusion, and political exclusion.

Government policy and legislation impacted the expected roles and rights of Aboriginal women in various and far-reaching ways. The Indian Act is only one of such policies, yet is the most common critique raised by scholars who point out how women were excluded from positions of power. The Indian Act remains a central feature in the lives of Aboriginal women, and is essential to understanding the current and historical socio-political situation in Canada.

The Indian Act, created by the federal government in 1876, was evidently designed with the colonial ideal of men as leaders and heads of households, and women as dependents of their husbands. The Indian Act denied women the right to possess land and marital property—only widows could possess land under the reserve system. However, a widow could not inherit her husband’s personal property upon his death—everything, including the family house, legally went to his children. Government agents modified the Act slightly in 1884, with an amendment that allowed men to will their estate to their wives, but a wife could only receive it if the Indian agent determined she was of “good moral character.” This particular amendment remained in the Indian Act until 1951, although to this day men still hold exclusive rights to property, even if a relationship ends. This has far-reaching implications in the lives and safety of the affected women:

Over the years more and more women were being thrown out of their homes by husbands. While the men then moved their girlfriends—often [non-status]—into the family home, the Indian women and children had to move into condemned houses or in with relatives who already were overcrowded. Since the Indian Act gave men sole ownership of property through certificates of possession, women had no housing rights or recourse to help through the law.

Janet Silman
Enough is Enough: Aboriginal Women Speak Out, 11

Targeting kinship & family systems under the Indian Act

The European belief that the patriarchal, nuclear family was a natural means of organization influenced settler-Aboriginal relationships.  Many First Nations historically have operated on a matrilineal system where descent is traced through the mother, meaning that a child would become a member of his or her mother’s clan. Many societies were also matrilocal, in which a man married into a woman’s family and would live with her community, resulting in settlement patterns based on the female line.   In contrast, European settlers had taken for granted that a family was structured with men as the head of the family and the women as subservient, and tried to understand Aboriginal families by imposing a patriarchal European family model onto matriarchal Aboriginal kinship systems. This belief was perpetuated throughout government policies that attempted to restructure the Aboriginal family to fit this mould. Aboriginal kinship systems were forcibly restructured over time through a number of policies, including the Indian Act, Indian status, and the residential school system.  Scholars, community members and other experts point out that even after the closure of residential schools, foster parenting, adoptions [link to 60s scoop], and other child welfare policies continue to separate Aboriginal families and place them in non-Aboriginal homes and kinship systems.15

Aboriginal families initially continued to recognize their own matriarchal descent patterns and matrilocal systems despite encroaching non-Aboriginal settlement. In 1851, however, this would be forcibly disrupted when the government created legislation to determine who qualified as Indian. The government decided that to be an Indian, one had to be an Indian male, be the child of an Indian male, or be married to an Indian male. Under this system, a woman depended on her relationship with a man to determine whether or not she was an Indian. This completely contradicted the matrilineal system of many First Nations and disrupted a hereditary system that had been in place for hundreds of generations.

Those who qualified as Indian under this legislated criteria would gain Indian “status,” hence the term Status or Non-Status Indian. For women, status was not guaranteed. Legislation stated that a status Indian woman who married a non-Indian man would cease to be an Indian. She would lose her status, and with it, she would lose treaty benefits, health benefits, the right to live on her reserve, the right to inherit her family property, and even the right to be buried on the reserve with her ancestors. However, if an Indian man married a non-native woman, he would keep all his rights. His wife would in fact gain Indian status. Even if an Indian woman married another Indian man, she would cease to be a member of her own band, and would become a member of his. If a woman was widowed, or abandoned by her husband, she would become enfranchised and lose status and her rights altogether.

Alternatively, if a non-native woman married an Indian man, she would gain status.  In all these situations, a woman’s status was entirely dependent on her husband. As is explicitly stated in Section 12 (1)(b) of the Indian Act, “a woman who married a person who is not an Indian… [is] not entitled to be registered.”

As Emberley explains, the exclusion of women and devaluing of their status established “fraternal links between aboriginal and colonial men, created fissures within aboriginal families along gender lines, and eventually led to patriarchal relations and the regulating of ‘the aboriginal family’ on a European bourgeois model.” 16

Once the Indian Act was passed, the responsibilities of our men and women changed drastically. As a result of being confined to a reserve, our traditional men and women lost their responsibilities in using their strengths, either physically or mentally. Women were thought of as property by our O :gwe ho:we men who became acculturated into believing that they had to think like white men . The entitlement to status under the Indian Act itself enabled that to happen, wherein the male would gain status and his wife and his children would gain his status.

Beverley Jacobs
“International Law/The Great Law of Peace,” 108

Geographical impacts of the Indian Act for women

The colonial governments creation of the reserve system, and the Indian Act’s further legislation of reserve lands and who could reside on them, impacted women (as well as men) drastically. The Indian Act’s provisions regarding rights to land and status disrupted the ancient matrilineal kinship system as well as matrilocal post-marital residency patterns that had been in place for generations.17 The impacts of colonial policies have long had strong geographical dimensions along gender lines, including the restructuring of power and forced displacement of individuals, families, and communities.  Julie V. Emberley points that non-Aboriginal control over lands, through environmental conservation efforts or through expropriating traditional lands, has resulted in the loss of women’s traditional power.18  Further, the right to live on one’s own reserve was suddenly denied many women who had strong ties and Aboriginal rights to their territory.

Historically, through the Indian Act a woman has had to leave the reserve community she married into if her husband abandons her or passes away. Aboriginal women on reserves face additional challenges with property. In these cases, lack of regulation regarding on-reserve matrimonial property has forced many women to leave their homes and belongings behind as they leave the reserve. (See, for example, the Native Women’s Association of Canada’s page and resources on matrimonial real property, available at This, coupled with the larger history of colonialism, has put many women in incredibly vulnerable positions, having to leave their homes for unfamiliar spaces where they are unsupported and with minimal assets. This marginalization of Aboriginal women has put many women in desperate situations.

Scholar Sherene H. Razack has examined how space can be highly gendered and racialized, and has studied how gendered and racialized urban spaces have encouraged and condoned violent behaviour against Aboriginal women. (See “Gendered Racial Violence and Spatialized Justice: The Murder of Pamela George,” Canadian Journal of Law and Society, 2000, 15:2, pp. 91-30.) Razack argues that in contemporary Canadian society, violence against Aboriginal women has become normalized, and that the circumstances of Aboriginal women tend to be presented outside of any historical context, absolving any responsibility or accountability to the people who perpetrate the violence and marginalization. In her study on the murder of Pamela George and the subsequent trial, Razack illustrates how the judge and defendants perceived the social problems and violence experienced by the victim as “natural” for an Aboriginal woman and thus sentenced the two men responsible to only six and a half years, with one man able to leave on parole after two-thirds of his sentence.19

This situation continues to play out in Canadian society, where to date over 3000 women have been murdered or are still missing in Canada since the 1970s, many of them Aboriginal. This epidemic is perhaps most well-known in areas such as Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, or Highway 16, now commonly known as “the Highway of Tears.” In the overwhelming majority of these cases no suspects have been listed, nor have murderers been found. The government and police have been criticized for their lack of action, even as local residents were informing them of the suspicious pattern.  The Vancouver Police Department explained their lack of response to the systemic murders by claiming that, “many street involved women do not have close family ties and many deliberately go ‘missing’ for any number of reasons, including their desire to evade the police.”20 However, as scholar John Lowman points out, many “did have close family ties and well-established social networks and had suddenly disappeared nonetheless.”21 This exchange illustrates the invisibility of Aboriginal women as persons, particularly those affiliated with prostitution, and the normalization and general acceptance of violence against these women.

In 2010, the Canadian government pledged $10 million in support of campaigns for missing and murdered Aboriginal women; however, this funding has since been cut back, and the means of distribution has been criticized by Aboriginal women’s groups.

Exclusion of Women in Politics

The colonial patriarchal system also operated on the European assumption that women inherently had no capacity for political involvement.  The federal government imposed the band structure as a new form of Aboriginal government to eradicate traditional hereditary leadership and facilitate federal influence and control. Band governments were created as strictly male domain, with women unable to become chiefs or band councillors. Women, who previously were key decision-makers and advisors, were now completely excluded from decision-making in their own communities:

At the election of a chief or chiefs, or the granting of any ordinary consent required of a band of Indians under the Act, those entitled to vote at the council or meeting thereof shall be the male members of the band of the full age of twenty-one years.

Indian Act, 1876 Section 6122

Many First Nations resisted the imposition of band council governance systems, but were ultimately unsuccessful in stopping them. The most notable example of this would be the Haudenosaunee Six Nations, who continued to recognize hereditary chiefs and Clan Mothers as leaders until 1924 when the federal government forcibly and violently imposed it upon them by “beating up our Clan Mothers and supporters and chiefs” and sending dissenters to jail.

Until 1951, Indian women were excluded from political activity by law. They were not allowed to vote or to hold office. In 1951, the Indian Act was amended so that an Indian did not necessarily have to have status to be band member. With this amendment, the wording was changed so that the Indian Act no longer specified the sex of the voter. Because of this—essentially by default– women were finally allowed to vote in band elections.  In 1960, the government of Canada finally gave all Aboriginal peoples, male or female, the right to vote federally.


Now that we’ve looked at how racial and gendered discrimination against Aboriginal women has been created and perpetuated, we will now examine the ways in which women have resisted and reclaimed their traditional power and influence. Please see our section on Aboriginal women & contemporary activism to continue reading.

By Erin Hanson

Recommended Resources for further reading

Anderson, Kim and Bonita Lawrence, eds. Strong Women Stories: Native Vision and Community Survival. Toronto: Sumach Press, 2003.

Blair, Peggy J. “Rights of Aboriginal Women On- and Off-Reserve.” Vancouver: The Scow Institute, 2005.

Cole, Susan C. “Voices of First Nations women: their politics and political organizing in Vancouver, B.C.”  Thesis – M.A., University of British Columbia, 1994.

Jacobs, Beverley. “International Law/The Great Law of Peace.” LL.M. thesis, University of Saskatchewan, 2000.

Jamieson, Kathleen. Indian Women and the Law in Canada: Citizens Minus. Ottawa: Advisory Council on the Status of Women, Canada, 1978.

Kelm, Mary-Ellen & Lorne Townsend, Eds. In the Days of Our Grandmothers- A Reader in Aboriginal Women’s History in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press,  2006.

Lawrence, Bonita. “Real” Indians and Others: Mixed-Blood Urban Native peoples and indigenous Nationhood. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004.

—– “Gender, Race, and the Regulation of Native Identity in Canada and the United States: An Overview.” Hypatia 18(2): 2003. Available online at:

Maracle, Lee. I am Woman: A Native Perspective on Sociology and Feminism. Vancouver: Press Gang, 1996.

Manitoba. “The Justice System and Aboriginal People.” Chapter 13: Aboriginal Women, 1999. Accessible online at:

Razack, Sherene H. “Gendered Racial Violence and Spatialized Justice: The Murder of Pamela George,” Canadian Journal of Law and Society, 2000, 15:2, pp. 91-30.

Silman, Janet. Enough is Enough: Aboriginal Women Speak Out. Toronto: Women’s Press, 1987.

Sterritt, Angela. “Racialization of Poverty: Indigenous Women, the Indian Act and Systemic Oppression: Reasons for Resistance.” 2007: Vancouver Status of Women.

Suzack, Cheryl, Shari M. Huhndorf, Jeanne Perreault, and Jean Barman, eds. Indigenous Women and Feminism: Politics, Activism, Culture. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010.

Voyageur, Cora. Firekeepers of the Twenty-First Century. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008.

Williams, Robert. “Gendered Checks and Balances: Understanding the Legacy of White Patriarchy in an American Indian Cultural Context.” Georgia Law Review 24: 1990. 1034.


1 Udel, Lisa J. “Revision & Resistance: The Politics of Native Women’s Motherwork.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, 22:2, 2001. 43-62.

2 McGrath, Ann & Winona Stevenson, “Gender, Race & Policy: Aboriginal Women and the State in Canada and Australia,” and Williams, Robert. “Gendered Checks and Balances: Understanding the Legacy of White Patriarchy in an American Indian Cultural Context.” Georgia Law Review 24: 1990. 1034

For a more in-depth examination of women’s roles in appointing leadership, see “The Changing Status of Seneca Women” by Joy Bilharz, in Women and Power in Native North America edited by Laura F. Klein and Lillian A. Ackerman

3 Tsosie, Rebecca. “Native Women and Leadership: An Ethics of Culture and Relationship.” In Indigenous Women and Feminism: Politics, Activism, Culture. Ed. Cheryl Suzack et al. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010, 32.

4 Huhndorf, Shari M. and Cheryl Suzack, “Indigenous Feminism: Theorizing the Issues,” In ed. Cheryl Suzack et al.

5 Donaldson, Laura E. “’But we are your mothers; you are our sons:” Gender, Sovereignty, and the Nation in Early Cherokee Women’s Writing.” In Indigenous Women and Feminism: : Politics, Activism, Culture. (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010), 43-44.

6 Green, 701.

7 Sangster, 308.

8 303.

9 Sangster, 311-2.

10 313.

11 Sangster, 302-3.

12 Sangster, 307.

13 Sangster, 314.

14 “Breaking the silence about Canada’s 800+ missing and murdered Aboriginal women: Interview with Cree academic and activist Robyn Bourgeois.”  Black Coffee Poet website, Feb 16, 2011. Accessed February 17, 2011. Available online at

15 Emberley, 61.

16 Emberley, 62.

17 McGrath & Stevenson, 41.

18 Emberley, 61.

19 Razack, 92.

20 Lowman, John. “Violence against Women: Violence and the (outlaw) status of Street Prostitution in Canada. Violence Against Women 2000 6(9): 996.

21 Ibid.

22 Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, Chapter 18: An Act to amend and consolidate the laws respecting Indians. April 12, 1876, Available online:

23 Beverley Jacobs, presentation to University of British Columbia, March 19, 2008.