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Honouring treaty and gender equality

By Rosemary Nagy


In Canada, there are almost 600 documented cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women over the last 20 years. The Canadian government has continuously refused to hold a national public inquiry into the missing and murdered women, despite mounting international and domestic pressure to do so. Given the paucity of the existing domestic framework, international human rights and transnational activism might have a role in pressing for social justice for the “Stolen Sisters” or “Sisters in Spirit”. As the headline of a 2012 article in the Indigenous newspaper, Windspeaker declared: “UN to do the job that Canada will not.”

Source: APTN news.

Source: APTN news.

The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples proclaims the importance of all human rights for all Indigenous peoples and, as stated in the preamble, these rights are claimed in the context of the dispossession of lands and resources, and the need for self-determination and respect for Indigenous knowledge, culture, and tradition. Article 22 of the Declaration states the right of Indigenous women and children to “enjoy the full protection and guarantees against all forms of violence and discrimination.” In the case of the Stolen Sisters, Article 22 underscores the racialized and gendered nature of Canada’s failure to live up to its formal obligations under the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and other legally binding international treaties.

Justice for the Stolen Sisters, moreover, relates to honouring treaty in the sense of the Two Row Wampum. The Kaswentha from the Haudenosaunee (or Six Nations) people is a sacred wampum belt that embodies “principles of Peace, Friendship and Mutual Respect.” It is a symbolic record of the first agreement between Europeans and Indigenous peoples on Turtle Island (North America), and it formed the basis for numerous treaties between Haudenosaunee and non-Haudenosaunee. The two rows of purple beads are said to symbolize two separate vessels travelling parallel to one another down the “River of Life.”

Source: Two Row Wampum Renewal Campaign.

Source: Two Row Wampum Renewal Campaign.

The history of colonization in Canada evidences a tradition of terrible disregard for the principles of the Two Row Wampum. For instance, the Indian Residential School system sought forcibly to assimilate Indigenous children through the destruction of language and culture, a genocidal project that aimed to “kill the Indian in the child.” The schools were rampant with sexual and physical abuse, malnutrition, loneliness, and neglect. The impact of the Indian Residential School system on Indigenous communities and families over one hundred years has been profoundly negative. “Many [family members] spoke of the resulting family dysfunction or disconnect as impacting their lives and placing the women in a vulnerable situation,” write Beverley Jacobs and Andrea J. Williams in their chapter in From Truth to Reconciliation. In most cases concerning Stolen Sisters, their parents or grandparents attended Indian Residential School.

Furthermore, many of the missing women “had been displaced from their community due to the impacts of the genocidal policies of the Indian Act.” The 1876 Indian Act, which controls almost every aspect of First Nations’ land and governance, greatly reduced the strength of Indigenous women and Indigenous matrilineal systems. In granting “Indian status” through a patrilineal system, the Indian Act effectually reduced the number of “status Indians” every time a woman “married out.” In 1985, the Indian Act was amended following a 1981 ruling against Canada at the United Nations Human Rights Committee (Lovelace v. Canada). Although this amendment resulted in the reinstatement of status for thousands of women, the “second-generation cut-off” continues to deny status and therefore treaty rights to the grandchildren of some of these women. For this and other reasons, Mi’kmaq professor and activist Pamela Palmater estimates that some First Nations will be “legally extinct” within 75 years. Sharon McIvor is currently petitioning the United Nations after having partially lost her Supreme Court challenge against gender discrimination in the Indian Act (she also contests the 2010 amendments in Bill C-3).

Under Section 6 of the Indian Act, people are accorded different levels of status. Sharon’s grandchild loses status, while her brother’s grandchild retains status.

Under Section 6 of the Indian Act, people are accorded different levels of status. Sharon’s grandchild loses status, while her brother’s grandchild retains status.

The international arena provides a variety of venues for investigation into the Stolen Sisters. Here is where the UN may do the job that Canada will not:

  • Universal periodic review of Canada’s overall human rights record at the UN Human Rights Council in April 2013
  • A hearing at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on 28 March 2012 and a planned visit to Canada
  • A planned visit to Canada by the CEDAW committee (the UN committee that monitors the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women)
  • A planned visit by the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous peoples
  • Discussions and an expert study on violence against Indigenous women at the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues


Canada voted against the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007, as did the United States, Australia, and New Zealand. While all four settler states have now belatedly endorsed the Declaration, they repeatedly emphasize its “aspirational” and legally “non-binding” character. Despite an historic apology by the Prime Minister of Canada in 2008 for Indian Residential Schools, the government continues to give short shrift to the broader context of colonization in which the schools existed.

As the Native Women’s Association of Canada writes in its report on the Sisters in Spirit Initiative, “to truly address violence against Aboriginal women, it is necessary to support the revitalization of our ways of being.” This revitalization speaks to the core principles behind the UN Declaration, the ongoing need for settler states to decolonize their legal, bureaucratic and social structures, and a return to the principles of the two-row wampum.

The theme of this year’s International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples is “Honouring Treaty.” Canadians and the international community can take actions today in order to respect and fulfill both contemporary and historic agreements that form the basis for right relationships. These actions include righting the racialized gender discrimination that lies at the core of the colonial project.

Rosemary Nagy is an associate professor of Gender Equality and Social Justice at Nipissing University in the traditional territory of Nipissing First Nation. She is the author of a number of articles on internationalized transitional justice, including “The Scope and Bounds of Transitional Justice and the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission” (available to read for free for a limited time). Her work has been published in The International Journal of Transitional Justice, Law and Society Review, and Third World Quarterly.

The International Journal of Transitional Justice publishes high quality, refereed articles in the rapidly growing field of transitional justice; that is the study of those strategies employed by states and international institutions to deal with a legacy of human rights abuses and to effect social reconstruction in the wake of widespread violence.

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