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Feminist Success Stories - Célébrons nos réussites féministes

Karen A. Blackford
Marie-Luce Garceau
Sandra Kirby

Part III: Reinventing Ourselves at Any Age — Partie III : Réinventons nos vies

Aboriginal Women’s Economic Renewal: A Project of Re-inventing Strengths from the Past

Susan Hare et Laura Day-Corbiere

Texte intégral

  • 1 Allen, Paula Gunn. 1986. “The Sacred Hoop.” Boston, Beacon Press, 70.

I live, but I will not live forever.
Mysterious moon, you only remain,
Powerful sun, you alone remain,
Wonderful earth, you remain forever.1

1Aboriginal women in First Nation communities in Canada are faced with a legal foundation not of their making. They must also survive with economic possibilities which were not developed with Aboriginal women in mind.

2This paper will describe practical methods that allow Aboriginal women to succeed in economic development. A thorough background of the historical oppression and legal limitations imposed on Aboriginal women — and the nature and outcomes of these limitations — will explain that others besides Aboriginal people are responsible for their deprivation. This review will also explain why economic renewal must be based on the cultural and historical strengths of Aboriginal women. This paper emerges from the experience of women in a First Nation community or “Indian reserve” in rural northern Ontario with a band membership of approximately 1 000 people.

M’chigeeng Kwe’uk and Economic Development

3The Ojibwe women of M’Chigeeng First Nation are involved in a community-based economic program developed and designed by and for Aboriginal women. The design of the economic program emerged from a community conference which focused on Aboriginal women’s economic needs. This design includes small, home-based self-employment ventures supported by the foundation of Ojibwe cultural teachings. The program is a pilot project to build an enabling environment for long-term success for its Aboriginal women participants. This pilot project is being delivered in a First Nation community by Aboriginal women from the same First Nation.

4The target group of the pilot project is made up of Aboriginal women who face numerous barriers and obstacles to training and employment. The majority are women caught in the cycle of generational dependency on social programs and services. Their classroom has been confined to the perimeters of the community. There has also been little exposure to structured learning and to experiences that would impact on the thinking conditioned by the environment or on conventional thinking. In their home community, this target group of Aboriginal women is in its element.

Pilot Project Priorities

5The pilot project has three priorities. The first is development of the individual. The second is regaining and retaining a sense of belonging within the Ojibwe community culture. The third priority is encouragement of and support for the learning journey towards the creation of self-sustaining self-employment. These three priorities are based on the complexity of needs in the lives of Aboriginal women today.

Priority 1: Development of the Individual

6Personal and professional development extends beyond the delivery of knowledge, skills, and experience. Delivery includes a learning environment conducive to support of change in attitude, behaviour, thinking process, and lifestyle. The participants have opportunity to practise their newfound or enhanced knowledge, skills, and experiences before venturing beyond the comfortable perimeters of the home community. Participants must endeavour to be comfortable in all situations so that they will be ready to take new risks. Two excellent examples are “A” and “M” who are both young mothers. “A” has four children and “M” has three children. “A” and “M” accompanied a staff person to Toronto, a place which both have previously visited, for training. They flew on an airplane for the first time and participated in workshops which included company presidents, executive directors, project managers, and business co-ordinators. “A” volunteered to participate in a media conference, a decision which was a significant risk for her. Both “A” and “M,” through the pilot project, have developed a comfort zone which has allowed them to take risks in other areas as well. While documentation of this type of success is difficult to measure, it is but important to recognize.

Priority 2: Retaining Ojibwe Community Culture

7As indicated, the pilot project revolves around being able to regain and retain a sense of belonging to the Ojibwe community culture. The participants learn first that caring about their community is vital for themselves and for that community. An enabling environment is not one that depends upon individual empowerment; instead, it stems from the culture. The Ojibwe culture offers the foundation for continued development of the Ojibwe language, a rich spirituality involving universal truths, a true understanding of democracy and civil and collective rights, a fine craftsmanship unlike any other, a unique artistic sense of the world, resource conservation principles which give dignity to all life, and an overall respect for humanity. These cultural foundations are the inspiration and bedrock of the participants’ long-term plans.

8To accomplish this second priority, participants are encouraged to lead and take part in community activities as volunteers. Volunteerism provides an opportunity to experience the other side of social and cultural programs and services. It is very rare to hear a participant say “I don’t care,” which is a prevalent statement and attitude found in oppressed communities. Documentation of this type of success, again, is difficult to measure, but important to recognize.

Priority 3: Towards Self-Sustaining Self-Employment

9The third priority, which is encouragement and support in the continuing journey towards self-sustaining self-employment, is the final goal of the pilot project. When participants first enter the project, they anticipate that their first step to self-employment begins with making a product or providing a service. They soon realize that these are expectations of immediate gratification. The experiences of the Aboriginal women who designed and developed this initiative demonstrate that this pilot project does not work like other training projects, and it should not. After all, Aboriginal women must make their way through a foreign economy. The Ojibwe women who designed the project understood that the program must be based on the individual’s being able to become self-reliant within the context of her Ojibwe experience. The focus of the project, therefore, is one of sustainability, rather than start-up. Sustainability is the beam of support which ensures that an enabling environment has a sturdy foundation on which to build. A sustainable form of income for a participant may, for example, be a combination of fine bead work combined with a community catering business; or, it may be a small bakery combined with a community taxi service. The result is adaptability based on a foundation of Ojibwe culture.

10The development of the community-based economic plan by and for Ojibwe women involves adaptation of traditional roles as keepers of the culture so that the culture will survive within the changes of modern times. This is because it is Ojibwe women who breathe the air for the lives they carry within them. Their responsibility goes unchanged from one generation to the next for the nurturing of a healthy people.

The Imposition of the Values of Patriarchy and Foreign Religions on Ojibwe Society

11Ojibwe women, as part of a tribal society, played an important role in the maintenance of the society in which they lived. Ojibwe women, or “Kwe’uk,” were important as bearers of children, as wives and grandmothers, and as an integral parts of the economic machine which characterized their society. Ojibwe women also shared equally in the responsibilities of the Midewewin Society or Lodge, which was the spiritual, or religious, structure for Ojibwe society. Both Ojibwe women and men held positions as spiritual “heads” of the Lodge. Ojibwe women were also the physicians of their society, since the practical daily needs of medicine for their families fell to the women. Ojibwe women played an important role in berry-gathering, drying fish, and curing animals for seasonal use, a role that wielded organizational power within the societal structure. Ojibwe women, especially young girls, took part in the hunting of small game, and this activity often provided them with a spirit of independence and personal pride. The activities of Ojibwe society afforded many opportunities for mutual support among women in the tribe. Leadership was a responsibility given to certain persons by the people; it was not something which was sought so that a male or female person would be in a leadership position. While Ojibwe men did most of the big-game hunting and protective activities such as defending territory, there are likewise stories about Ojibwe women as good hunters and warriors.

  • 2 Connolly v. Woolrich and Johnson et al. (1867), 17 R.J.R.Q. 75 (Also reported: 11 L.C. Jur. 197).

12The advent of the French and later the English fur trade in Canada provided a new role for Ojibwe women — that of political and economic connection. Relationships between French traders and Ojibwe women brought opportunities for the French trader to access the women’s tribe. As well, it provided the Ojibwe woman with a new and different kind of influence that lasted for several decades. However, alliances between English traders and Ojibwe women were not easy for English men were quick to denigrate their Ojibwe spouses if an Englishwoman became available.2

How the Legal System Affects Aboriginal Women

13“Indian women” (the term “Indian” is used only because it is a legal term under the Indian Act) have been treated differently from men in terms of Indian status, treaty rights, and band membership. This situation as occurred most stringently since 1951. An early piece of legislation which directly defined who an “Indian”, enacted in 1850, defined Indians to be the following:

  • All persons of Indian blood, reputed to belong to the particular Body or Tribe of Indians interested in such lands, and their descendants;
  • All persons intermarried with any such Indians and residing amongst them, and the descendants of all such persons;
  • All persons residing among such Indians, whose parents on either side were or are Indians of such Body or Tribe, or entitled to be considered as such; and
  • All persons adopted in infancy by any such Indians, and residing in the Village or upon the lands of such Tribe or Body of Indians, and their descendants.3
  • 4 S.Prov.C. 1851, c.59, s.II.

14People of non-Indian blood could also be considered Indians. In 1851, all women could become “Indians” if they were lawfully married to “Indians.”4

  • 5 S.Prov.C. 1857, c.26, s. 1.

15As early as 1857, the practice of enfranchising male and female Indians began. This practice included a loss of one’s Indian status for such reasons as becoming a lawyer or doctor, obtaining a university degree, or being out of the country for too long.5

  • 6 Sykes, J.B. (ed.). 1976. The Concise Oxford Dictionary. 6th ed. Oxford University Press.
  • 7 S.C. 1880, c.28, s. l2.

16“Enfranchising” means to “invest with municipal rights, especially the right to vote, to release from bondage.”6 Ironically for Aboriginal people, it was also a divesting of rights and Aboriginal culture. In 1880, the enfranchisement of Indian women began with the provision that “[any] Indian woman marrying any other than an Indian or a non-treaty Indian shall cease to be an Indian in any respect within the meaning of this Act...except for treaty annuities.”7 Thus, Indian women began to lose their Indian status but were able to keep their treaty rights until the treaty provision was deleted from the Indian Act amendments in 1951. In 1985, what is now commonly known to Aboriginal people as Bill C-31 was passed into law, and Aboriginal women who had lost their status were reinstated as persons with Indian status. However, in First Nations which had developed a Band Membership Code before June 28, 1987, children of the reinstated women had to apply for band membership. The struggle for reinstatement by Indian women was monumental. Many Aboriginal communities were divided and some remain so even today. Women have sometimes brought their non-Indian mates with them to their Aboriginal communities. Although Indian men have had the right throughout history to bring non-Indian women mates to their communities, Aboriginal women are largely resented for bringing their non-Indian mates to live with them in these same communities.

17The First Nations have not been provided with adequate financial resources; as well, they have properly been denied recognition of their rights to land. They have insufficient resources to plan for and to accept an influx to First Nations communities. Again, this situation has caused problems not of Aboriginal communities’ own making. Therefore, many First Nation communities must deal with an influx of people who are not used to the “ways” of First Nation culture in the context of an inadequate infrastructure. This mixture adds to a societal condition where the highest unemployment rates in Canada exist (in most First Nation communities, the rate is 60-85%). Social conditions resulting from the effects of colonialism, including the residential school damage, are part of daily life.

  • 8 The Royal Proclamation October 7, 1763 R.S.C. 1985, Appendix II, No. 1.

18Indians’ real and personal property on the reserve have been protected from seizure. Historically, the Royal Proclamation of 17638 was enacted partially to stop settlers from buying land from Indians and/or defrauding them of it. Thus, unless the Crown purchased territory from Indians through a public “treaty” process, Indian lands remained in Indian hands.

  • 9 S.C.1876, c.18, s.66.

19In 1876, legislation provided that “[no] person shall take any security or otherwise obtain any lien or charge, whether by mortgage, judgement or otherwise, upon real or persona] property of any Indian or non-treaty Indian within Canada.…”9

20These provisions remain in the present Indian Act with slightly different wording. While effect of this provision in First Nation communities is protection of First Nations’ land base (not without problems), the provision has also been an obstacle for accessing loans for businesses on reserve. Banks and lending institutions are reluctant to provide loans of any substantial amount, knowing that land pledged to secure loan(s) is questionable collateral. This has similarly been an obstacle for financing of homes. However, many First Nations, along with the Minister of Indian Affairs, have dealt partially with this issue through the issuance of ministerial guarantees which provide a guarantee to an outside lender. The problem with this system is that every Indian in that First Nation is placed at risk. The system, in effect, guarantees that the loan of the individual Indian, in the event of default, is repaid with Band funds.

  • 10 S.Prov.C. 1857, c.26.

21As far back as 1857, laws such as the “Act to encourage the gradual Civilization of the Indian Tribes in this Province and to Amend the Laws Restricting Indians”10 specifically stated as their purpose the following: “to facilitate the acquisition of property and of the rights accompanying it, by such Individual Members of the said Tribes as shall be found to desire such encouragement and to have deserved it:... Of course those Individual Members of the Tribes were Indians of the “male sex” [s.III supra].

  • 11 S.20-29 Indian Act R.S.C. 1985, C. 105 as amended, ss. 20-29.

22Although the provisions of the Indian Act from 1869 specified that “he or she” may be issued a “location ticket” (lots on reserves), the practice was that most of the “tickets” were issued in the name of the male; this practice continues to this day. The decision about whom the “tickets” would be issued was made by Indian Agents, European males whose patriarchal values favoured male ownership. Many Ojibwe women — including elders — lived on Indian reserve lots with their husbands and children. Upon a husband’s death, such a woman might have discovered that her property had been willed by the deceased husband to someone else. The strict interpretation of legislation regarding the “possession of lands in a reserve”11 does not allow for any legal claims by “Indian” women in such situations, no matter the injustice of the situation. Therefore, ownership of property on a reserve rests primarily with men. When property ownership is shared with a woman, her ownership rights are uncertain. Hence, if a woman wishes to construct a building for a business or a home, she is forced to purchase scarce land or to request Chief and Council for usage of “common lands.”

23Many an Aboriginal woman has discovered the uncertainty of property ownership through family breakdown when her spouse ordered her and their children out of the home. In these cases, the Certificate of Possession was in the name of the husband-and the law supported this action (Derrickson v. Derrickson [1986] 1 S.C.R. 285, [1986] 3 W.W.R. 193, 1 B.C.L.R. (2d) 273, 50 R.F.L. (2d) 337, 26 D.L.R. (4th) 175, [1986] 2 C.N.L.R. 45, 65 N.R.278).


24We have come a long way since 1937 when the duties and responsibilities of Indian Agents’ wives included teaching Ojibwe women domestic skills such as housecleaning, cooking, and sewing. Such instruction was an attempt to condition Ojibwe women to be like the white women of the era. The schools to which Ojibwe women were forced to send their children taught and emphasized the same domestic skills.

25This assimilation process extended to the organization of Aboriginal communities. These communities were fashioned by legislation in order that the resultant communities would be like white communities; that is, to be farming communities. Aboriginal people were governed from Ottawa through Indian agents, and they were wards of the government. In other words, they were, treated like children. Aboriginal people, for a time, required permission from the Indian agents to leave the reserve or to move to another reserve; Indian agents controlled most aspects of life on a reserve.

26In addition, the churches imposed foreign religions on Aboriginal people. Clergy of these foreign churches discouraged Aboriginal spiritual and cultural practices, going to great lengths to discourage entertainment, such as dances, they thought was unsavory. For example, the clergy planted stories in Aboriginal communities about creatures with hooded capes who would punish sinners who attended dances. The churches, like the government, believed that they knew what was best for Aboriginal people; their vision for Aboriginal people, however, was based on a European lifestyle.

27The economic base of reserve communities had been and continued to be barter and trade as more settlers located near Aboriginal communities. Aboriginal women picked berries to sell, baked bread, made Aboriginal crafts, cleaned homes, worked as cooks in tourist camps, and provided laundry services. Aboriginal women, like non-Aboriginal women, were expected to learn nothing more than efficiency in domestic skills in preparation for the day when they would marry and have children.

  • 12 Rigoberta Menchu. 1986. “An Indian Woman in Guatemala.” Thetford, Norfolk, Ed. Elizabeth Burgos-De (...)

28This time period did not encourage Aboriginal women, or women in general, to have aspirations or dreams beyond marriage. Aboriginal women were forced to adapt to life imposed upon them; they had no choice. The Aboriginal lifestyle had been and continued to be displaced by other beliefs and values. For example, the Aboriginal culture was forced underground for many years. Aboriginal children were beaten for speaking their Aboriginal language in residential schools and in many on-reserve day schools: “I’d always see my mother cry... I was afraid of life and asked myself what will it be like when I’m grown up?”12

29Chiefs and Councils eventually replaced Indian agents as the agents of the federal government. Gradually, Chiefs and Councils assumed more and more authority and fiduciary responsibility from the federal government. This situation has led successive Ministers of Indian Affairs to predict the demise of the bureaucracy of this department. Along with newly assumed authorities and responsibilities came the control of Band Councils over almost all aspects of their band members’ lives. Unfortunately, the result has been conditioned dependency that was and is still reinforced by the Indian Act.

  • 13 Littlebear, Leroy, Menno Boltand J., Anthony Long. 1984. “Pathways to Self-Determination/Canadian (...)

30Time, endurance, and patience are great teachers and the Aboriginal activists of the 1960s broke new ground in affecting government policies regarding “Indians.” Aboriginal people garnered the attention of the news media. Aboriginal people everywhere, it seemed, had new awareness. Exposure to media including television and radio made Aboriginal women aware of the larger world, including the women’s movement. Aboriginal women, having a different history from non-Aboriginal women, undertook a different path towards human rights and self-respect. An important reflection to keep in mind about this journey is the misunderstanding that lack of visibility necessarily means that nothing is happening: “It is assumed by many that very little remains of traditional Indian ideology and philosophy because the traditional Indian lifestyle is no longer in evidence; that is, we don’t live in teepees anymore.”13

Unique Measures of Success for Aboriginal Women’s Renewal

31The measure of success for Ojibwe women who participate in the M’Chigeeng Kwe’uk and the economic renewal project will, of necessity, differ from the measures which might be used in evaluating other women’s economic projects outcomes. Significantly, a review of history and culture indicates how such a measure must be different from that which is applied in non-Aboriginal society. Success for Ojibwe women in the project is measured by what an individual can contribute to the community and how “good” that individual can become while she walks this path called earth.

The Nature and Outcome of Legal Limitations

32The first legal limitation that Aboriginal women face is denial of their First Nations membership rights. The Aboriginal women’s movement continually addresses this limitation.

33Lack of property ownership is a second problem that is likewise is being addressed gradually. As economic success is achieved, rental properties can be purchased. Women’s collective economic ventures mean increased strength for Aboriginal women.

34The third legal limitation is seizure of property by banks and the resulting loan vacuum. This is currently addressed on an incremental basis through organized lending circles: Aboriginal business development corporation loans and larger Reserve-Trust companies that guarantee collateral for outside lenders.

35These issues have been identified and addressed creatively by the women in the M’Chigeeng Pilot Project. The solutions to these issues are important benchmarks of success in defining alternate routes to access property and to build credit lines.


36Regardless of the legal limits imposed upon Aboriginal women by other societies, it is critical to remember the Aboriginal women who have gone, in the period of one generation, from quill-box makers to million-dollar entrepreneurs. This has been done by building on Ojibwe cultural values, which have, in turn, provided impetus for adaptability and stability.


1 Allen, Paula Gunn. 1986. “The Sacred Hoop.” Boston, Beacon Press, 70.

2 Connolly v. Woolrich and Johnson et al. (1867), 17 R.J.R.Q. 75 (Also reported: 11 L.C. Jur. 197).

3 S.Prov.C. 1850, c.42.

4 S.Prov.C. 1851, c.59, s.II.

5 S.Prov.C. 1857, c.26, s. 1.

6 Sykes, J.B. (ed.). 1976. The Concise Oxford Dictionary. 6th ed. Oxford University Press.

7 S.C. 1880, c.28, s. l2.

8 The Royal Proclamation October 7, 1763 R.S.C. 1985, Appendix II, No. 1.

9 S.C.1876, c.18, s.66.

10 S.Prov.C. 1857, c.26.

11 S.20-29 Indian Act R.S.C. 1985, C. 105 as amended, ss. 20-29.

12 Rigoberta Menchu. 1986. “An Indian Woman in Guatemala.” Thetford, Norfolk, Ed. Elizabeth Burgos-Debray, Chapter XII, 87.

13 Littlebear, Leroy, Menno Boltand J., Anthony Long. 1984. “Pathways to Self-Determination/Canadian Indians and the Canadian State.” Traditional Indian Government: Of the People, By the People, For the People. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 36.


LL.B. Barrister and Solicitor, M’Chigeeng First Nation

Project Coordinator, Women’s Group, M’Chigeeng First Nation

© Les Presses de l’Université d’Ottawa | University of Ottawa Press, 1999

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