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Aboriginal women and Bill C-31: research in action.

By Audrey Huntley

Special to Windspeaker

VANCOUVER

The Aboriginal Women's Action Network (AWAN) held a training workshop on participatory research at University of British Columbia's First Nations House of Learning recently. The gathering was the second phase in AWAN's research project investigating and analyzing the impact of Bill C-31 on the lives of Aboriginal women and their children.

Bill C-31, introduced in 1985, replaced Section 12(1)(b) of the Indian Act, which caused Aboriginal women to lose their "Indian status" when they married non-Aboriginal men. Aboriginal men did not lose status when they married non-Aboriginal women.

Although the bill was designed to clean the Indian Act of its gender-based discriminatory elements and thereby improve the situation of Aboriginal women, it has become apparent that, in fact, little has changed. Or as one speaker at the gathering put it: "sexist discrimination has simply been knocked down to the next generation."

Many women who regained status were reinstated into categories that do not allow them to pass their status on to their children or to their children's children. As well, many women have not gone through the complex process to become reinstated, as there has been little support provided to them by either the federal government or local band councils.

AWAN hopes to change that situation. Its research project, set for completion in late Spring, consists of four phases: generating a literature review that brings together and analyzes the findings of academic, community and government studies; interviewing women affected by Bill C-31 across the province; compiling their stories; and producing a final report to be used in lobbying for changes to the legislation as well as for educational purposes.

In preparation for Phase 2, about 40 delegates from different Nations all across the province came together for the weekend workshop on participatory research. Sixteen of the women in attendance had agreed to conduct the interviews in their home communities.

They received background information on Bill C-31 and training through a popular education workshop on interviewing. Over the course of the weekend, a set of questions to be used in gathering stories from other women across the province was generated.

The participants spent a considerable part of the weekend talking about their own, often painful, experiences resulting from loss of status, and about the difficulties they've faced in trying to go through the reinstatement process and return to their homes.

Little or no advocacy is out there to help women with this process, and in many cases, band councils that are not supportive of women being reinstated have tried to deter women from returning home or have forced them to leave.

Many band councils feel threatened by the presence of strong vocal women returning from urban areas, and many do not want to share the resources and programs with them. Under Bill C-31, band councils have the authority to determine who has "membership" in the band, and therefore access to education, health, housing and income support programs administered by the band.

The treaty-making process in British Columbia has also reinforced discrimination against women because women who do not have "status" cannot vote on treaty agreements affecting their home communities. Their participation is obviously not seen as necessary or important, as no government -- federal, provincial or band -- has seen to it that their voices are included in the process.

Other common themes discussed on the weekend were the loss of culture and issues of identity. "Aside from the Indian Act [definition,] who is `Indian'?" was a question which arose. "How restrictive should band membership codes be?" was another.

While opinions differed on blood quantum as a system of measuring identity, a sense of separation from community and division of community was shared by many. How bands are served by discriminating against women was also a point of discussion.

Theme related questions were formulated that examined the effects of Bill C-31 on individuals, families and communities. They also addressed the reinstatement process as well as access to rights under the bill.

Sharon McIvor, a member of the Lower Nicola Band in Merritt, B.C., spoke on the first full day of the gathering. As a lawyer and activist, she has long been fighting for the rights of Aboriginal women. Drawing from her experience, she underlined to participants the importance of extensive and complete documentation, so it is useful in court challenges. She said a number of the women she is representing will likely take their cases to the Supreme Court of Canada, where the project's final report may make a difference.

The weekend was a success, not only because the process of participatory research on Bill C-31 is underway, but also because Aboriginal women who are isolated in their communities, and in some cases geographically, had the opportunity to share their experiences and begin organizing against patriarchal discrimination by both the state and Aboriginal men.

AWAN is still looking for Aboriginal women from the following regions to conduct interviews in their communities: Kamloops, Northern Vancouver Island, the Kooteneys, and Northeastern B.C. Volunteers will also be needed to help with transcribing the interviews. To participate or for more information, contact AWAN at (604) 879-8094, 435-5449, 255-0704.
COPYRIGHT 1999 Aboriginal Multi-Media Society of Alberta (AMMSA)
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1999 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Huntley, Audrey
Publication:Wind Speaker
Date:Apr 1, 1999
Words:862
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