It often comes as a startling revelation to many Canadians when they discover that the laws governing our nation contain regulations and references that discriminate against women. This past week the federal government announced that the remaining portions of Bill S-3 would be enacted, thereby removing the last vestiges of gender discrimination that remained within the confines of the Indian Act. This is long overdue.
Successive governments have balked at the costs associated with removing discrimination from the Indian Act on the basis that literally hundreds of thousands of descendants of those women whose children were stripped of their heritage and the rights and obligations associated with that heritage would be enfranchised and entitled to various transfers and payments that should have been their birthright. Equality before the law is a fundamental building block of a liberal democracy, yet somehow our society has managed to hold tenaciously onto the long discredited tenets of a patriarchal society which also held to the concepts that might is right and trial by combat as a valid determinant of justice.
Even among some leaders in the First Nations, the prospect of an influx of newly enfranchised members competing for ever stretched resources was viewed with considerable trepidation, especially before there was any commitment made to increase those resources to account for that augmented population. Even with such promises made, experience has taught many to be wary of the implementation of those increased resources. But that view leaves out one important consideration.
There is simply no valid justification for gender discrimination in a free and democratic society—period.
The work of a handful of brave and determined group of Anishinabe-kwe, women who never gave up the fight despite a legal and social system stacked heavily against them, women like Mary Two-Axe Early and Manitoulin’s own Jeannette Corbiere-Lavell who did not relent despite defeats in the highest courts in the land has come to fruition in victory, but they will be among the first to explain that the battle is not yet won.
There remain many historical instances of discrimination and injustice within our society, many deeply ingrained within how our society reacts to race, religion and gender and not officially codified within the law. These systemic issues of imbalance will take a very long time to eradicate, not because they are not egregious, but rather for too large a portion of the population they remain invisible. The lens through which the vast bulk of our lawmakers view these issues induces a certain blindness, whether wilful or not. It is systemic.
Not all systemic injustice is sexist, much of it is in fact racist, but in truth the vast majority of systemic discrimination actually tilts our society against the poor. Since a disproportionate number of women, the Indigenous and other minorities are also members of the impoverished class, those instances are often labelled as sexist or racist. They are incidentally so, but they all share one thing in common—they are fundamentally wrong and hold no place in a free and democratic civil society.
So, while we applaud the decision to remove the last vestiges of sexist discrimination from the Indian Act, we cannot afford to rest on our laurels. There is a long road that remains ahead and much that still needs to be done to create a level playing field for all members of society.
The road to a just and civil society is not an easy path, nor will there ever likely be an end in sight. But this journey is not something to fear, it is a voyage we should embrace with all the passion and energy we can muster.
A rising tide lifts all boats and the rising tide of freedom and equality will eventually benefit each and every one of us—if only we have the eyes to see.