OTTAWA—A strong wind was blowing across the lawns of Rideau Hall as Jeannette Corbiere Lavell, Keewednanung (North Star) in her native Ojibwe, strode with dignified poise to meet Her Excellency the Right Honourable Julie Payette, Governor General of Canada to receive her Order of Canada, as the words of her citation floated out across the assembly.
“I was really impressed with the governor general,” said Ms. Corbiere Lavell when asked about her impressions of the experience, typically deflecting the conversation away from herself. “She was so approachable and easy to talk to.”
“I was proud to attend the presentation of the Order of Canada to Jeannette Corbiere Lavell on behalf of the Anishinabek Nation,” said Anishinabek Nation Grand Council Chief Glen Hare. “Jeannette is the Anishinabek Nation Citizenship Commissioner and has dedicated her life to fighting for women’s rights and equality for Anishinaabe women.”
As for Ms. Corbiere Lavell, she went on to chat with The Expositor about what a great opportunity the experience was to meet other people from such diverse backgrounds at the ceremonies. “There were six of us there who were Indigenous,” she said. “But each of us came from very different backgrounds and experiences, were doing so many different things.”
Many of those being honoured are noted philanthropists and captains of industry, top people in their fields. “I was sitting with a man named Ross J. Beattie, he is head of a big silver company and a major philanthropist with a huge interest in the environment,” recalled Ms. Corbiere Lavell. “Everyone I met were nice people, easy to talk to. It was amazing to realize how all of these people are so well recognized in terms of their organizations.”
But asked if those people have their photographs prominently displayed in the Canadian Museum of Human Rights?, Ms. Corbiere Lavell laughs. (The long time Anishinaabe-kwe activist’s photograph looms larger than life in a place of honour in that facility.)
In fact, Ms. Corbiere Lavell is no stranger to honours. In addition to being featured in the new Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg, she has an award named after her (the Ontario Native Women’s Association established the Jeannette Corbiere Lavell Award in 1987 “to be presented annually to a deserving Native woman demonstrating the same qualities and dedication as Jeannette”).
To know her is to imagine she has always been slated for greatness, and she certainly showed early signs of what was to come. Ms. Corbiere Lavell completed Grade 10 on Manitoulin but she moved to North Bay to complete her high school before attending business college in that city. After graduation, she worked for the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto as an executive secretary and became associated with the Company of Young Canadians. That position gave her an opportunity to travel around the country. In 1965, she was named Indian Princess of Canada. That was a very different era.
By 1970, Ms. Corbiere Lavell had married a Ryerson film student, a non-Indigenous man. That decision was to have a defining impact on her life in more ways than one.
“One day, a letter arrived in the mail informing me that I was no longer an Indian,” she recalled. Her official “Indian Status” had been revoked because she had married a non-Native. Before that moment, Ms. Corbiere Lavell had been recognized as a full-status Indian under the Indian Act.
That letter sent her reeling, but not for long. In 1971, she launched a challenge to the Indian Act section that was attempting to rob her of her heritage.
Had she been a man when she got married, Ms. Corbiere Lavell would not have lost her status.
She decided to challenge the Indian Act on the basis that section 12 (1) (b) was discriminatory and should be repealed, according to Prime Minister John Deifenbaker’s 1960 Bill of Rights. It was the first case dealing with discrimination by reason of gender.
Ms. Corbiere Lavell described her early experiences in the Canadian courts of the day as an initiation into the underlying racism that existed then in mainstream society and the sexist reaction of the First Nations advocates at the time, which she described as an even more devastating blow.
“The judge in the case, a Justice Grosberg I think it was, was putting our women down,” she recalled. “He said, ‘we know what Indian women are like, you should be glad a white man married you.’ That was what it was like in the courts in the early 1970s.”
It was little surprise, then, that the first decision went against her.
Soon she and her lawyer (the not-yet-famous Clayton Ruby) brought the fight to the Appeals Court, winning a 1973 unanimous decision at the Ontario Court of Appeals. Unfortunately, politics and government pressure led the federal government of the day to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada where she and fellow appellate Yvonne Bedard lost their case on a 5-4 decision.
“It was devastating,” she recalled of that loss.
When a Native woman lost her Indian status, so did any children of the marriage. “That meant they could no longer live on the reserve and lost the right to own land or inherit family property,” said Ms. Corbiere Lavell. “They could not receive treaty benefits or participate as elected members of band councils, political or social affairs in the community and they lost the right to be buried in cemeteries with their ancestors.” But Native men who married non-Native women were not deprived of these rights and their wives and children were given Indian status. It was blatantly a sexist situation.
There were an estimated 4,605 Indian women who were enfranchised (recognized as Canadian citizens—thereby losing their Indian Status) by marrying white men between the years 1958 and 1968.
She has served as president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada and founded the Ontario Native Women’s Association; served as a cabinet appointee on the Commission on the Native Justice System, was president of the Nishnawbe Institute, as well as the president of Anduhyaun Inc., an organization that “strives to support Indigenous women and children in their efforts to maintain their cultural identity, self-esteem, economic, physical and spiritual well-being.”
Ms. Corbiere Lavell earned a teaching degree from the University of Western Ontario, has worked as a teacher and school principal, co-edited the book ‘Until Our Hearts Are On the Ground: Aboriginal Mothering, Oppression, Resistance and Rebirth.’
In 2009, Ms. Corbiere Lavell was honoured nationally by then Governor General Michaelle Jean with a Persons Award, an honour that recognizes those who fight for women’s rights in Canada. These Governor General’s Awards are in Commemoration of the Persons Case and were created in 1979 to mark the 50th anniversary of the groundbreaking Persons Case, which changed the course of history for women in Canada. The award was named for the Famous Five, five Alberta women fought for women’s rights. Those five pioneering women were Emily Murphy, Louise McKinney, Irene Parlby, Nellie McClung and Henrietta Muir Edwards.
In 2016, Ms. Corbiere Lavell received an honourary doctorate of laws from York University—so “recently” may be considered a relative term.
Her daughter, Dawn Harvard, has followed in her daugher’s footsteps as the youngest-ever president of the Ontario Native Women’s Association (ONWA).
“We are so fortunate to have such a committed and resilient advocate for women’s rights within our Nation,” said Grand Council Chief Hare. “Jeannette is one remarkable woman and is very deserving of being heralded for her unrelenting effort to pursue the ‘right to belong’ to their home communities after being stripped of their status, for many Anishinaabe women and their children throughout Canada. Congratulations!”
These days Ms. Corbiere Lavell has lost none of her passion, but her efforts are now more directed toward protecting the water.
“I remember my grandmother and my mother talking about future generations and wondering what would become of them,” she said. “Today I look at the world around us and wonder myself. The water is such an important part of life, she noted, and yet there seems to be so many people in power who want to turn a blind eye to the threats facing this most important of life’s building blocks.
“I don’t think I will quit any time soon,” laughs Ms. Corbiere Lavell about her activism. “There is still so very much left to do.”