PETERBOROUGH – You might think Jeannette Corbiere Lavell of Manitowaning would be getting a bit jaded about receiving an honourary Doctor of Laws degree today (June 5) from Trent University during its 2019 convocation ceremonies, considering all of the honourary degrees currently adorning her wall, but nothing could be further from the truth. True to her long history of advocacy on behalf of the rights of Indigenous women, the lifelong activist happily utilizes the opportunity to continue her advocacy work.
“We’ve been 49 years in the work of trying to take the discrimination out of the Indian Act,” she said, “and here we are still working at it. I would like to believe the current government that they will manage the next step, but there is a lot more work to do.”
As her citation reads, Jeannette Corbiere Lavell was born into the Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory on Manitoulin Island. An Anishinaabe-kwe community worker, she has dedicated her decades-long career to raising the status of Canadian Indigenous women—pursuing equality and recognition for First Nations women and children. Since 2008 Ms. Corbiere Lavell has continued to serve as Anishinabek Nation Citizenship Commissioner. In addition to pursuing human rights, she is also focused on water protection.
“One person’s voice can make a difference,” said her anonymous nominator. “This is what Jeannette has proved through her persistence in advocating for Indigenous women’s rights throughout Canada, and notably advancing gender equality under Canadian law. Jeannette is truly an inspiration to Indigenous women, families and communities, and undoubtedly will serve as an inspiration for Trent’s Community.”
“Soon after her marriage in 1970 to a non-Indigenous man, Ms. Corbiere Lavell lost her legal Indigenous status. (That was the law at the time as enshrined in the Indian Act.) As this condition did not apply to Indigenous men, she brought forward a court challenge to the Indian Act. Initially this challenge failed, but eventually inspired other challenges leading to action toward gender discrimination and success and fairness for Indigenous women.
Ms. Corbiere Lavell “moved to the urban centre of Toronto after completing business school in North Bay to work for the Native Canadian Centre. She was the president of both the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC), the Nishnawbe Institute and Anduhyaun Inc., an organization that supports Indigenous women and children in their efforts to maintain their cultural identity, self-esteem, economic, physical and spiritual well-being. Ms. Corbiere Lavell founded the Ontario Native Women’s Association (ONWA) and was a cabinet appointee on Ontario’s Commission on the Native Justice System. She worked as a community consultant for the Government of Ontario and also worked as a principal and a school teacher. Ms. Corbiere Lavell also co-edited the 2006 anthology ‘Until Our Hearts Are On the Ground’ with her daughter D. Memee Lavell-Harvard.
Ms. Corbiere Lavell was invested into the Order of Canada in 2018. The Ontario Native Women’s Association established the Jeannette Corbiere Lavell Award in 1987, presented each year to deserving Indigenous women demonstrating similar qualities and dedication. She was awarded an honorary degree from York University in 2016 and from Nipissing University in 2017 for her work as a Native women’s rights activist and educator. She received the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012 and the Governor General’s Persons Award in 2009 in recognition of those who fight for women’s rights in Canada.
She graduated from teacher’s college at the University of Western Ontario.
In acknowledgment of the recognition from Trent University, Ms. Corbiere Lavell states, “as an Indigenous woman, educator and activist, I am grateful and humbled to be the recipient of an Honourary Doctorate of Laws, especially as this year the university is celebrating its 50th anniversary of Indigenous Studies.”
The convocation ceremonies offer an opportunity that will be familiar to any doting grandmother, a chance to catch up with her granddaughter Autumn Skye Cooper, who is in her third year studying at Trent, and her daughter Memee who currently works in the Indigenous House of Learning at Trent.