Chief Brenda Sam’s fingers point to a picture of two young women proudly standing in front of Ottawa’s Parliament buildings.
“Oh, look,” said Sam, who last Wednesday was at the unveiling of a poster to commemorate 35 years of the Yukon Aboriginal Women’s Council.
She isn’t in the picture herself, but she joined those women in Ottawa to pressure the government into changing the Indian Act.
The year was 1980 and several members of the Yukon Indian Women’s Association, as it was known then, travelled to Ottawa to protest the removal of a woman’s Indian status if she married a non-Indian. It was considered discrimination by thousands of women across the country who were unable to secure status for themselves and their children.
After years of pressure, Canada eventually passed Bill-C31 in 1986, effectively protecting status rights for women and their children.
“I remember flying to Ottawa and fighting with the government and then them finally agreeing to Bill-C31,” said Sam.
“It was a long fight, it took almost a decade.”
Sam was one of about 60 people who gathered at the Old Fire Hall on October 21 for the unveiling of the poster. Each October the Yukon Women’s Directorate highlights a different piece of Yukon women’s history for Women’s History Month.
Begun in 1974, the Yukon Indian Women’s Association sprang up as a result of injustices that aboriginal women in the territory were experiencing.
“I remember the night this happened (that the group first came together),” said Margaret Commodore, who spoke that evening. She was one of the original members of the association who eventually went on to become the first aboriginal female Justice Minister in Canada.
Those women included the late Kaushee Harris, after whom Kaushee’s Place was named, and Adeline Webber, who is to this day still involved with the organization.
“There were a lot of concerns; there were a lot of things that weren’t right back then,” said Commodore.
Foremost was the issue of Indian burial sites. Today, signs outside First Nation graveyards remind tourists that the sacred burial sites aren’t visitor attractions.
Before the signs were put in place, busloads of tourists would wind their way through the cemetery (sometimes even during funerals), taking pictures and, at times, stealing artifacts, said Commodore.
It didn’t help that the Yukon government had publicized these cemeteries as tourist attractions in a brochure for visitors.
“So we decided to demonstrate … and the government promised to take the information out of their brochures, although it took them a while to do it,” she said.
The association then raised money to place signs outside of the cemeteries to stop tourists from entering.
The group also rallied against cheap aboriginal crafts that were being shipped from overseas, and worked to secure housing for women and their children.
“The group formed because women wanted a voice,” said interim president of the council, Winnie Peterson.
The same is still true today.
The group is now focusing on moving its office out of the alleyway on Jarvis Street, said Peterson.
They are also working to create their own Sisters in Spirit programming, a national campaign that raises awareness about missing and murdered Aboriginal women.
“I think women are stronger and more confidant as a result (of the Aboriginal Women’s Council),” said Sam, who was elected chief of the Ta’an Kwacha’an council days before the event.
Sam was elected to the council in 1979 and served throughout the ‘80s.
She credits the organization with bringing confidence and leadership opportunities to women like herself, who at that time were just beginning to find their voices, she said.
Many women who were involved in the group eventually carried over their leadership roles into territorial, federal and First Nation governments, she pointed out.
There were women like Alice McGuire, who became the first woman elected to the Yukon Legislature; Margaret Thompson, who went on to become the president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, and Pearl Keenan, who was a recipient of the Governor General’s Award.
“Women take for granted the benefits and rights we now have that we didn’t have 35 years ago,” said Commodore.
“One of the things we don’t want is to forget the history of the association.”
Contact Vivian Belik at firstname.lastname@example.org