So, as I mentioned elsewhere, I recently read an edition of Canada’s History that highlighted some of Canada’s great women. 20? 30? Let’s try closer to HALF THE POPULATION! OK – that would be quite a thick magazine, I suppose.
Anyway, though the 20 that were featured in the magazine had been selected by a group of themselves relatively well known Canadian women, there seemed to be a skewed representation towards authors. Not that they were any less remarkable for that. They opened up the Canadian literary scene to more earthy examinations of inner city issues, feminism (of course) and simply great story telling. One or two I’d heard of. One or two I’d even read – such as Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel.
Of the 20 that were featured though, my “favourite” – if that’s even a valid concept in this context – was Mary Two-Axe Earley. The accompanying illustration was an interpretation of a CP/Toronto Star photograph on the magazine’s website, and she looked like anyone’s kindly nanna. But what a force!
As I read about her life I was struck by how Canadian history – even relatively recent history – was completely unknown in the UK. Things we might reasonably expect and take for granted have been hard fought for by strong women such as Two-Axe Earley. The world – and in this case Canada in particular – is undeniably a better place for the things women like her have achieved.
Born as a Canadian Mohawk on 4th October 1911, she moved to the US and married an Irish/American engineer – Edward Earley – and had a brace of litte ‘uns. Because Edward was non-Aboriginal, she fell foul of the 1876 Indian Act and lost all her rights along with her Indian status. As well as the loss of the right to live on the land she was brought up on, she couldn’t vote in the reserve’s elections or even be buried in its cemetery. None of this concerned her at the time. She was living in Brooklyn and was very much in love. Then…
A friend of hers died in 1966 and she discovered that her friend had been ordered off her own reserve for marrying a Mohawk from a different reserve. No such penalty was suffered by men, and she was pretty sure the stress had contributed to her friend’s death. Written in the Victorian era, the Indian Act simply reflected the prevalent view at the time that women were basically possessions of their husbands.
Enraged into action, Two-Axe Earley founded Equal Right for Indian Women, which later became Indian Rights for Indian Women. The Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada was established in 1967 and gave a platform to present the case. The commission duly recommended that the relevant clauses of the Indian Act be repealed such that First Nations men and women should have the same rights with respect to property and marriage as any other Canadian. So naturally not a lot happened.
It wasn’t until the 1982 Canadian Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms though that her campaign really got the teeth it needed. In 1985 the government finally amended the Indian Act so that it reflected the equality provision in the Charter. As well as returning rights to women who had previously lost them through the archaic clauses in the act and “marrying out”, there were two generations of children from those unions that were now eligible for status. More than 15,000 women were affected by this decision!
When she finally died in 1996, Mary Two-Axe Earley was laid to rest in the cemetery near her birthplace, Kahnawake. A right she had fought long and hard to gain.
If you’d like to learn more about this remarkable lady, check out her bio at Windspeaker.