On Jan. 7, Piikani First Nation elected its first female chief, Gayle Strikes with a Gun, who received the highest vote in a race involving 11 candidates on the troubled southern Alberta reserve.
Strikes with a Gun, a longtime educator, received tremendous support for her candidacy. She believes her identity as a woman and mother will bring much to the policy debate. Unfortunately, Strikes with a Gun is unique as reserve politics tend to be male-dominated affairs and aboriginal women continue to live impoverished, marginalized lives.
On-reserve indigenous women need protection. According to Frontier Centre for Public Policy polling conducted between 2009 and 2010 among first nations in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, women who live on reserve are not being adequately protected from violence, and they are not being consulted enough in band-level policies.
First nations women are statistically more likely to be victims of violence.
Poverty and marginalization make them vulnerable. Often they become involved in the coercive sex trade through poverty.
Indigenous activists contend that their societies once held women in high esteem, and the high rate of domestic assault on reserves is due to social dysfunction. Scholars and observers see this dysfunction as being rooted in cultural disruption, and in economic dependency and chronic unemployment.
Whatever the causes, aboriginal women remain vulnerable. In self-government discussions, aboriginal women’s groups demand autonomous structures that protect women. They are concerned male-dominated bands will continue into self-government. They always insist on Charter application to self-government agreements.
In the Frontier Centre poll of more than 1,000 first nation respondents from 78 Prairie bands, a strong majority (77 per cent) supported an equal division of property between the partners in dissolving relationships on the reserves. The matter is more distressing when there is violence, making women even more vulnerable. Asked if band governments are doing all they can to deal with violence against women, 42 per cent said either "not really" or "never." A little more than 26 per cent said "perhaps" and only 21 per cent said "definitely." While most think something is being done, a disturbingly large minority do not.
That aboriginal women find themselves in the middle of political battles does not improve their condition. When Ottawa restored Indian status to first nation women who lost it due to inequitable laws discriminating against them, they were not immediately welcomed in their communities because bands insisted on control over band membership.
It is similarly so with matrimonial property rights for native women.
Since reserve lands are federal jurisdiction, provincial laws ensuring equal division of property in case of marital breakup do not apply.
Indigenous leaders reject provincial jurisdiction. Moreover, although aboriginal lands are federal, they also oppose federal control, claiming first nation jurisdiction.
An opportunity to avoid deadlock appeared when the Senate introduced Bill S-4, a bill affirming first nation authority on the marital property question, but enforcing interim federal laws until first nations develop their own. The problem is first nation governments have been slow in developing laws and vulnerable women should not have to wait for them to develop laws. Bill S-4 gives bands self-governing jurisdiction over matrimonial laws, so everyone wins.
First nations cannot afford waiting longer for fundamental justice for native women. Their leaders can support Bill S-4 and later develop culturally relevant, equal matrimonial property laws of their own. Women should be involved in reserve community life, including sitting on committees and being involved in decision-making.
First nation bands must support women’s empowerment. Supporting Bill S-4 is a start, but there is much work to be done.