“A genuine revolution”: Transracial Gendered Relationships During International Women’s Year, 1975

By Sarah Nickel

At the British Columbia Indian Homemakers’ Association annual dinner commemorating International Women’s Year in June 1975, New Democratic Party MLA Rosemary Brown gave a rousing speech outlining “our shared struggles” as women of colour. The Jamaican-born woman outlined the dual criticisms women of colour face in “being accused by our men of putting too much of our energy into our struggle for our liberation as women, and the criticism from our sisters of putting too much of our energies into our struggles on behalf of our race.”[1] She argued, however, that “we cannot afford to sacrifice one on behalf of the other. But that the struggle on both these fronts must continue.”[2] With this Brown hoped to forge strong alliances between feminist women of colour and the British Columbia Indigenous women’s movement – looking beyond racial and geographic borders to understand and empathize with the global sisterhood.

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Rosemary Brown speaks at a conference, 1976. Source: Vancouver Sun

Brown envisioned International Women’s Year as a vehicle for this cooperation, and, wary of the potential superficiality of a “year of buttons, conferences, and advertising,” she accentuated the important work already being done by the BC Homemakers’ Association for the broader women’s movement. She explained: “certainly you are laying down the ground work on which you and I and our sisters of all cultures and races and countries, can build a genuine revolution.”[3] Brown appealed to Homemakers’ members to continue to work with other women and to not separate their struggle off and isolate it from others. She maintained that women of colour wanted to be part of Indigenous women’s struggle for equality before the law and she reflected strong understandings of the status issues that had dogged Indigenous women for decades.

These appeals to unity, which transgressed boundaries between the varied women’s movements, and Brown’s very presence at the Homemakers’ Association dinner are noteworthy, and help us to consider the multiple ways in which women’s political voices came together in the spaces created by International Women’s Year. It is also significant in the context of uneasy relationships with other branches of the women’s movement in this era. Brown’s discourse of unity amongst women of colour resonated with the guests, as Indigenous women recognized the similarities between their struggles. Yet, Brown also referenced issues typically associated with the mainstream feminist movement, including pension coverage for housewives, legalizing abortion, and equal access and equal pay in employment.[4]  Indigenous women’s concerns, on the other hand, though similar in some ways, were permanently tethered to women’s status issues under the Indian Act, colonial practices grounded in racist ideals, and Indigenous rights, title, and sovereignty issues, which they believed no women’s alliance could adequately address. Indigenous women, then, were motivated to maintain concurrent coalitions with other feminists to build momentum for some of their goals, but remained wary of how such cooperation might undermine the racialized foundation of their struggles. International Women’s Year provides a useful window through which to understand the productive and fraught aspects of these transracial relationships.

International Women’s Year 1975

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bonniereillyschmidt.com/2015/07/28/1975-the-egg-that-was-international-womens-year

In December 1972, after years of work by the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women to eliminate discrimination against women, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted Resolution No. 3275 proclaiming 1975 as International Women’s Year. As a signatory, Canada’s federal government was obliged to do all it could to eliminate gender discrimination. In the lead-up to 1975, women’s groups, government agencies, and others across the globe began preparing for conferences, events, and workshops to hold throughout the year. And Indigenous women’s organizations in Canada were no different. As early as 1974 local and national organizations, notably the newly formed Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) – of which the BC Indian Homemakers’ was a part — spent considerable time discussing the year’s activities and Indigenous women’s proposed roles in these.

Organizations were frequently informed of the funds that had been specifically earmarked for Indigenous women’s groups’ participation in International Women’s Year. Ministry representatives from the Department of Indian Affairs, the Secretary of State, and Health and Welfare attended women’s meetings and sent correspondence encouraging organizations to think of projects they could apply for funding to support, as well as conferences and workshops women were interested in attending.[5] NWAC, and its thirteen provincial and territorial member organizations, focused on how they might use the year to advertise and advance their current political objectives, which included improving Indigenous women’s marginalized legislated status, addressing child welfare issues, and ensuring women’s economic and political equality in Indigenous communities and non.[6] In some cases, such as with the Saskatchewan Native Women’s Association, the influence of IWY projects were long lasting. In 1975, with an International Women’s Year grant from the Secretary of State, the organization began publishing the provincial newsletter Iskwew.[7] Amid these conversations, however, Indigenous women did not appear to be overly concerned with other feminist movements.

Indigenous Women’s Organizations

By the time 1975 rolled around, Indigenous women were heavily involved in International Women’s Year. In August approximately thirty women representing Indigenous women’s organizations in each of the provinces and territories participated in an IWY-sponsored seminar in Ottawa.[8] Delegates were chosen to attend based on their knowledge and experience in the arenas of housing, women’s centres, medical and child care services, justice, education and employment issues, and Indigenous women’s legal status. During the three-day seminar, women made recommendations that consistently demanded greater control over policy development and implementation to ensure their unique needs were met.

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List of participants for Interchange 1975 – Native Women’s Seminar. Source: UBC, Rare Books and Special Collections, Box 4, File 4-34

Delegates called for culturally appropriate education; Indigenous-run women’s centres in all communities; women’s involvement in housing development and construction; and the right for women with less than two-year sentences to be incarcerated in their home territories with family and conjugal rights. And while this seminar provided the space for Indigenous women across the nation to come together and speak to these issues, it was not a significant departure from the work they were already doing in their provincial and national organizations – which Brown had referenced in her speech.[9] They continued, as they had, using these spaces to develop collective Indigenous resistances and to translate their knowledge and experiences into political mandates – but this time, the world was watching. What remained to be seen, however, was how the settler state would take up the strong resolutions coming from these forums.

For some Indigenous women, Brown’s fears about tokenisms and the superficiality of International Women’s Year proved accurate. In the words of Squamish woman Theresa Nahanee, the year saw “little or nothing accomplished to significantly change the lives and life-styles of Indian women.”[10] This would have been no surprise to NWAC. In a spring 1975 letter to Trudeau, the organization suggested that while women’s positions might be improving somewhat, the same wasn’t true for Indigenous women.[11] Instead, NWAC’s board of directors argued that so far: “the squaw stereotype still prevails.” Alluding to the pervasive image of Indigenous women as drudges and slaves to men, NWAC maintained: “One need only look at the Indian organizations throughout the country to realize the men still hold all the positions of power and make all the decisions,” and no one seemed to be motivated to ensure women’s political representation or equal legal status.[12] That had become very clear two years earlier when Jeanette Lavell had lost her bid to regain status after marrying out of her community, leaving Indian Act sexism intact.

Even within International Women’s Year, with strong mandates to empower Indigenous women, government agents perpetuated rather than disrupted deeply entrenched power differentials. Funding, for instance, came on a case-by-case project basis (at a time when male-dominated organizations enjoyed stable core funding), and there was a distinct lack of clarity around which Indigenous women qualified for funding – with women’s legal status at the heart of these considerations. And of course, the power to determine all of these things rested with government officials, as it always had. So, despite government commitment to International Women’s Year, and the self-congratulatory nature of advertised benefits to Indigenous women, these benefits weren’t enjoyed equally, and officials didn’t appear to be committed to the types structural and political change women demanded.

Settler allies?

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Kitty Maracle, BCNWS questions a government panel on Indigenous women’s inequality Source: Indian News 17, no. 5 (October-December 1975)

Outside of the official narrative of International Women’s Year, the relationships between Indigenous women’s organizations and settler women allies were also uneven and followed the general direction they had throughout the early 1970s. In 1973, representatives from BC Indigenous women’s organizations attended the Status of Women Council of British Columbia conference, and received financial assistance from the council for their advocacy work. On October 22 of that year, Indigenous women’s groups also attended a national day of mourning – organized by the council – where women could grieve the loss of the Lavell case.[13] Though this support was not solicited by Indigenous women’s organizations, the Council’s work specifically and Indigenous women’s alliance with them generally was accepted and appreciated. Many of these relationships would continue throughout International Women’s Year and beyond, with some political and personal bonds forming, particularly as Indigenous women’s fight against the Indian Act took to the international stage in the late 1970s. But amid this gender solidarity, Indigenous women maintained a keen awareness of the unique racial biases they faced, and this tempered any strong political partnerships that may have developed.

In one of her many articles outlining the beneficial yet uneasy relationships between Indigenous and “white settler feminists,” Karen Fish reminded readers of the Homemakers’ newspaper that: “Indian women face obstacles in their struggles for change that the white middle class women’s movement has never had to deal with. Indian women are discriminated against because they are Indian, because they are women, and more than either of these, they are discriminated against because they are Indian women.” For Fish, any cooperation between Indigenous and white settler women needed to understand this very different reality.

This point may have been lost on Jolene Nickolchuk, the non-Indigenous program director for the Nawican Friendship Centre in Dawson Creek. In the final days of International Women’s Year, Nicholchuk wrote to Kitty Maracle, the Vancouver president of the BC Native Women’s Society to discuss Indigenous women’s clubs. In response to Maracle’s earlier letter outlining the Native Women’s Society’s desire to expand its socio-political work to new communities, Nickolchuk explained the Centre already had a Native women’s group with a small, but growing constituency. Nickolchuk, interested in learning what the Native Women’s Society did and pursuing future collaborations, conceded that presently her main objective was to provide these women with a place to socialize, and that Nawican members were “not at the point of women’s Lib. [but] are more concerned with providing for their families and getting through the day.”[14] She acknowledged, however, that eventually she would like to be able to carry on feminist discussions and have films on women’s current problems. But, she added: “I don’t want to push these women too far [,] so we are going slowly.”[15]

Nickolchuk’s assertion that the women were not yet at the point of “women’s Lib” and that she did not want to “push these women too far,” implied these women had not yet advanced to feminism — or at least her vision of feminism. This progressionist language outlined a clear evolutionary spectrum, on which Indigenous women’s feminist politics – which largely consisted of surviving in a sexist and racist world – fell short of the ideal. Nickolchuk did not offer an explanation for this – whether she believed Indigenous women were politically incapable of her brand of feminism or intentionally resisted it – but she gestured towards remedying this shortcoming by introducing feminist discussions to the club.

Nicholchuk’s intervention into the Nawican women’s activities and ideologies was not an isolated incident, but broadly indicative of some settler women’s involvement in Indigenous women’s groups across Canada. And that this happened during International Women’s Year when calls for gender solidarity and support were strong, and Indigenous women were publicizing their robust political capacities, was significant.

In contrast to Nicholchuk, Brown’s interaction with the BC Homemakers’ Association in the opening vignette demonstrated her determination not to judge, take over, or undercut the work the Homemakers’ had already accomplished. Nor did she want to collapse women’s varied experiences under one feminist banner. Instead she believed both groups had something valuable to offer each other – a type of reciprocity and equality missing in Nicholchuk’s narrative. Of course, none of this is to say that women of colour inherently worked more effectively with Indigenous women, or that settler women and their organizations were universally harmful. Indeed, beyond Brown’s calls to action at the Homemakers’ dinner, there did not appear to be any major alliances formed as a result. But these brief glimpses of transracial gendered relationships during this year of unprecedented global attention on women demands greater exploration.

Conclusion

Ultimately, while International Women’s Year may have brought some women together and opened spaces for new alliances, these were often on a case-by-case basis such as with the Lavell case and the Homemakers’ dinner. But for many, Indigenous women’s struggles were too unique to collapse into a broader movement, and thus, these alliances didn’t seem to make a notable impact on the Indigenous women’s movement overall. Largely resistant to interventions of any kind – whether from settler state agents, white feminists, or even feminists of colour – Indigenous women continued, as they had, lobbying within their regional and national networks, working to put their concerns on the settler state’s agenda. Continuing in relative isolation, by the early 1980s, Indigenous women’s organizations were ever-present in front line activist work and intervened in decision-making processes. They exposed racism in health services (which caused deaths in remote communities); in racially-fuelled child apprehension practices where children were placed in non-Indigenous homes without the consent or involvement of Indigenous communities; in instances of racist education curriculum; and in the lack of social assistance and housing for women leaving prison. And in each case women offered practical and feasible solutions including inquests for deaths, Indigenous control over child welfare practices, an education committee to review curriculum, and transition housing for previously incarcerated women.[16]

Further, in addition to holding regular meetings and attending those of other provincial and national women’s and male-dominated organizations, representatives from British Columbia’s Indigenous women’s organizations served on advisory committees and task forces for child welfare, social assistance regulations, family support services, and Indigenous women’s rights in the Indian Act and Canadian Constitution. They developed committees on alcohol and drug rehabilitation and outreach for women, and held workshops on legal issues, employment training for youth and women, and access to education. They also published monthly newsletters and attended a host of training sessions and meetings on sensitivity and self-awareness, understanding service delivery programs, and women’s leadership.[17]

This is not to say, however, that International Women’s Year failed to add to the existing groundwork to build a “genuine revolution” as Brown had hoped, since, as Tracy Chapman reminds me time and time again: “talkin’ ‘bout a revolution, it sounds like a whisper.”

[1] University of British Columbia Rare Books and Special Collections (RBSC), Leonard and Kitty Maracle Fonds, Box 35, File 35-4, Speeches – Indian Homemakers Dinner, Shared Struggles, 18 June 1975.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] RBSC, Leonard and Kitty Maracle Fonds, Box 35, File 35-4, Speeches – Indian Homemakers Dinner, Shared Struggles, 18 June 1975.

[5] RBSC, Native Women’s Association of Canada – Minutes, Box 4, file 4-27; RBSC, Native Women’s Association of Canada – Minutes – First National Native Women’s Conference 1971, Box 4, File 4-26.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan (PAS), Collection R-1453, Indian and Native Affairs Secretariat, File 2.156, General (Native Women): 1976-1977, 1979-1980, Helene Josefowicz, Social Development Officer, Department of the Secretary of State, Citizenship Development Branch, Historical Perspective of the Saskatchewan Native Women’s Movement Society, 15 March 1976. Iskwew is the Cree word for woman.

[8] RBSC, Leonard and Kitty Maracle Fonds, Box 4, File 4-34, Interchange ’75 – Native Women’s Seminar, International Women’s Year, Native Women’s Seminar, Ottawa, 18-29 August 1975, minutes; RBSC, Leonard and Kitty Maracle Fonds, Box 4, File 4-34, Interchange ’75 – Native Women’s Seminar, List of Prospective Participants.

[9] RBSC, Native Women’s Association of Canada – Minutes, box 4, file 4-27.

[10] Theresa Nahanee, “Women’s Year – Little Impact on Indian Women,” Indian News 17, no. 5 (October-December 1975), 2.

[11] RBSC, Leonard and Kitty Maracle Fonds, Box 4, File 4-30, Native Women’s Association of Canada – Letters, Pamphlets, etc., Position of Native Women’s Association of Canada as presented to Prime Minister Trudeau and Cabinet, 15 April 1975.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Library and Archives Canada (LAC), RG 10, box 1, fi le 987/24- 5, Homemakers’ Club— General, 1973– 81, Indian Homemakers’ Association Progress Report, 1 November 1973; RBSC, box 4, file 4- 18, Indian Rights for Indian Women— Minutes, 1973.

[14] RBSC, Leonard and Kitty Maracle Fonds, Box 5, file 5-1, Letters – Incoming to B.C. Native Women’s Society and Native Women’s Association of Canada, Letter from Jolene Nickolchuk to Kitty Maracle, 27 December 1975.

[15] Ibid.

[16] LAC, RG 10, Box 16, file E6417-2254, Indian Homemakers’ Association of B.C., 1983, Resolutions Passed at the 19th Annual Conference, 20-24 June 1983.

[17] LAC, RG10, Box 16, File part 1, E-6417-2255, 1994-95/595 GAD, Native Women’s Society, 1980/08-1981/02, BC Native Women’s Society Proposal for Core Funding for the Fiscal Year 1981-1982, Operations, Kamloops, BC.