The book details “the vital case” of a decades-long struggle against the genocide of Indigenous women in Canada


Lynn Gehl struggles to celebrate the legal victory that earned her First Nation status.

Gehl, Algonquin-Anishinaabe-kwe, who holds a Doctor of Philosophy in Indigenous Studies, details the painful toll his life took from the 23-year battle with the federal government in the recently published book Gehl v. Canada: Challenging Sex Discrimination in the Indian Act.

“It’s really a book about power, in terms of family, in terms of community, the Department of Justice…. I think I had a millimeter of agency, less than a millimeter of agency, and everything was thwarted by Canada. It’s depressing, isn’t it? Gehl said.

Agency, or spiritual agency, is defined by Gehl as “the term critical theorists use to talk about a person’s ability to move forward, to have the ability to move forward. before. Indigenous people talked about having wit.

Gehl began her oral research with her grandmother and her archival research in her twenties as she struggled for “Indian” status. In 1994, when she applied for status, she found that changes to the Indian Act in 1985 prevented her from claiming it.

Under the Indian Act, a person’s registration is based on the status of both parents. However, an unknown or unreported parentage policy made it impossible to obtain status for those who could not trace their paternal line or who did not have their father listed on their birth certificate.

In Gehl’s situation, which spanned decades, the department then known as Indian and Northern Affairs and then Indigenous Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC), determined that it did not was not eligible for status because his grandmother had not identified Gehl’s grandfather. Government policy assumes that an unregistered father is not an Aboriginal person.

Gehl initially wanted to fight the status decision based on how the policy was implemented. She was told that she had to bring an action declaring that the Indian Act violated s. 15 (1) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This article states that “Everyone is equal before and under the law and has the right to the same protection and the same benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination on grounds of race, national or ethnic origin. , color, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.

The action being dismissed, Gehl appealed to the Ontario Court of Appeal. Then finally, in 2017, the Court of Appeal ruled that it was unreasonable to deny Gehl’s status and ruled that she was entitled to Indian status.

Justice Sharpe made his decision based on the Charter, stating that the policy of proof of paternity “continues the long history of disadvantage suffered by Aboriginal women.” The other two judges applied an administrative law analysis to decide the case.

Two years after this decision and following extensive consultations with First Nations, the government made changes to Bill S-3, extending the right to descendants of women affected by gender discrimination dating back to 1869. Gehl said the government’s response “hasn’t solved all the problems, but it has come a long way.

Gehl is quick to point out that other women have also worked hard to achieve equality.

In fact, she created the Indigenous Famous Five — Mary Two-Ax Earley, Jeannette Corbiere Lavell, Yvonne Bedard, Sandra Lovelace Nicholas and Sharon McIvor. It was a play about the ‘Famous Five’, a group of white women who filed a lawsuit in the 1920s, which resulted in women being viewed as people under of Canadian law.

“I consciously and intentionally did it after the Famous Five as a way to give it value,” Gehl said. “It was more of a political strategy and it wasn’t even fun to do that. It was something we had to do. I think some people were actually annoyed by this, or angry because they said things like, “Who chose you?” It was a political strategy. We weren’t going to seek consensus among aboriginal women.

The Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action expanded the group to the Famous Indigenous Six, removing Earley, who had passed away, and adding former Senators Lillian Eva Dyck and Gehl.

“I was certainly happy and proud to be included…. If I were excluded, I would be very sad. I would feel deprived of my rights because I have worked a lot on the issue. So how do I feel about it? I have the impression that this is something that we created, that we put ourselves in the spotlight in order to give ideology a motto in the collective consciousness. It wasn’t about me. It’s still not about me, ”Gehl said.

Gehl is clear that this was a fight she fought because she felt that the policy that excluded her from obtaining status “was immoral and that they were harming Indigenous mothers and children and I had to anyway do something with my life. And why not serve Indigenous mothers and children? I don’t like it taking so long. I’m actually quite unhappy that it took so long. I think my lawsuit illustrates how far Canada will go to deny indigenous peoples who they are and to target mothers and children. ”

Gehl says some tough decisions had to be made during the fight and not everyone got it. Sometimes she felt lonely and undermined.

“People are emotional. These aren’t necessarily political strategists who understand how difficult it is to gain power and some of the tough decisions you have to make to get there. But not just that, how pissed off you can be, ”she said.

One criticism Gehl faced constantly was that she was fighting for her status under the Indian Act, a colonial construction. She was called “Colonial Indian”.

She points out that many young mothers depend on the Indian Act for health and other benefits.

“Taking care of them doesn’t make me have a critical colonial mindset. This means that there are people who are very dependent on Indian status registration and there is no reason why I cannot be concerned about it and understand that the Indian Act is problematic and that we are getting out of the Indian Act, ”she said.

But “tying up his agency” for so long was not what Gehl was looking for. In fact, she calls it ‘life sucking stuff’.

However, she asks, when would have been a good time to quit? Five years or 10 years or 15 years in battle?

“At some point, when you’re 15, you’re not going to quit. If I stopped it would mean that another woman, mother, would have to take it back, ”Gehl said.

In the book’s preface, Mary Eberts, legal counsel to Gehl in his legal case, writes: “The book is unique because it is the only full first-person account of a leading case on discrimination in the United States. respect for women in the Indian Act of Canada. Gehl v Canada is the fifth in a series of legal challenges emblematic of Canada’s long-standing attempt to assimilate Indigenous peoples by expelling Status Indian women from their communities.

While the book may be unique, Gehl says it certainly wasn’t therapeutic to write.

“It was terrible. It was miserable. I don’t feel that joy and pride of being a Famous Six. It was an entirely miserable process going through genocide, ”she said.

Gehl v. Canada: Challenging Sex Discrimination in the Indian Act is published by University of Regina Press and is available at https://uofrpress.ca/Books/G/Gehl-v-Canada.


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