OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is facing increased public pressure from Indigenous women and a feminist alliance to accept a Senate amendment of legislation on sex-based discrimination under the Indian Act.
Advocates have joined forces with two Aboriginal senators — Lillian Dyck and Sandra Lovelace-Nicholas — in an awareness campaign that kicked off this week urging the Liberal government to change the bill known as S-3.
Part of the outreach, supported by the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action, includes the distribution of a letter to women's organizations, academics and human rights groups to canvass support on the "full and final removal" of sex discrimination in the Indian Act.
"We write to you now because the government of Canada is poised to pass Bill S-3, a revision to the Indian Act, which will, one more time, remove discrimination for some but leave the core of the sex discrimination in place," the letter says.
Indian Act 'very hard on Aboriginal women'
The discrimination has existed since the Indian Act was first introduced in 1876, the letter adds.
Sharon McIvor, a plaintiff in a case resulting in a 2009 British Columbia Court of Appeal ruling on status for previously excluded Indigenous women and a signatory to the letter, said the campaign's goal echoes work she's done since the 1960s.
"The Indian Act has built into it a discriminatory scheme that is very hard on Aboriginal women," she said. "We have not been able to pass ... our status on to our children the same way that the men do."
In June, the Senate unanimously passed a change to Bill S-3 dubbed the "6(1)(a) all the way" amendment — a change designed to ensure Indian women and their descendants have full Indian status like Indian men do.
The House of Commons, however, did not accept the Senate's change and the government said it required more time to examine its impacts of the amendment. A message was then sent back to the Senate.
"The message is essentially asking us to agree with them," Sen. Dyck said. "I would say the vast majority of senators would say 'No, we don't agree with it because you took out the main amendment that we added in.'"
Equality for Indigenous women remains on the line in what is clearly a human rights issue, Dyck added.
"The prime minister is a feminist," she said.
Watch: Trudeau responds to findings on Indigenous peoples:
"He's gone around telling other countries, 'Let's advance women's issues, let's give women equality. But if you're not going to give Indigenous women equality, then there's something clearly that doesn't match up with your message to other people. Indigenous women deserve equality as much as any other woman."
In a statement, the office of Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett insisted the federal government is committed to ensuring there is gender equity for all women in Canada.
"We will continue to work with First Nations, impacted individuals, experts and parliamentarians to remove all sex discrimination from registration provisions in the Indian Act," the office said.
It also suggested it will be watching the Senate's next move.
"The debate on the current bill has yet to begin in the Senate, therefore, we cannot speculate or comment on how that debate in the Senate will evolve," it said.
Shelagh Day, one of the founders of the feminist alliance, said the Senate was very clear about their position when it passed the amendment last spring.
"This is a simple matter of whether women are treated (equal) in the Indian Act as men," she said. "It is 140 years after discriminatory legislation was passed. It is time to end it."
She also said sex-based discrimination in the Indian Act is clearly linked to the murders and disappearances of Indigenous women and girls, now the subject of a national public inquiry.
"It is one of the root causes of the violence and has been identified both by the United Nations and by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights as a root cause of the violence," she said.
"The government itself has treated them as though they were not equal human beings and that has made them vulnerable in the broader society and in their own communities."