Indigenous women’s advocate ‘had no idea’ Order of Canada was coming

Jeannette Corbiere Lavell’s advocacy has spanned decades.

Her work has taken her across Canada and even international borders.

Now she will travel to a special ceremony in Ottawa to receive the prestigious Order of Canada.

“I received a call just out of the blue from the Governor General’s office,” she told APTN News Wednesday. “No prior warning. No rumours or anything. I had no idea this was coming.”

Corbiere Lavell was at her home on the Wikwemikong Unceded Reserve in Ontario when she got the surprising news.

The call came in early December but she said she could only share the news with immediate family until it was made public on December 29.

Corbiere Lavell joins 124 other recipients being recognized for their contributions to Canadian society. She is being singled out for her “leadership in advocating for Indigenous women’s rights throughout Canada, notably for advancing gender equality under the law.”

The advocate is best known for challenging the Indian Act in 1971 after she married a non-Indigenous man resulting in the loss of her Indian status. At the time Section 12(1)(b) of the Indian Act stated a woman would lose her legal Indian status if she married a non-Indigenous man, and would inherently lose any rights associated with being a status Indian.

Deeming the Indian Act discriminatory against women she filed a legal suit against the federal government. In 1973 the case went to the Supreme Court of Canada where she lost.

Despite the loss, Corbiere Lavell’s case paved the way for some changes to the Act in 1985.

“Technically we didn’t win in 1973 at the Supreme Court but nonetheless it opened up all this big discussion and the controversy. Good and bad controversy,” said Corbiere Lavell.

She says this recognition is a reflection of the ongoing role Indigenous women and girls play in advancing Indigenous rights.

“We have many women – young and older – who are doing amazing amounts of work at the community level, either in health, education or just looking at our rights in the Indian Act and our human rights,” she said.

An exhibit outlining Corbiere Lavell’s fight is on display at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg. In November she saw it for the first time and reflected on the issues with the Indian Act, including Bill C-31.

“The Indian Act is still there trying to obliterate any kinds of rights that we have, and it’s still going on in terms of our land and other aspects of our life,” she said.

More than a dozen Indigenous people will receive the Order including Fred Sasakamoose, who was the first Indigenous player in the NHL, and Fisher River Cree Nation Chief David Crate, for improving access to technology for Manitoba First Nations.

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