(1942 - )
Native women's rights activist
Reprinted courtesy of the Toronto Star Syndicate
Dedicated to the causes of Native women for more than a quarter of a century, Jeannette Corbiere Lavell is a courageous woman who fought to improve their plight and proved that one person's voice can make a difference.
Jeannette Vivian Corbiere was born on June 21, 1942, on the Wikwemikong Reserve on Manitoulin Island in Ontario. Belonging to the Nishnawbe people, she spoke Ojibway. Her mother was educated at the Residential School and Teacher's College, while her father was illiterate, never having attended school. Jeannette attended the elementary school, which was run by the Catholic Church and completed up to Grade 10 in the community before leaving for North Bay, Ontario, where she completed high school and business college.
After graduating, she moved to Toronto where she worked as an executive secretary. She also worked for the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto in many capacities, including social, court and youth worker. Later, while working for the Company of Young Canadians, she travelled across the country working with Native communities. In 1965, she was chosen as Indian Princess of Canada.
In 1970, Jeannette married David Lavell, a non-Native, who was a journalism student at Ryerson Institute in Toronto. Shortly after her marriage, she received a notice from the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development stating that she was no longer considered an Indian according to section 12 (1) (b) of the Indian Act. It stated "12 (1) The following persons are not entitled to be registered, namely ... (b) a woman who married a person who is not an Indian, unless that woman is subsequently the wife or widow of a person described in section 11." (The Indian Act, 1970).
This section had grave consequences for enfranchised Native women. They lost their Indian status as did any children of the marriage; they could no longer live on the reserve and lost the right to own land or inherit family property; they could not receive treaty benefits or participate in band councils and political or social affairs in the community, and they lost the right to be buried in cemeteries with their ancestors. On the other hand, Native men who married non-Native women were not deprived of these rights and their wives and children were given Indian status.
Jeannette Corbiere Lavell decided to challenge the Indian Act on the basis that section 12 (1) (b) was discriminatory and should be repealed, according to the 1960 Bill of Rights. It was the first case dealing with discrimination by reason of sex. In June 1971, Judge Grossberg ruled against Jeannette Corbiere Lavell in County Court. Not easily deterred, on October 9, 1971, the Lavell case was heard in the Federal Court of Appeal, which ruled unanimously for Lavell. Unfortunately, under pressure from the federal government and Native organizations, this decision was appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada.
In February of 1973, the Lavell and Bedard cases were heard together. Yvonne Bedard was another woman who had lost her Indian status by marrying a non-Native. On August 27, 1973, the Supreme Court, in a majority of 5-4, held that the Bill of Rights did not apply to that section of the Indian Act. Therefore, many Indian women were cut off from their heritage, not by choice, but by an archaic law. The Royal Commission on the Status of Women stated in an earlier report that approximately 4 605 Indian women were enfranchised by marrying white men between the years 1958 and 1968. Years later, Sandra Lovelace, following in Lavell's footsteps, brought the case of status removal to the United Nations International Human Rights Commission, which ruled in her favour. In 1985, section 12 of the Indian Act was repealed.
Jeannette Corbiere Lavell continued her work as one of the founding members of the Ontario Native Women's Association: she was vice-chairwoman from 1972 to 1973 and president from 1974 to 1975. She was also elected one of the vice-presidents of the Native Women's Association of Canada. She also held the position of president of both the Nishnawbe Institute (an organization promoting Native culture) and Anduhyaun Inc. (a residence for Native women in Toronto). She later received her teaching degree from the University of Western Ontario, eventually becoming a school principal. She was also a cabinet appointee to the Commission on the Native Justice System, as well as an education/employment counsellor, and a consultant to the community for the Ontario government.
Jeannette Corbiere Lavell is a woman who has worked tirelessly for change against unfairness and injustice. In a fitting tribute, the Ontario Native Women's Association established the Jeannette Corbiere Lavell Award in 1987 "to be presented annually to a deserving Native Woman demonstrating the same qualities and dedication as Jeannette". (Ontario Native Women's Association. Information, Policy and Administration Manual, 1987, p. 11)