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Nov 23, 2021
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Mary Two-Axe Earley receiving a Governor General Award for her work to advance gender equalityMary Two-Axe Earley was denied critical rights under the Indian Act at an intersection of gender and race: she took on this monolith of colonialism and mobilized for change.

The Indian Act, enacted in 1867, is the primary law used by the federal government to manage status, local First Nations governments and reserve land.[1] It has also been a key tool by which the settler colonial government has, historically and on an ongoing basis, carried out assimilation, systemic discrimination, oppression, and cultural genocide of Indigenous people. The Indian Act has rightly been described as “an evolving, paradoxical document that has enabled trauma, human rights violations and social and cultural disruption for generations of Indigenous peoples.”[2]

From 1876 to 2019, the Indian Act’s status provisions discriminated on the basis of sex, denying First Nations women and their descendants’ status in circumstances where First Nations men and their descendants were entitled to status. Prior to 1985, section 12(1)(b) of the Act operated to strip Indigenous women of their “Indian Status”, the term for registration under the Act, and barred them from passing on their status to their children if they married a man who was non-status. The section also meant that an Indigenous woman who sought a divorce from her status husband would have their status revoked.

The result of this section was devastating for women, cutting them off from their communities and culture and denying them basic human rights. As Kanien’keháka filmmaker Courtney Montour writes, the Act “banned First Nations women and their children who lost their status from living in their communities, denying them access to critical social programs and voting rights in their community, and severing their ties to identity and culture. Thousands of First Nations women affected by this legislation are still waiting to be recognized by Canada.”[3] Mary Two-Axe Earley was an early leader of resistance against the discriminatory Indian Act, with Indigenous women’s activism growing throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

Two-Axe Earley was born in 1911 on the Kahnawà:ke reserve in Quebec. She lived there until she was 18, when she moved to Brooklyn, New York. While living in Brooklyn Two-Axe Earley met and married Edward Earley, who was of Irish-American descent. She, like so many other Indigenous women, lost her status under the Act when she married.

Two-Axe Earley came to activism at mid-life, galvanized by her experience of the harm caused by the Act to women in her community. One event was reported by Two-Axe Earley to have had a specific impact: in 1966 one of her friends and fellow Kanien’kehá:ka clan member died in her arms, victim of a heart attack. Two-Axe Earley attributed her friend’s death to the stress she experienced because of discrimination under the Act. After this, Two-Axe Earley’s fight for change began.

In 1967 Two-Axe Earley co-founded the Equal Rights for Indian Women Association, which later became Indian Rights for Indian Women (IRIW). Both iterations of the organization advocated against gender discrimination in the Indian Act. That same year Two-Axe Earley became involved with the Royal Commission on the Status of Women, ultimately making a submission to the Commission in 1968. Her submission contributed to the inclusion of Recommendation 106 in the 1970 Report of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women (the “Report”), that “the Indian Act be amended to allow an Indian woman upon marriage to a non-Indian to (a) retain her Indian status and (b) transmit her Indian status to her children.”[4]

Two-Axe Earley’s determination and tenacity came through in her speeches: she said, during these years of activism, “This is the first time we have ever been able to speak. We demand that the Indian Act be changed to give us equal rights.”[5]

Despite this and other specific recommendations related to Indigenous women in the Report, no action was taken by the federal government to redress the discriminatory provisions of the Act. Two-Axe Earley continued her work. She co-founded the Quebec Native Women’s Association in 1974, an organization that continues its work today.[6] In 1975, she travelled to the International Women’s Year Conference in Mexico City to present a brief on the racist and gendered discrimination she and other Indigenous women were facing in Canada. Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s she tirelessly worked, alongside other Indigenous women activists, to bring awareness of and change to section 12(1)(b) of the Act, and the experience of Indigenous women in Canada.

A significant step in the fight was achieved when, in 1981, the UN Human Rights Committee ruled that the operation of section 12(1)(b) of the Indian Act constituted a breach by Canada of Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.[7] This decision was made in response to the submission to the Committee by Sandra Lovelace, another Indigenous activist at the time, challenging the discriminatory provisions.[8]

In 1983, Two-Axe Earley spoke before the Federal-Provincial Conference of First Ministers on Aboriginal Constitutional Matters, sharing her own experience of discrimination under section 12(1)(b) of the Indian Act: “I had a vision that I one day would be free again. Free to be myself. To be an Indian”[9]. She demanded justice for Indigenous women: “Please search your hearts and minds, follow the dictates of your conscience, set my sisters free.”[10] This speech almost didn’t happen: the first ministers refused her request to speak at the conference and it was only when Quebec's then-premier, René Lévesque, gave Two-Axe Earley his chair at the table that she was able to make her submission.

Finally, in 1985 the federal government responded to the numerous and ongoing calls for change, and passed Bill C-31 to amend the Indian Act. The bill made various changes to the Act, and specifically reinstated status to women who had previously lost their status through marriage to non-Indigenous people. It also gave status to the children of women who regained status under the Act.[11] Significantly, the Act no longer ties women’s status to their husbands’.

This was an incredibly significant achievement, borne from the unflagging and courageous work of Two-Axe Earley and other Indigenous women. More than 114,000 people gained or regained status with the amendments to the Act from Bill C-31.[12] On July 5, 1985, one week following Bill C-31 receiving Royal Assent, Two-Axe Earley was the first woman to have her status reinstated, in a ceremony in Toronto.[13]

Despite this achievement however, remaining provisions of the Indian Act continued to discriminate on the basis of gender by excluding members of the same extended family, children born outside of marriage and others from access to registration. Spurred by the advocacy and activism of successive generations of Indigenous women leaders, Canada enacted further provisions in 2017 and 2019[14] to address remaining known discriminatory impacts.

Two-Axe Earley continued her work for the remainder of her life, and was a widely celebrated activist, speaker and leader.[15] She died in 1996.

Special thanks to Lauren Sheffield for her assistance in preparing this feature. 

Further Reading and Films

Courtney Montour, “Mary Two-Axe Earley’s fight for equality changed Canada” https://blog.google/inside-google/doodles/mary-two-axe-earleys-fight-equality-changed-canada/.

Courtney Montour, (Director), 2021, Mary Two-Axe Earley: I Am Indian Again, National Film Board of Canada. (See https://www.nfb.ca/film/mary-two-axe-earley/)

Historica Canada, 2018, Women in Canadian History: Mary Two-Axe Earley, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0AXc9u5SuRA.

Amanda Robinson, “Mary Two-Axe Earley”, The Canadian Encyclopedia, August 20, 2021, https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/mary-two-axe-earley.

Wayne Brown, November 2003, “Mary Two-Axe Earley: Crusader for Equal Rights for Aboriginal Women”, Electoral Insight, Volume 5, p. 51-54, https://www.elections.ca/res/eim/pdf/insight_2003_11_e.pdf.  


[1] Zach Parrot, Indian Act”, The Canadian Encyclopedia, December 16, 2020, https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/indian-act.

[2]     Ibid.

[3]     Courtney Montour, “Mary Two-Axe Earley's fight for equality changed Canada”, June 28, 2021, https://blog.google/inside-google/doodles/mary-two-axe-earleys-fight-equality-changed-canada/.

[4]     Florence Bird, et al., 1970, Report on the Royal Commission of the Status of Women,  https://epe.lac-bac.gc.ca/100/200/301/pco-bcp/commissions-ef/bird1970-eng/bird1970-eng.htm

[5]     Courtney Montour, Mary Two-Axe Earley: I Am Indian Again, https://www.nfb.ca/film/mary-two-axe-earley/

[6]     “History”, Quebec Native Women Inc., https://faq-qnw.org/en/about-us/.

[7]     Decision of the U.N. Human Rights Committee, July 30, 1981 https://indigenouslaw.usask.ca/documents/publications/lovelace/Lovelace_doc18.pdf

[8]  Sandra Lovelace v. Canada [1977-1981], Indigenous Law Centre, University of Saskatchewan, https://indigenouslaw.usask.ca/publications/sandra-lovelace-v.-canada-1977-1981.php

[9]     Courtney Montour, “Mary Two-Axe Earley's fight for equality changed Canada”, June 28, 2021, https://blog.google/inside-google/doodles/mary-two-axe-earleys-fight-equality-changed-canada/.

[10]    Wayne Brown, November 2003, “Mary Two-Axe Earley: Crusader for Equal Rights for Aboriginal Women”, Electoral Insight, Volume 5, p. 51-54, https://www.elections.ca/res/eim/pdf/insight_2003_11_e.pdf.  

[11]    “Bill C-31”, The Canadian Encyclopedia, May 12, 2020,  https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/bill-c-31.

[12]    Ibid.

[13]    “Women in Canadian History: Mary Two-Axe Earley” Historica Canada, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0AXc9u5SuRA   

[14]  Bill S-3, An Act to amend the Indian Act in response to the Superior Court of Quebec decision in Descheneaux c. Canada (Procureur General) S.C. 2017, c. 25. See also: https://library.law.utoronto.ca/node/2759 ; https://www.sac-isc.gc.ca/eng/1467214955663/1572460311596

[15]    “Mary Two-Axe Earley – Public Service (1996)”, Indspire, https://indspire.ca/laureate/mary-two-axe-earley/ 


About this feature: The Cavalluzzo LLP features series, Reflections: Labour, Human and Civil Rights, highlights some of the leaders, events, and milestones that are historical underpinnings to the current landscape of Canadian human rights and labour rights. Reflections may reference abhorrent historical realities: as we bear witness to those, we also recognize with gratitude the courage and commitment of the changemakers who continue to inspire strides in social justice. Each instalment in this series has been authored or contributed to by Cavalluzzo LLP staff, articling students or lawyers. 

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