One of the political stands taken by Bear (and the women of Tobique First Nation) was to remove the discriminatory legislation in the Indian Act that defined Canada’s First Nations people by marriage rather than familial lines. This method of determining status meant that when an ‘Indian Status’ woman married a non-status man she lost her status and never regained it even if divorced or widowed. She would also lose all associated band membership, property, inheritance, burial, medical, educational and voting rights.
“That’s archaic you know. That’s the way the government runs,” says Bear. “I think nothing is really going to change drastically until they modify or get rid of the Indian Act.”
She recounts that among the small group of Tobique women who began the campaign for an end to the discriminatory legislation was one who had lost her status. When the woman returned to the reserve she had to live in a tent because no one would take her in.
In Bear’s case, by the time she became involved with the group she had both lost and then regained her Indian Status.
Since the Act also conferred status to non-status women when they married status men, it resulted in many status men resisting change to this aspect of the Act in order that their wives who had not had ‘Indian Status’ prior to getting married would be able to retain it.
Though the lack of support from male family members was a hardship for the women in the campaign, Bear sees the conflict from a wider perspective: “If you’re brought up under the Indian Act—a law that you had no say in its writing—and you have to live that all your life, you don’t know any different. We never blamed the males because they were the product of an Indian Act. It’s kind of like apartheid. When you’re used to being called certain names because of the colour of your skin, you tend to even adopt that.”
In June of 1985, the efforts of the women of Tobique bore fruit with the passage of Bill C-31, ending more than 100 years of legislated sexual discrimination against First Nations women. “I’m glad we were that few because it had us focus. We got a lot of flack from the First Nation community, but we also got a lot of respect and support. So we garnered the support and respect and ignored the rest. I told them if you’re going to start backing down because your brothers are calling you names then we’ll never gain anything. You have to decide what you want to do.”
Indeed, during Bear’s 73 years she has taken many important decisions in both life and art. A trip to the Beaverbrook Gallery to view her exhibit provides us with a lesson in compassion, courage, and love. The installation is also a testament to the artist’s mastery of several different techniques including woodcut printing, lithography, and painting.
The last image in the gallery is Oka Warrior (Fragile Freedoms #1), a serigraph on handmade paper. It’s not the image we’re used to seeing from that tumultuous time in Kanesatake—the one that portrayed the Mohawk nation as a band of lawless hoodlums. Instead, the image invites us to see past the camouflage head covering and into the eyes of one who is filled with compassionate resolve to protect native land from invaders.
“Nekt wikuhpon ehpit (Once there lived a woman)…The Painting, Poetry and Politics of Shirley Bear” is sure to offer observers a unique and personal view of the life experiences of Canada’s first people. The exhibit is on display at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery until September 20th.