Professor Wendy Wasliuk had just finished trying to convince a class of undergraduates at the University of Winnipeg that there was a rational explanation for the negative changes in Aboriginal women’s role in the last 500 years, when an agitated young aboriginal woman raised her hand. “But what about your role here at the university?”
Some years later, Professor Wasliuk, a Dene woman from Northern Saskatchewan, took that one question and began to do research aimed at documenting the history of the role of aboriginal women in Canada. One late evening she came across an article that revealed a story about an aboriginal woman who was respected in her village and was a part of the social fabric. The sudden impact of how things have changed over time saddened her.
“Today in 2003,” she says unhappily, “things are very different for Aboriginal Women. Colonization has stripped Aboriginal Women of every conceivable right.”
Walsiuk, 42, who lives in Winnipeg with her three daughters and husband and today teaches Aboriginal Women’s Rights at the U of W, also coordinates a healing lodge for Aboriginal women. She was scheduled to be in Montreal last week to attend a conference on the rights of Aboriginal women, but a family matter derailed that plan.
Wasliuk has always been a strong supporter of Aboriginal women’s rights. Her research led her to believe that the rights of the aboriginal woman were once revered.
“At one time Aboriginal women did not have to worry about child custody and access to land,” she says in a telephone interview. “Women shaped the social structure and held decision-making power. Every family member held important responsibilities in the wellbeing of children. It was an honor and privilege to have such significant roles in a child’s life, so everyone took their responsibilities very seriously.”
The onslaught of colonialism focused its most crushing and long oppression on Aboriginal women, dealing them a triple blow. Aboriginal women lost their position of high esteem first to the dominant power of the colonizing forces which reduced both aboriginal men and women to almost non-status, then they lost it to the dominant hierarchy of the European patriarchal system and were brought down to the general subservient position held by European women, and lastly they lost it in their own nations through the abolition of traditional forms of governance and social decision making, which relegated them to the lowest social rung in their communities.
Wasliuk adds that many of the aboriginal leaders have bought into the patriarchal European structure (The Indian Act) and have chosen sexist and misogynist beliefs on which to model band rules and policies.
According to Mabel Nipshank, a M