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‘A slow death by amendment’: OISE faculty’s book takes an intersectional lens to the Indian Act

By Perry King

February 21, 2020

Martin Cannon has wanted to publish a book about the Indian Act for decades.

His new book, Men, Masculinity and the Indian Act was inspired by the feminist theory and Indigenous women’s writings about sexism and racism that he read in the 1980s and in his Master of Arts thesis in the ‘90s.

As one of many other Indigenous men who, for some time, was not federally recognized as a status Indian because of the discrimination directed at Indigenous women who married non-Indian men, he wanted to construct a book that seeks to better understand the Indian Act’s effect on both Indigenous women and men – “with an eye toward restoring gender balance and complementarity,” he says.

“In the book, I am committed to seeing a change in the consciousness and minds of Indigenous peoples about sexism and its impact on Indigenous nationhood,” said Cannon, an Associate Professor in OISE’s department of Social Justice Education. His teaching and research interests include Indigenous-settler relationships rejuvenation, racism and settler colonization and nation building.

“In all the work I do, I’m really wanting to encourage students to not just acquire facts and information or histories but to also understand that knowledge in order to resolve those histories,” he says.

Men, Masculinity and the Indian Act explores over four decades of case law calling attention to the inability – if not refusal – by courts to connect sexism with racialization and to acknowledge Indigenous peoples as sovereign nations of peoples.

“I contemplate how courts , Parliament, and even some status Indian organizations, in seeing the matters before them as discrimination involving only sexism, ignored the matter of Indianness, in turn retelling a ‘raceless story of sexism’,” says Cannon.

Published in September 2019, UBC Press – his publisher – nominated the 150-page book for the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing, a prize awarded by the Writer’s Trust of Canada.

“The attention to [the book] is just as important as anything else,” said Cannon, of the nomination. “When I’m thinking about what my book will look like in the public, I just hope the connections I am making about racialization being inseparable from sexism are talked about and recognized.”

To him, sexism within the Indian Act affects all Indigenous people and undermines the collective rights of nations by determining who gets to belong and who doesn’t. For example, sexism in the Act enshrined the structure of band councils, which were historically all male, including Haudenosaunee peoples, who have been traditionally matrilineal.

Citing arguments from his friend and textbook co-author, Lina Sunseri, an Associate Professor of Sociology at Brescia University College and other Indigenous women like the late Patricia Monture, Mary Ellen Turpel, Jennifer Denetdale, Joanne Barker, and J. Kehaulani Kauanui, he argues that sexism is always interlocked with racialized discrimination.

“What [these scholars] suggest to me is that sexism is a tool. It’s the precise tool that’s used to exact and mobilize settler colonialism and lands dispossession – and for the longest time, before Canada only recently amended the Indian Act, it furthered our legislative and sometimes physical elimination as people,” said Cannon.

His book explores what sexism has meant for Indigenous men – challenging an assumption that the Act has affected Indigenous people as “women” or “Indians” but not both. It is here that Cannon sought to approach this book with an intersectional lens.

“The book belongs to a grand tradition of feminist intersectional theorizing that’s primarily been written by Indigenous and Black women,” says Cannon, who hopes to see at some point constructive criticism especially from trans, two-spirited, and/or queer Indigenous perspectives.

He calls on Indigenous men and male-dominated leadership to at least acknowledge the Indian Act as a tool of both patriarchal and racialized subordination.

Ultimately, Cannon wants the Indian Act to undergo “a slow death by amendment,” not simply for Canada to address sex discrimination but also to address the category “Indian” and to restore First Nations sovereignty and jurisdiction over citizenship.

Citing Douglas Sanderson, a Nēhiyaw Associate Professor at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law, Cannon agrees that “Canada, through its parliament, and with Indigenous peoples needs to work together to identify specific sections of the Indian Act that no longer serve a legitimate purpose – whose elimination from the Indian Act would work to restore autonomy, property rights, and freedoms.”

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