A tribute to Wiikwemkoong’s North Star

Jeannette Corbiere Lavell

MANITOWANING—Jeannette Corbiere Lavell received an outpouring of love from the community Saturday evening as friends and family from around the Island gathered at Debajehmujig Creation Centre in Manitowaning to commemorate all her efforts for women’s rights in Canada.

“It’s fitting that you’ve come here because this is your home,” said Gina Simon, the event’s host.

Danielle Roy led a procession into the room to the sound of a powerful honour song in tribute of Ms. Corbiere Lavell’s contributions to the country.

Her life story was born out of challenging times and tireless battles through adversity. In the early 1970s she married a non-Indigenous man and shortly thereafter received a letter from the federal government: Her Indian status was revoked because of her marriage.

Had she been a man marrying a non-Indigenous woman, she would have kept her status. With only a day remaining before the appeal period closed, she launched a complaint that the provisions of the Indian Act discriminated based on gender. The case went to the Supreme Court of Canada where she ultimately lost the appeal.

Despite losing her fight, the case garnered national attention and, together with Yvonne Bedard’s failed case, fostered a new age of Indigenous activism. A 1985 update to the Indian Act restored status to women who had married out and become enfranchised. It also removed status from non-Indigenous women who had married Indigenous men and been granted the same rights and privileges as Indigenous women.

In all, 127,000 women received their Indian status back and 106,000 non-Indigenous women lost their status.

Wiikwemkoong Ogimaa Duke Peltier was the first to address the room. He said her actions have wide-reaching impacts regarding identity.

“In order for you to be Anishinaabe, you have to feel it. You have to live it, feel it, it has to be in your heart,” he said.

Ogimaa Peltier presented Ms. Corbiere Lavell with two gifts from Wiikwemkoong: A set of antlers, carved by a local artisan/craftsperson, and a feather that the community dressed specially for her.

After this first speech, Ms. Corbiere Lavell took to the stage to address the room.

“You are all my people,” she said, before describing how it felt to receive a letter from the government revoking her status.

She dismissed the idea of her action against Canada as being ‘heroic.’

“When the challenge came, we had to do it. There was no choice,” she said. “I am grateful, honoured and totally impressed to be given this feather from our community, our ogimaa and our councillors.”

Next to the stage was former Grand Council Chief Pat Mahdabee. He said Ms. Corbiere Lavell’s willingness to help others should come as no surprise to those who know her.

“She was not only thinking of herself, she was thinking of her family and the community and the nation. She’s always been that way. Always been an advocate.”

“When Jeannette took up this fight, it’s for all of us Anishinaabe,” he said. “There is no one else to lead this charge than Jeannette Corbiere Lavell.”

Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing MP Carol Hughes followed Mr. Mahdabee and described the Order of Canada as an honour for those who desire a better country—a description she said Ms. Corbiere Lavell undeniably embodies.

“There are young women, and even those not yet born, who will find in Jeannette a role model who made a difference by fighting for what she knew to be right,” she said.

Ms. Hughes presented Ms. Corbiere Lavell with a Canada 150 pin made from a piece of the roof of parliament. She also read statements from MPP Michael Mantha and Assiginack councillor Leslie Fields.

Following Ms. Hughes, educator Dominic Beaudry addressed the room.

“When an individual like Jeannette works for her community and fights for her community and for Indigenous people, those actions drive First Nations forward,” he said.

He emphasized the need to keep pushing on important issues, citing the meetings she held over tea with fellow staff members at Wikwemikong High School to discuss how they could ensure student success.

“If you want the system to work, you need community support. That’s what Jeannette brought to the education system,” said Mr. Beaudry.

Assiginack mayor Paul Moffatt spoke next and described Ms. Corbiere Lavell’s court challenges as “a significant achievement and one that deserves praise from not only the Indigenous population, but all Canadians as it is a step forward in our human rights.”

“Canadians are generally very proud of their country, and that is because of the achievements of community-minded people like Jeannette,” he said.

Grace Fox was the next person on stage and she stressed the impact of Ms. Corbiere Lavell’s work.

“It wasn’t for her. It was for every Native person who walks on this earth,” she said. “Tonight, we come full circle.”

Ms. Fox said Ms. Corbiere Lavell has served as an inspirational figure.

“She proved we could have a brighter future if we all stuck together,” said Ms. Fox.

Ms. Corbiere Lavell’s son Nimke took to the stage next, offering a commemoration of Ms. Corbiere Lavell’s spirit name, Keewednanung, which translates to North Star.

“I’d like to propose a toast,” he said, “to Jeannette Corbiere Lavell. Our guiding star.”

Following a video presentation, Ms. Corbiere Lavell expressed her gratitude. She said fighting for equal rights is an ongoing process.

“Right now, it’s even more important. We’re still dealing with it; our struggle isn’t over. It’s only beginning,” she said.

Ms. Simon co-organized the gathering with Sandra Wabegijig. Partners including Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory, Wikwemikong Heritage Organization, and Debajehmujig Storytellers contributed extensive efforts towards ensuring the event was a success. Ms. Simon said this was a large undertaking that has been a long time coming.

“What (Ms. Corbiere Lavell) has been able to do is beyond what anyone could have imagined,” said Ms. Simon. “She always told us to hold our heads up.”

After the ceremony, Ms. Corbiere Lavell spoke with The Expositor about the event, her experiences and receiving the Order of Canada.

“My goal was to make changes. To do that I had to make our voices heard and create associations,” she said.

“We’ve come so far but there’s still so much to be done,” she said. “It’s going to be up to the younger generations to keep this going.”

Ms. Corbiere Lavell said she hopes her award will be a positive force within her home of Wiikwemkoong.

“I trust and believe it will inspire more of our young women to do whatever they believe is right for them to make our community better.”

“To me, tonight was so much more meaningful (than the ceremony in Ottawa) because it was my community. My people, my family and friends. It’s real,” she said.

“This is my home, this is my community, this is where I belong,” she said.