Jeanette Corbiere-Lavell honoured with doctorate by York University

Wikwemikong’s Jeanette Corbiere-Lavell receives her honourary Doctor of Laws from York University Chancellor Greg Sorbara during a convocation ceremony held on National Aboriginal Day. Dr. Corbiere-Lavell has spent a lifetime advancing the cause of human rights, especially for Native women.

TORONTO—Few women in Canada have stood higher on the ramparts of human rights and the dignity of Anishinaabe-kwe than Jeanette Corbiere-Lavell, whose battle with the Canadian government (and more than a few Native leaders of the day) over Native women’s rights to retain their status following marriage to non-Natives in a case before the Supreme Court known as the Lavell Case paved the way to victory in that battle.

In a convocation ceremony held on National Aboriginal Day this year, Dr. Corbiere-Lavell was honoured with an honourary Doctor of Laws degree from the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies II at York University. This is Dr. Corbiere-Lavell’s first honourary degree.

“I think it is great,” said Dr. Corbiere-Lavell of the recognition. “This may help open some doors.” In typical fashion, the long serving human rights activist was already pondering how the honour could be used to tackle her latest challenges.

“My role as a grandmother is to protect the water and the environment,” she said. “When we look around us and see and hear what is happening, especially here on the Great Lakes, and Lake Huron especially, we have to do something about it, not only as Anishinaabe people, but everyone.”

Dr. Corbiere-Lavell, a member of the Wikwemikong Unceded First Nation, is best known for the Lavell Case, which challenged the Indian Act before the Supreme Court of Canada after she lost her Indian status by marrying a non-Native in 1970. Her failed challenge inspired a later case with Mary Two-Axe Early that brought the issue of status removal to the United Nations International Human Rights Commission. In 1985, the Indian Act was amended to remove the discriminatory clauses against native women.

Dr. Corbiere-Lavell has served as president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, was a cabinet appointee to the Commission on the Native Justice System, president of the Nishnawbe Institute and president of Anduhyaun Inc. After earning her teaching degree, Dr. Corbiere-Lavell worked both as a teacher and school principal in her community. She is a recipient of the 2009 Governor General Awards in Commemoration of the Persons Case, honouring Canadians who advance gender equality.

As to whether she will be using the honourific of doctor in front of her name, Dr. Corbiere-Lavell laughs. “I just might,” she said. “I was just saying that to my daughter Mimi (Dawn Lavell-Harvard who received an honourary doctorate from Nipissing University earlier this year). But she has two doctorates, so I have some catching up to do.”

Following the convocation, Dr. Corbiere-Lavell was invited to the unveiling of a large Inuit carving.

“It is a carving by two Inuit artists and it shows an Inuit on his back in traditional garb kicking a soccer ball—it was inspired by the interests of youth in the modern world,” she said. “It was really an honour to be included in that ceremony.”

Dr. Corbiere-Lavell said that in the reception afterward she was invited to sample traditional Inuit fare such as muktuk (whale blubber), raw seal and arctic char. “I tried it all—it was good,” chuckled Dr. Corbiere-Lavell. “I think it is important to honour people when they offer you food.”

It is also important to honour those who have fought long and hard for the betterment of the people around them. On June 21, Dr. Corbiere-Lavell was recognized for the achievements of a lifetime, achievements that are certainly not at an end.