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Electoral Insight – Aboriginal Participation in Elections

Electoral Insight – November 2003

Mary Two-Axe Earley: Crusader for Equal Rights for Aboriginal Women

Mary Two-Axe Earley: Crusader for Equal Rights for Aboriginal Women

Wayne Brown
Managing Editor,
Electoral Insight, Elections Canada

Mary Two-Axe Earley, a Mohawk from Kahnawake, Quebec, changed the lives of thousands of Aboriginal women and their children. She undertook a long and tenacious equal rights campaign on behalf of Aboriginal women who lost their IndianFootnote 1 status under the law, and the rights and benefits to which this status entitled them, when they married non-Indians. In 1985, largely because of Two-Axe Earley's efforts, Parliament passed legislation amending the Indian Act to eliminate the discrimination that penalized Status Indians who were women (while permitting men to marry whom they chose without sanctions), and to provide a reinstatement process. Once reinstated, the women could reclaim their rights under the Act. Among other things, this opened the door to much better health and education services for them and their children.

Two-Axe Earley's political activism began relatively late in life. When she was 55, a friend who died after losing her status was denied burial on the Kahnawake reserve. Two-Axe Earley took up the cause and more than 25 years of activism followed, bringing her many awards and the admiration and respect of many Canadians.

The early years

It took almost 20 years, but Mary Two-Axe Earley's campaign finally convinced Parliament to amend the Indian Act to remove discrimination against First Nations women.

On October 4, 1911, she was born Mary Two-Axe, on the Mohawk reserve at Caughnawaga (as it was then called) on Montréal's South Shore. She spent much of her early life there, but at the age of 10, she was in North Dakota with her mother, an Oneida nurse and teacher. When her mother died caring for students during a Spanish flu epidemic, Two-Axe Earley's grandfather travelled west by train to bring Mary back to the reserve.

At age 18, she moved to Brooklyn, New York, and a few years later married an Irish-American electrical engineer, Edward Earley. Many Mohawks lived in New York to work in construction, excelling at high-paying jobs as agile ironworkers on the dangerous high beams. The Earleys had two children, Edward and Rosemary.

Marrying a non-Indian meant that Two-Axe Earley lost her Indian status, under provisions of the Indian Act passed in 1876. While the Aboriginal people themselves had not previously regarded women as second-class citizens, the law reflected the Victorian European notion that women were legally the possessions of their husbands. Losing her status rights meant that Two-Axe Earley could not live on the reserve where she was born, own land there, participate in the band's political life, vote in its elections, or be buried on the reserve. At the time, all this was of little concern to Two-Axe Earley. "Who thought about status? We were in love," she told The Gazette in a 1990 interview. Each year, Two-Axe Earley would return to Kahnawake and spend the summer with her son and daughter in the house her grandfather had built on the reserve.

In 1966, a friend, who had lost her status upon marrying a Mohawk from another reserve, died in Mary's arms one morning, in Brooklyn. She had been ordered to leave the reserve and to sell her house. While the official cause of death was a heart attack, Two-Axe Earley believed it was the stress from the discrimination she suffered that was actually responsible. Her friend was also not allowed to be buried on the Kahnawake reserve.

The campaign begins

The circumstances of her friend's death and her resulting anger were likely the major reasons Two-Axe Earley began to organize and campaign for equal rights for First Nations women. In 1967, she founded the provincial organization, Equal Rights for Indian Women (which later became the national Indian Rights for Indian Women).Footnote 2 Two-Axe Earley wrote many letters, made many passionate speeches and presented submissions to government task forces and ministers. She often faced opposition from male First Nations leaders, who feared that the marriage of Indian women to non-Indians would lead to assimilation and erosion of Aboriginal autonomy. They also argued that the cost of extending Indian status to thousands of deregistered First Nations women and their children would be too high for the bands to bear. Two-Axe Earley wrote to Senator Thérèse Casgrain,Footnote 3 a strong advocate of women's rights in Quebec, who urged her to submit a brief to the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada, which was established in 1967. Two-Axe Earley then led a deputation before the Commission, "to protest that our rights, our birthright has been taken away." She also revealed that there had been pressure on her from within Kahnawake not to appear before the Commission.

In 1969, after her husband died, Two-Axe Earley felt lonely in Brooklyn and moved back to the Kahnawake riverside log house that she had inherited from her grandmother. The band leaders made it clear she was not welcome on the reserve, but a stratagem allowed her to keep the house and live there. She gave it to her daughter, who had regained her status by marrying a Mohawk man. Two-Axe Earley often described herself as "a guest in my own house."

The Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada found "there is a special kind of discrimination under the terms of the Indian Act which can affect Indian women upon marriage." Its 1970 report recommended that legislation should be enacted to repeal the sections of the Act, which it said discriminated on the basis of sex, and that "Indian women and men should enjoy the same rights and privileges in matters of marriage and property as other Canadians."Footnote 4

In 1975, while attending an International Women's Year conference in Mexico, Two-Axe Earley learned that the Kahnawake band council had used the Indian Act to evict her. "I phoned home and it was about one in the morning and my daughter said mother we're debating whether to tell you or not you have been evicted from home; you have to leave the reserve in 60 days."Footnote 5 Two-Axe Earley immediately used the conference to tell the world about her plight. After a storm of national and international publicity, the eviction notice was eventually withdrawn.

Another very visible case was that of Sandra Lovelace, a Maliseet from the Tobique Reserve in New Brunswick, who lost her Indian status after marrying an American airman in 1970 and moving with him to California. Her marriage ended a few years later and, upon returning to the reserve, she and her children were denied housing, health care and education. In 1977, Lovelace appealed to the United Nations Human Rights Committee. In July 1979, to draw attention to the situation, the women's group at the Tobique Reserve organized a walk of women and children from the Oka Reserve, west of Montréal, to Ottawa, a distance of about 160 kilometres. They were supported along the way by people who provided them with food and cold drinks. When called upon by the UN Human Rights Committee to defend its actions, the Canadian government said that, while it wanted to change the law, its hands were tied because the First Nations community itself could not come to agreement on the issue. In 1981, after almost four years, the UN Human Rights Committee ruled that Canada had broken the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It was a major, albeit symbolic, victory for many Aboriginal women in Canada.

Subsequently, the 1982 adoption of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms also greatly assisted the cause, by adding more pressure on the federal government to eliminate the sexual discrimination faced by First Nations women. Two-Axe Earley's fierce determination also impressed Quebec's premier, René Lévesque. When the first ministers at a 1983 constitutional conference refused her request to speak, Lévesque gave her his chair at the table, forcing the other political leaders to listen to her pleas for justice for First Nations women. "Please search your hearts and minds, follow the dictates of your conscience, set my sisters free," she told them.Footnote 6

1985 passage of Bill C-31

On June 28, 1985, almost two decades after Mary Two-Axe Earley began her campaign, the Parliament of Canada passed Bill C-31, which amended the Indian Act and brought it into accord with the equality provisions of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms that came into effect on April 17 of that year. Bill C-31 removed the long-standing discrimination endured by First Nations women by restoring Indian status and membership rights to the thousands who had married non-Indians. Two generations of children from those marriages were also given Indian status immediately, which meant they also gained access to federal programs and services and were able to apply for membership in a band. At the time, the government estimated that more than 16,000 women and 46,000 first-generation descendants were eligible to benefit.Footnote 7

One week later, on July 5, 1985, Two-Axe Earley became the first person in Canada to regain her Indian status when, at a ceremony in Toronto, she was presented with written confirmation by the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, David Crombie. "I could find no greater tribute to your long years of work than to let history record that you are the first person to have their rights restored under the new legislation," the minister said. Two-Axe Earley, who was 73, responded, "Now I'll have legal rights again. After all these years, I'll be legally entitled to live on the reserve, to own property, die and be buried with my own people."Footnote 8

The revised legislation also abolished the concept of "enfranchisement." Under the old Indian Act, First Nations people who were "capable of assuming the duties and responsibilities of citizenship" could give up their Indian status, if they chose to do so. But that concept had already become outmoded in 1960, when the government of Prime Minister John Diefenbaker gave Status Indians the right to vote in federal elections.

The 1985 amendments to the Indian Act did not go unchallenged. Some bands refused to reinstate expelled women. Three bands, led by the Chief of the wealthy northern Alberta Sawridge Band, went to court to try to quash the guarantee of equality between First Nations men and women. For Mary Two-Axe Earley, therefore, the fight was not over. In December 1993, then 83, and as a witness for the Native Council of Canada, she rolled her wheelchair into the Federal Court of Canada to testify about the hardships of women expelled from their home reserves. One of her most striking points was that the Kahnawake reserve had three graveyards: one for Catholics, one for Protestants, and one for dogs. While dogs could be buried on the reserve, "if you were a Mohawk woman who married a non-Indian, you had to be buried outside the community." The Court concluded that the Canadian government not First Nations had the ultimate say in determining band membership.

It was an important victory, but years later Two-Axe Earley still felt women were not receiving fair treatment from male band leaders. "Many native women are still denied the opportunity to live in their communities, despite the legislation (Bill C-31) that was supposed to enable them to do so."Footnote 9

Personal recognition

Over the years, Two-Axe Earley received many awards honouring her dedicated activism and achievements. In 1979, she was one of the first recipients of the Governor General's Award in Commemoration of the Persons Case, given to outstanding Canadian women. As the founder and vice-president of Indian Rights for Indian Women, she was recognized for "her tireless efforts to ensure rights for native Indian women are equal to those of native Indian men." Two years later, Two-Axe Earley was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Laws degree by York University. Many of her supporters could not afford the trip to Toronto, so she asked René Lévesque for financial assistance. Instead, the premier provided his government plane, so that the group would not have to spend many hours on a bus. In 1985, Two-Axe Earley's name was on the first list of members of the Order of Quebec. A few months before her death in 1996, she also received a National Aboriginal Achievement Award. Her health did not allow her to go to Winnipeg to accept in person, but that did not dampen her appreciation. "This award means to me a great deal, as this is the first time a national Aboriginal organization has given me any award," she said.Footnote 10

Laid to rest in the right place

Mary Two-Axe Earley died of respiratory failure on August 21, 1996, in Kahnawake, at the age of 84. She had been hospitalized since February of that year, after several years of failing health. About 200 mourners gathered at an old church on the Kahnawake Mohawk Reserve. Two-Axe Earley was described as a pioneer of Canadian feminism and an inspiration to Aboriginal women. Most significantly, she was buried in the Catholic cemetery that lies on a small hill in the heart of the reserve. That was possible only because of the 1985 legislative changes for which she had fought so many years. Among them was the right to be buried on the Mohawk reserve, her birthplace and what she always regarded as her true home.


Footnote 1 The term "Indian" is not in common use in Canada and is used only to refer to the First Nations people in connection with their legal status under the Constitution or the Indian Act. Legally, the Canadian Constitution (the Constitution Act, 1982) recognizes three groups of Aboriginal people Indians, Métis and Inuit. Under the Indian Act, there are three categories of Indians in Canada: Status Indians, non-Status Indians and Treaty Indians.

Footnote 2 Those organizations were succeeded in 1974 by Quebec Native Women Inc. (QNW), which represents the women of the First Nations of Quebec and Aboriginal women living in urban areas. Its Web site is at

Footnote 3 For a profile of Thérèse Casgrain, see the May 2002 issue of Electoral Insight.

Footnote 4 "We recommend that the Indian Act be amended to allow an Indian woman upon marriage to a non-Indian to (a) retain her Indian status and (b) transmit her Indian status to her children." Report of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada (Ottawa: Information Canada), September 28, 1970, paragraph 59, p. 238.

Footnote 5 Excerpt from Human Rights Video Portraits (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Human Rights Research and Education Centre), 1985.

Footnote 6 Excerpt from transcript, Federal-Provincial Conference of First Ministers on Aboriginal Constitutional Matters, (Ottawa), March 16, 1983, p. 226.

Footnote 7 The estimated numbers come from a press release issued by Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, February 28, 1985.

Footnote 8 Excerpted from an article in The Gazette [Montréal], July 5, 1985.

Footnote 9 Quote is from Two-Axe Earley's letter to The Ottawa Citizen, "Letter of the Day," March 12, 1992.

Footnote 10 "First C-31 woman honored for rights commitment," Windspeaker newspaper, Aboriginal Multi-Media Society of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, September 1996 issue.


The opinions expressed are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada.