She may not be as well known as she should be in Canada, but Mary Two-Axe Early had a huge impact on Canada and the rights of Indigenous women. Arriving late in life to activism, she would campaign tirelessly for her cause and succeed in her quest.
Today, I am looking at this fascinating woman.
Born on the Kahnawake Reserve on Oct. 4, 1911, Mary would live with her mother who was a teacher, healer and nurse, watching as she cared for the vulnerable members in Indigenous communities.
Sadly, when Mary was still a young child, her mother would die from the Spanish Flu while helping students who were infected in North Dakota. From this point on, Mary would be raised by her grandparents at Kahnawake.
When she turned 18, Mary began to look for employment, a quest that would take her from her home to the United States where she settled in Brooklyn. The neighbourhood she lived in was made up of Mohawk people, many from her own area of Canada, who came to the area in the 1920s to work in the iron and steel industry of the city.
While living in the city, she would meet Edward Earley, who was an Irish American electrical engineer. The couple would marry in 1938 and together they would have two children, Rosemary and Edward Earley. Each summer, they would return to Kahnawake to visit.
With that marriage to a non-Status Indigenous person, Mary would lose her Indian Status.
The Indian Act, which had been created in 1876, contained an amendment that removed all land and treaty rights for Status Indians who married a non-Status man. This amendment still allowed Indigenous men to pass their status to their wives and children, but women could not do the same. The only way for a woman to regain her status was to marry a Status Indian.
For decades, Mary and her husband lived a happy life and relatively quiet life. Her friend, Myrtle Bush, would state quote:
“A nice lady but you know, she lived a normal housewife type of existence.”
The thought of losing her status was not forefront in Mary’s mind. She would say, years later, quote:
“Who thought about status? We were in love.”
Then, an event in 1966 would change the course of her life forever. One of her friends, Florence, would die of a heart attack in her arms. It was Mary’s belief that being denied property rights on the Kahnawake Reserve had been a contributing factor to her death. Florence had been married to a Mohawk man from another reserve. Since he was from another reserve, she was asked to sell her house. The man then left the reserve, and her.
Soon after this tragic event, Mary would begin a series of writing and speaking campaigns to raise awareness of the issue and the impact on women who lost their status.
In 1967, Mary would become involved in the Indian Rights for Indian Women. At the same time, the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada was created and this provided a platform for Mary and the IRIW to bring the issues of inequality that Indigenous women faced to a wider audience. She had contacted Therese Casgrain, the first woman to lead a political party, who encouraged her to submit the brief to the commission. Mary would lead 30 other Mohawk women to speak before the commission.
She would speak on Oct. 2, 1968 to the commission, quote:
“We are afraid. We can’t voice our opinions on the reservation because the band council could tell us to get out. We’re not sure we’re going to have a home when we get back.”
The Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada would recommend that the Indian Act be changed to allow an Indigenous woman, upon marriage to a non-Indigenous man, to retain her Indian status and transmit that status to her children. Even with that recommendation, the change was not adopted.
In 1969, some sources say 1970, Mary’s husband would pass away, and Mary would have to transfer ownership of her home to her daughter, who had married a Status Indian on Kahnawake, Joseph Two Rivers, so that she could return to the reserve. Effectively, this made Mary a guest in her own home.
Throughout the 1970s, the Canadian government was unwilling to address the issue of the Indian Act that robbed Indigenous women of their status, but that did not stop Mary from striving to still make change. In 1971, the Supreme Court acknowledged that the act discriminated against Indian women but ruled that there was not sufficient grounds to declare the act invalid. Earley would say of the decision, quote:
“It is such a blow. We were so optimistic about the decision.”
In 1974, she would become a founding member of the Quebec Native Women’s Association.
In 1975, Mary, along with 60 other women from her reserve, went to the International Women’s Year conference in Mexico City. It was while at the conference that she received a phone call stating that the band council on her reserve had served all of the women attending the conference with eviction notices.
This would prove to be the wrong move for the band council, but the right move for Mary. She would take advantage of this situation to highlight both the gender discrimination women faced in Canada on an international stage. Before long, a great deal of negative coverage spread across North America, which resulted in the band council withdrawing the eviction notices.
Mary’s daughter Rosemary would state, quote:
In 1976, Mary was elected to the Board of Directors of the Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women.
On Nov. 17, 1979, Mary was recognized for her work and she would receive the Governor General’s Persons Case Award for her contribution to the advancement of equality for women and girls in Canada.
In 1982, the first ministers conference was being held, involving all the premiers and the prime minister coming together to discuss issues. Mary attempted to get a formal timeslot to speak about her cause but she was denied. Quebec Premier, Rene Levesque heard about this denial and he pledged his support for her, offering her his seat at the table.
Mary would say about the issue, that it was about dignity, stating quote in 1984:
“For too long we have been treated as second-class citizens, even by our own people. I don’t want money. I just want my birthright back.”
In March 1985, she would write a letter to the Montreal Gazette, stating quote:
“When the Canadian government restores Indian women and their children to their rightful place in their Indian culture, Canada’s own honor will be restored.”
Finally, on June 28, 1985, Bill C-31 received Royal Assent, amending the Indian Act and creating the process for women who had lost their status to regain it. One week later on July 5, Mary became the first Indigenous woman to have her status reinstated in a Toronto ceremony. She would state, quote:
“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.”
She would add, quote:
John Crombie, the Indian Affairs Minister, who personally reinstated Earley’s status, would state the new legislation, quote:
“rectify the hurt done to certain women.”
He would add, quote:
“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 day before the change to the act, Earley was awarded the Ordre National due Quebec, becoming one of the first people to receive the award. That same year, she also received the Order of Canada.
The change in legislation provided 16,000 other Indigenous women and 46,000 of their descendants the opportunity to regain their revoked Indian Status. It also allowed 2,000 women to return home to the Kahnawake Reserve.
In 1993, several Indigenous groups brought their opposition to Bill C-31 to court, stating the government could not decide who was eligible for membership. The group was led by Walter Twinn, a Cree chief from Slave Lake, Alberta who was a generous donor to the Conservative Party and had been named a senator by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in 1990.
Mary, despite being 82, would provide a personal testimony as a witness for the Native Council of Canada, giving an account of the negative impact the Indian Act had on Indigenous women before C-31. She would show the judge a picture of her father from 60 years previous, sitting in traditional dress on the stoop of the family home, the home she had lived in since 1975 even when there were attempts to evict her.
The court would decide to let Bill C-31 stand.
In 1996, Mary was presented with the National Aboriginal Achievement Award.
On Aug. 21, 1996, at the age of 84, Mary would pass away on the reserve where she was born. She would be buried there, as per her wishes. Without her efforts to change the Indian Act, that wish would have not been granted.
The Vancouver Sun would write of her at her death, quote:
“They called her a pioneer of Canadian feminism, and an inspiration to aboriginal women. They said the force of her personality and the rightness of her cause shamed Parliament into changing a section of the Indian Act that had discriminated
On June 28, 2021, a Google Doodle was created to honour her and her achievements.
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Macleans, Wikipedia, CBC, National Film Board, The Montreal Gazette, The Vancouver Sun, Ottawa Citizen, The Vancouver Province,