Patricia Doyle-Bedwell is a Mi’kmaq woman originally from Bangor, Maine. She is currently the director and an assistant professor for the Transition Year Program with the College of Continuing Education at Dalhousie University. Previously, she led the Program for Indigenous Blacks and Mi’kmaq as part of the Dalhousie Law School. Doyle-Bedwell has an extensive resume of councils and groups devoted to furthering the status of Aboriginal women in Nova Scotia, including chairing the Nova Scotia Advisory Council on the Status of Women and the Council on Mi’kmaq Education, as well as participating in the Steering Committee for the National Association of Women and the Law.
On Thursday, June 7, Doyle-Bedwell will be speaking at the Women of Courage…Standing Together for Rights and Respect event taking place at St. Andrew’s United Church from 7-9pm. Event details can be found here.
Natascia Lypny (NL): What are the greatest issues facing Indigenous women in Nova Scotia today?
Patricia Doyle-Bedwell (PDB): Membership issues and the rights of Aboriginal women in their communities. How do we exercise treaty rights?
The other thing that's really important is…across Canada there have been 500 Aboriginal women who were killed and nothing has happened. So, I think of violence and the issue of community are really, really important.
NL: How does human rights law in this province conflict with Mi'kmaq way of life?
PDB: The provincial Human Rights Act doesn't apply on a reserve, because it's a provincial piece of legislation; reserves are federal. So for a long time the Canadian Human Rights Act was not applicable to an Indian reserve either. They just changed that in the last couple of years.
There are some people that believe because we're a collective that we act as a collective, that the Charter [of Rights and Freedoms] shouldn't apply because it focuses on individuals. We own collective rights, not individual rights. Aboriginal women have brought forward many different court actions based on the individual rights under the Canadian Human Rights Act…because as Aboriginal women we face the most discrimination of any group based on gender and based on culture.
NL: How might the law be modified to better serve female Indigenous populations?
PDB: I think the most important thing we need to have is a voice. In Nova Scotia there's an ongoing modern treaty negotiation happening and the Nova Scotia Native Women's Association was trying to get involved in that process. We need to have our own political voice. Similar to when I was on the [Nova Scotia Advisory Council on the] Status of Women and we gave advice to the government on issues of concern to women, the band councils and the chiefs have to have some process in place to bring forward the concerns of 50 per cent of the population.
NL: What stereotypes, forms of racism, and other barriers are preventing more Indigenous women from getting involved in politics and law?
PDB: I think one of the barriers is money; the other barrier is time; and then the other barrier is being out there in the public sphere. If you're running for office, you're out there in the public and the question then becomes: What political party represents the Mi'kmaq rights and perspective? Which one does? Well, we don't know (laughs). I wouldn't say the Conservatives have our best interests at heart right now, and the Liberal Party is kind of coming back up, and the NDP would probably be closest.
But trying to run for office requires a significant amount of money and that's certainly one barrier. Plus, racism and colonialism have a deep impact on Aboriginal women. Like Trish Monture used to say to me all the time — she was my mentor and my heroine —we carry this stuff with us: the negativity, the stereotypes. We face more discrimination and we have to move beyond the negativity and the violence that we've experienced and try to find our own heart and move forward from that, and sometimes women can do that and sometimes they have a really hard time doing that. So to actually go into the public sphere and say 'Oh, I'm going to run for office. I'm going to run for the provincial legislature or federal,' — it's quite a scary proposition. I found it scary when they asked me, and I didn't do it (laughs).
NL: How do Indigenous-centered educational programs, like those you ran at Dalhousie University, seek to close this gap between history, human rights, the law and Indigenous populations?
PDB: Those programs have focused on some of the barriers that people from both communities face. Financial barriers, again, because in the Mi'kmaq community you have 95 per cent of people that are either on welfare or don't have a job, so how do people afford to pay to go to university when the tuition at the Law School is $14,000 this year?
I think that with these educational opportunities one of the downsides was this whole discussion about whether or not people who came out of Law School who were African Nova Scotian or Mi'kmaq have the same law degree. There was some debate about that, because we were supposedly let into the Law School with lesser standards. It's this idea of 'We're not quite meeting up to the standards.'
I think that it's really important to try to support students as much as possible in making that transition [from school to career] and try to remove some of the barriers, at least financial. Looking at the communities that some of Mi'kmaq students come from is really important as well: culture, language — this idea of internalized colonialism. Living with discrimination and racism on a daily basis, and sexism, is very difficult.
NL: What about your personal experiences as a Mi'kmaq woman influenced the direction your professional life has taken?
PDB: When I was finishing up my degree at Dal, people tried to talk me into going to law school, and I just never thought that was even in the cards. I dreamed about it. I thought about it. But it wasn't anything that was realistic. I compared it to thinking, 'Oh, maybe I'll be a rock singer or a lawyer.' It was so totally out of my sphere of experience, and then one of the things that happened is I met a woman called Trish Monture who is Haudenosaunee and a lawyer and a professor, and it was unbelievable that there would be an Aboriginal woman doing all those things. I met her, and it was through her encouragement and support — that's how I got to apply to law school.
When I graduated from law school, I couldn't get a job articling. None of us could…At the time, it was very hard to get a job as an articling student if you were Mi'kmaq or African Nova Scotian. It was almost impossible, because there was this debate, as I said, on whether or not we had a real law degree.
So I got a job at Dalhousie, and I was very happy because of that job and I did my Masters degree and I taught at the Law School. I was very happy, but at the same time facing racism and discrimination something that helped me the most was understanding the real history and heritage of my Mi'kmaq culture, and having support from other people.
NL: Final words?
PDB: We know all the bad things that happened in residential schools; we know how it affected us. Now we need to figure out: what resilience did we have? What resilience did my mom have [who was in a residential school]? How did we survive and thrive? How do we hold onto our culture and our language and who we are as Mi'kmaq people? Because if you think of the residential schools… one of the elders said to me, ‘Look, it's the potential to see what people have achieved despite the fact that they were in residential school.’ So that's what I'm looking at, and I think that's part of the strength of the heritage that I carry, the history that I carry, and I think we all have to make that very explicit because that strength is within us and that's what helps us to survive, and that's what I've learned to go forward with.
Doyle-Bedwell has just finished working on a book about Indigenous women and leadership in their communities. It’s a collection of academic paper and stories from various authors set to be published in January. Doyle-Bedwell is also looking to expand and publish her Master’s thesis, Mi'kmaq education and the fiduciary duty: The guiding hand of cultural genocide.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.