Christian colonialism in Canada and its impact on indigenous women

This article discusses the impact of the Christian faith on Indigenous women and gender relations, and traditional family and marriage structures of Indigenous communities. The role of the Church, and its missionizing task, in the context of the Canadian settler project will be examined through a feminist lens to understand how the conversion to Christianity – whether Catholic, Anglican, Protestant – imposed Euro-Christian gender roles, marriage and family norms, which were disruptive for Indigenous peoples across the “New World” in general, but especially for Indigenous women. The role of the Church and Canadian colonial state are understood as “symbiotic” – acting together to “civilise” and Christianise “Indians” (Horn-Miller, 2005, p. 60). These processes were acted out through the establishment mission villages, the creation of the reserve system, and the Residential School System (RSS), which particularly targeted Indigenous women’s traditional roles in communities, and pre-contact Indigenous marriage and family dynamics and relations, in which women traditionally held social, economic, and political power.

First, I will give an overview pre-contact status of women in various Indigenous nations across Canada. Then, I will focus the beliefs and systems that justified the Church’s
proselytising mission and the RSS in Canada. Finally, I will evaluate the immediate and long term destructive outcomes of these processes on the rights of Indigenous women, Indigenous marriages, and family organisation.

The purpose of this essay is not to present Indigenous communities, and women’s roles within them, as monolithic and homogenous. Indigenous nations across what we today indigenouswomencall Canada are diverse, with equally diverse gendered roles and behaviours. This essay additionally refutes the romanticisation of pre-contact Indigenous societies, by which Indigenous peoples, their modes of social organisation, and way of life are idealised – leaving no space for nuanced discussion on pre-contact Indigenous existence and Indigenous survival of colonisation and Canadian assimilation. However, I am not Indigenous, and therefore will not be engaging in a critique of pre-contact Indigenous social order and gender roles, per se.

Many scholars specialising in Indigenous studies agree that prior to colonisation Indigenous women and men held equal social positions, despite considerable socio-cultural diversity amongst nations (Hanson, 2009a). Many Indigenous nations operated according to matrilineal and matriarchal systems and institutions, which were based on specific gendered roles under the male/female gender binary. There exist many records of women holding positions of power and leadership within their communities, both women and men’s roles were often premised on complementarity (Hanson, 2009a). Indigenous female scholar Horn-Miller testifies to this equity in complementarity in her account of Haudenosaunee women’s traditional roles: “The traditional roles of Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy) women were radically different from those of women in the settler society. The strength of the Confederacy lay in its use of complimentary sex roles. Males and females were in balance.” (2005, p. 57). Fiske’s study of Tsimshian women in the Northwest coast of British Columbia also enforces this understanding of women as equal to men, prior to Canadian colonisation. Tsimshian women held positions of power, had access and power over key community resources, and were economically independent (Fiske, 1991, p. 514-515). All of these histories of women’s agency in pre-contact Indigenous communities portray Indigenous as equitable and respectful in terms of gender. These beliefs are highly compatible with the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which affirms “equal rights of men and women” (1948).

After Columbus “discovered” the “New World,” and once the Canadian colonial settler project was established, the civilising and Christianising missions of settlers started to take place. The settlement of North America was itself premised on the doctrine of terra nullius (unoccupied), which established the right of discovery of new land. European colonisers did not view Indigenous peoples and their settlements as legitimate “users” of the land. This doctrine was also a way of denying Indigenous peoples their humanity by refusing to recognise their liberty or property (Belanger, 2014, p. 81-81). The settlement of what would become Canada under terra nullius served as the basis for the exploitation, extermination, and assimilation of Indigenous peoples and their land: European settlers did not recognise Indigenous peoples and cultures as real civilisations, hence the civilising mission of colonialism in North America (Asch, 2002, p. 26).


One key aspect of Indigenous societies targeted by these European settler missions was the “taming” of “Savage” women, whose freedoms and rights were perceived as “evil” and unchristian by missionaries and settlers (Leacock, 1980, p. 28). Indigenous women were constructed as devious for their sexual freedom in particular: a key aspect of colonial law and assimilation into Christian civilisation was the sexual policing of Indigenous women (Hanson, 2009a). In deed, many Indigenous societies practiced polygamy/polyamory and extra-marital sexual relations. This was practiced by men and women alike, and was in perfect anti-thesis to 19th century Victorian values (Leacock, 1980, p. 30; Hanson, 2009a). Innu (formerly known as Montagnais-Naskapi) women’s sexual freedom was understood by Jesuit missionaries in 17th century Quebec as “a great obstacle to the Faith of Jesus Christ” (Leacock, 1980, p. 30). In this sense, women’s freedom is understood as inherently unchristian. Many missionaries sought to stamp out women’s sexual freedom within Indigenous communities, as part of their civilising mission.

Through the imposition of Christian family values and the Christian institution of marriage, which will be explored in the next section, also came Christian gender roles. Women were no longer allowed to own property and inherit, which was explicit contrary to matrilineal systems (Fiske, 1990, p. 526). Missionaries and settlers engaged in the “systematic” devaluation of women” whereby women were excluded from social, political, and economic positions of power (Fiske, 1990, p. 530). Settlers disruptive traditional notions of complementarity and balance, through Christianisation of communities: Christian understandings of female inferiority and women as a source of corruption and evil seeped into communities, creating conflict and tension between men and women in communities (Horn-Miller, 2005, p. 61; Leacock, p. 32, 1980). 

Along with this restriction on (sexual) freedom of women, missionaries and settlers imposed Euro-Christian models of the nuclear family as the basic mode of social organisation (Hanson, 2009a). This nuclear family was patriarchal as it placed men as the sole decision maker within the small family unit. This was also extremely contrary to traditional family organising in Indigenous nations. This was the case for the Innu nation in Quebec in which Jesuit missionaries targeted the community’s acceptance of polyamory, sexual freedom, and divorce (Leacock, 1980, p. 30). Jesuit missionaries sought to instil pre-marital chastity, male courtship, monogamy, and marital fidelity in converts to make Innu family structures comply with Christian ones. These tensions between Indigenous family structures and Euro-Christian structures were evident to Christian actors and motivated the creation of mission villages.

In Fort Simpson area in British Columbia, in the mid-1800s, Protestant mission villages were established in a Tsimshian community – a matrilineal society in which the “most stable political unit was lineage or house” (Fiske, 1991, p. 512). Families were additionally multi-generational, usually living all together in longhouses, under the direction of a woman, contrary to the Victorian nuclear family (Neylan, 2000, p. 53, 84). A key Tsimshian ceremony in which women were important players was the potlach, during which wealth was symbolically distributed between houses (Fiske, 1991, p. 513). With missionisation of the Tsimshian, all of this was changed. Victorian nuclear family style homes were imposed because, according to one missionary: “there [was] no better teaching than the object lesson of a good and well-ordered Christian home” (Neylan, 2000, p. 77). Mission houses were modelled after English workers’ cottages and were supposed to be proof of “civilisation” to the missionaries (Neylan, 2000, p. 77, 83). This housing style change also signified a change in family dynamics: men were now supposed at the head of the household, just like in the homes of Euro-Canadians (Neylan, 2000, p. 78). Potlach was declared by a Fort Simpson missionary as “the most formidable of all obstacles in the way of Indians becoming Christians or even civilized,” and was hence outlawed (Fiske, 1991, p. 528). Women in particular suffered as a result, because of the major role they played in this ceremony. Men were also integrated into church hierarchies in the community, at the expense of women who were excluded from social, political, and economic means of decision making and influence (Fiske, 1991, p. 529). The Tsimshian missionary village case is a perfect example of Indigenous family institutions were radically restructured, and how this restructuring disproportionately targeted Indigenous women, who had held significant positions of power. 

Another way colonising powers sought to organise the social geographies of Indigenous peoples under the Canadian settler state was the creation of reservation system, which was born as a result of the sedentary missionary settlements (Horn-Miller, 2005, p. 61). This system of control additionally targeted Indigenous women disproportionately. The reservation system radically changed family and community organisation for the Haudenosaunee nation. This nation was traditionally semi-nomadic, whereby they moved from one plot of land to another every twelve years so as to let the farmed land rest and regain nutrients (Horn-Miller, 2005, p. 61). Women were charged of clearing the land and farming the staple “Three Sisters” – squash, maize, beans (Horn-Miller, 2005, p. 60). When the Haudenosaunee were forced to live in a restricted space, Horn-Miller argues these farming practices could not take place, meaning women lost their traditional roles, which cemented the close relationship between the community and the earth (2005, p. 60). In short, the “erosion of [Indigenous] women’s social place continued under the intervention of resident missionaries, the penetration of commercial industries, and the interference by the state” (Fiske, 1991, p. 530).  

In a final effort for assimilation to rid Canada of the “Indian problem,” residential schools were created. The RSS is a perfect example of how State and Church worked together on their missions to civilise “Indians:” they cooperated from the 1850s onwards in development of these boarding schools (Kelm, 1996, p. 53). Specifically, the Department of Indian Affairs (DIA) and the main Christian churches worked together to run the schools: the DIA provided funding and land, while the churches provided staff to enact the federal policy to “take the Indian out of the child” (Kelm, 1996, p. 54). These schools were an opportunity for the Canadian government to transmit Canada values of civilisation, and an opportunity for the Church to proselytise freely (Kelm, 1996, p. 55). Christian-Canadian values and beliefs were imposed on Indigenous children who were forcibly taken away from their families and communities, in a process that qualifies as genocide under the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide. The RSS specifically targeted Indigenous women as a key underlying assumption that justified the creation of the schools were the belief in the poor mothering skills of Indigenous women (Kelm, 1996, p. 56). Indigenous children in these schools were forced to give up their language and culture, and to become Christian. The RSS also entrenched European concepts of family – women’s important roles as nurturing mothers in Haudenosaunee communities, for example, was minimised or abolished all together. This has a contributed to the near total breakdown of many First Nations communities, according to Horn-Miller, in which the Church and missionaries were key player (2005, p. 62).canadaaboriginalwomen







These interventions by the Church in Canada to change Indigenous gender relations and family structures were in direct violation of the premise of “equality between men and women” and of Article 16 of the UDHR: Indigenous families were not “entitled to the protection by society and the State.” While many of these horrific abuses occurred in the past, the vestiges of these harms are still felt today. The last residential school was only closed in 1995, and the Canadian government issue an official apology in 2008 after much domestic and international pressure (Hanson, 2009c). To this day, religious actors are making efforts to hide their role in this dark page of Canadian history by withholding documents (Baluja, 2012).

These harmful practices and beliefs were enshrined in 1876 Indian Act, which is highly criticised for its gender bias (Hanson, 2009b). One explicitly misogynistic aspect of the Indian Act was how status “Indian” women and their children lost their status if they married a non-status man, but if a status man married a non-status woman, her and her children would gain status (Hanson, 2009a). This is not only incredibly oppressive in itself, but it also goes against matrilineal Indigenous principles. This aspect of the Indian Act was also in direct violation of many UDHR principles, including those of gender equality and equality in marriage. These rights abuses culminated in the Sandra Lovelace v. Canada case which spanned from the mid-1970s to early 1980s. It was brought to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, which ultimately rule for the elimination the sexist and racist law. The Indian Act was finally amended in 1985 (ESCR-net, n. d.). However, the Indian Act is still legally binding today, despite heavy criticism from various human rights advocates, and serves as one of the main pieces of Canadian legislation governing Indigenous peoples (Hanson, 2009b). 

All of these cases and examples of women’s oppression under the Canadian colonial project point to the harmful influence of Christian understandings of gender roles, which had short term as well as long term impacts on Indigenous women, who have been systematically oppressed and devalued. From the very early settlement of mission villages to convert Indigenous communities, to the establishment of reserves and residential schools, the Church in Canada has systematically denied Indigenous women their basic rights and has consistently intervened to control Indigenous bodies by reforming traditional family and marriage structures to fit Christian ideals. These patterns of oppression and destruction are still being felt today. These harmful systems are illustrated by the continued impact of the RSS: the last school was closed in very recent memory and religious actors are still refusing to openly and clearly acknowledge the abusive nature of their relationships with Indigenous peoples (Baluja, 2012; Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2016; Hanson, 2009b). Indigenous women are three times more likely to be killed by a stranger than their non-Indigenous counterparts, and the federal government is failing to adequately and thoroughly investigate when Indigenous women and girls go missing or are murdered (Hanson, 2009a; Native Women’s Association of Canada, 2015, p. 5). This phenomenon and the lack of government action is indicative of systemic disregard for the rights Indigenous women, which has characterised how Indigenous women have survived since the settlement of Canada.

By Francesca Humi 

Francesca Humi recently graduated from McGill University with a BA in International Development Studies, Political Science and Environment. She is half Filipino, half British, and grew up in Paris. She is currently working in the Philippines with a peace building and conflict resolution NGO researching Indigenous rights and advocating for national anti-discrimination policy. 
Francesca is interested in social justice and human rights, in particular when relating to gendered and racialised identities, and how current understandings of development theory and practice can be decolonised.