Photo Credit: The Senate of Canada
By Lynn Gehl, Ph.D.
When Members of Parliament and Senators borrow, assimilate, or adopt gender-neutral language such as “unstated parentage” or “unnamed parent” when the discrimination is anything but, they potentially approve legislation that harms mothers and babies.
Prior to 1985 the Indian Act protected children born to mothers when their father’s signature was not recorded on their birth certificate in that they were considered to be an Indian. When the Indian Act was amended this protection was removed. What then resulted is the Registrar of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) gained more control when processing applications in situations of unknown, unacknowledged, unrecognized, unnamed, and unstated paternity.(1) It was at this moment when power was more firmly in the hands of administrators rather than legislation where as a result INAC began to more easily apply its goal of the need to eliminate the Indian problem. The new low being, mothers and babies became the target.
At first there was no written policy, but eventually INAC posted on line its “unstated paternity” policy. While the name of the policy itself is an issue in that it clearly blames mothers, the policy guides people to have their birth certificate amended, or obtain a statutory declaration signed by both parents. Another option offered is a statutory declaration from the biological father’s family members.(2)
These options offered by INAC do not capture the lived reality of conception, birthing, and the failure of documents to understand the lived reality of abusive situations. For example, INAC’s policy does not account for situations of rape where mothers do not know the father best known as the offender; situations of domestic violence where mothers need to protect themselves and their child; and then there are situations where fathers refuse to acknowledge the child.
The words people rely on shape the way people think, and therefore have the potential to shape remedies if needed.
The process of naming is important to pay attention to because oftentimes power is inherent. The words people rely on shape the way people think, and therefore have the potential to shape remedies if needed. Of course, this process of word use as shaping our thinking includes elected Members of the House of Commons and appointed Senators who make up the Legislative Branch of the Government of Canada.
My point is that while INAC names their policy “unstated paternity”, it is best to understand the situation from within the lived reality of mothers where “unknown paternity”, “unrecognized paternity”, “unacknowledged paternity”, and “unnamed paternity” are more appropriate word choices.
As many know, recently INAC tabled Bill S-3, An Act to Amend the Indian Act. This Bill was a response to a 2015 Quebec court decision by Justice Masse(3) in the Stéphane Descheneaux, and the Susan and Tammy Yantha case.(4) Although she was embarrassed about the lack of consultation with interested parties in the development of the Bill, the Minister of INAC, Carolyn Bennett, moved the Bill forward.(5)
In late November through early December 2016, interested parties had the opportunity to speak to members of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs,(6) as well as to the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples.(7) Many of the parties such as Descheneaux, Sharon McIvor, the Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF), and the Quebec Native Women Inc. were unhappy because of the lack of proper consultations where as a result the Bill failed to address all the sex discrimination in the Indian Act.
As it stands today, INAC has been granted an extension so proper consultations and reconsideration of the content of the Bill can occur.(8) Regardless, there was something rather peculiar I noticed as I listened to these House and Senate discussions specifically regarding the word choice when discussing the issue of unknown and unstated paternity. As many know, I have been working on this very issue for over 31 years.
Perplexed and concerned with the word shifting process as I was, I opted to complete an analysis of the language that interested parties, the Assistant Deputy Minister, the counsel for the Department of Justice, the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, and Senators relied upon when talking about the issue of “unknown and unstated paternity”.
When speaking with the House of Commons interested parties relied on the language of “unstated paternity”; “so-called unstated paternity”; “unknown paternity”; and “unacknowledged paternity”. This language correctly names the issue. Minister Bennett also relies on this language during these discussions.
When speaking with the Standing Senate Committee, INAC Assistant Deputy Minister Joëlle Montminy relied on the language of “undisclosed and unknown paternity”; and the lawyer for the Department of Justice Martin Reiher relied on “unknown parent” adding further, “which is usually an unknown father”. Bravo, like Minister Bennett they relied on language that closely represents the lived reality of Indigenous women; but this changed. See below and please pay close attention.
During these same Senate discussions interested parties, some of whom I mentioned above, relied on “unknown parents”, “unstated paternity”, and “other reasons for not identifying the father”; But one Senator, an important and potential ally relied on “unknown parent”. This is the beginning of the unfortunate language shift.
Again, a few days later during these same Senate discussions Montminy and Bennett now, in my opinion, more cognisant of their goal, rely on “unstated paternity and parenthood” and “unnamed parent”. Unfortunately, the same Senator remained with using “unknown parentage”.
It is really sad when women, mothers, and potential allies adopt the oppressor’s language as has happened during these discussions.
In sum, and my point is, the shift in language use during these important discussions from “unstated and unknown paternity” to the gender-neutral language of “unknown parentage” and “unnamed parent” was first introduced by the Minister and ADM of INAC, both of whom are guided by the goal of the need to eliminate status Indians. The danger of naming without critical thought is that it begins to shape the thinking of Members of Parliament and the Senators, potentially preventing them from understanding the sex discrimination that harms mothers and babies. It is really sad when women, mothers, and potential allies adopt the oppressor’s language as has happened during these discussions.
We must not allow the very people and organizations, such as INAC who hold power over others, to name reality in a way that is misleading and inadequate of the lived reality of oppressed people. I have come to know that sometimes gender-neutral language is just more of the same; more specifically, sometimes gender-neutral language is disguised patriarchy.