Indian Homemakers’ Association of British Columbia

Rose Charlie

Rose Charlie describes the beginnings of the Indian Homemakers Association.

The Indian Homemakers’ Association (IHA) of B.C. was a non-profit organization made up of Indian women in order to improve the living conditions within First Nations communities, including providing adequate facilities on reserves, facilitating training programs, fighting discrimination, promoting equality and establishing political recognition for women and Aboriginal peoples.

Beginning in the 1930s, the Department of Indian Affairs (DIA) provided small grants to fund homemakers’ clubs on reserves across Canada. These were clubs where women would gather to sew, knit, and share skills and knowledge related to childrearing, cooking, and other domestic tasks.   However, conditions on many reserves were so poor, homes and facilities were inadequate to carry out even standard domestic tasks. As historian Cathy Converse notes, “many women did not even have the basic essentials of life; hunger was a more immediate problem.”1 Many homemakers clubs hosted clothing drives, craft sales, and bazaars to raise money for their clubs or communities. Over the years, as Indian women noticed the struggles faced by their communities and the particular challenges and discrimination experienced by Indian women, members became more politically motivated. IHA members began to put pressure on the DIA to provide the support and infrastructure that their communities so desperately needed.

“In those early years, we were not political. We called ourselves the Busy Beavers and we were just what the name of our club said— we were busy homemakers, looking for ways to make life better for our families and our village. All of us were having babies and raising small children and we believed that we didn’t have time for politics. We were still content to let the Indian Agent and the priest and the chief do our talking for us. All this changed in 1976! We discovered in that year that we could no longer knit and crochet and quilt and leave Native politics to others… Here was our chance to talk, and talk we did, about the poverty of our reserve, the lack of opportunity for our people, the racism that we had to deal with day after day, the stranglehold that the Department of Indian Affairs had over our lives.”

— Mary John, former president of the Vanderoof Chapter, IHA.
From Stoney Creek Woman, 135, 142.

By 1968, DIA funding for homemakers clubs dried up. Some historians and former members attribute the loss of funding to the DIA’s unwillingness to support members’ increasingly political actions.2 IHA members had been, in general, frustrated by their club’s dependency on the DIA, a department that they felt was unsupportive and unresponsive to their requests for better conditions for their communities.3

Faced with a lack of funding, Dr. Rose Charlie of Chehalis, B.C., then president of the Vancouver chapter, requested to incorporate the clubs as a single independent organization, and in May 1969, the Indian Homemakers’ Clubs across British Columbia were united as the Indian Homemakers’ Association, the first one in the country. Charlie became the Association’s first president, and would go on to lead the BC IHA for 28 years.4 The IHA was now an independent organization. This independence allowed them to focus their work on the needs of Aboriginal women without compromise.

During this time, the IHA moved beyond promoting homemaking skills to more extensively improving the wellbeing of Aboriginal women, and, by extension, Aboriginal families and communities. The IHA established The Indian Voice, their monthly newsletter which quickly became a major media source for Aboriginal peoples across BC. The Indian Voice was a significant force in communicating between First Nations across BC and spreading awareness about conditions on reserves, and, more specifically, giving a voice to the perspective of Aboriginal women.5

The IHA became one of the only First Nations organizations in Canada that had successfully managed to unite First Nations province-wide. This inspired organizations such as the National Indian Brotherhood (now the Assembly of First Nations) of which Dr Rose Charlie was a founding member, as well as the Native Women’s Association of Canada. Not long after, Indian Rights for Indian Women was also formed with Dr Charlie’s guidance, based upon the structure of the IHA.

In 1969, the White Paper was proposed by the federal government. The Indian Homemakers’ Association opposed the government’s assimilation policies proposed in the White Paper. President Charlie set out to unite First Nations chiefs across B.C. in order to discuss and strategize how to approach the potential implications of this policy. This was to be the largest gathering of chiefs in B.C.’s history. In November, 1969, 140 bands were represented at a conference in Kamloops.6 At this meeting, the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs was born—an organization which would go on to become one of the most influential Aboriginal organizations in Canada.  See the embedded video to hear Dr Rose Charlie speak about this experience first-hand.  The UBCIC based its model on the Indian Homemakers’ Association, and granted Dr Charlie a seat on the executive council. At that time, she was the only woman that held a seat.

The IHA continued to advocate for the human rights of Aboriginal peoples, particularly women. They attended UN conferences in Geneva and worked with Amnesty International, while simultaneously maintaining a direct involvement within their own communities.7 Along with other women’s rights activists, the IHA successfully campaigned for the repeal of Section 12 1(b) of the Indian Act, to restore Indian status to Aboriginal women who had married non-Aboriginal men. Over the next few decades the IHA also worked to support and improve Aboriginal women’s health, self-government initiatives, education, child and family services for the prevention of child apprehension, a culturally-sensitive model for female Aboriginal inmate rehabilitation, and so on.8 The BCIHA provided a voice for Aboriginal women who found that their needs, experiences, and perspectives were not represented elsewhere. They were one of the few organizations concerned about both status and non-status Indians as well as on- and off-reserve people. In their work to create safe spaces for urban Aboriginals they facilitated a women’s Healing Circle, provided counseling for addictions and violence, and hosted arts and crafts sessions. The Association created the Aboriginal Mother Centre Society (AMCS) in Vancouver’s east side, a drop-in centre where Aboriginal women could gather and receive support including childcare, training, and hot meals.  The AMCS continues to provide for urban Aboriginal mothers and children, and is one of many legacies the IHA has left for successive generations.

During this time, however, the IHA experienced varying support from other Aboriginal organizations. While many individual male leaders publicly supported the BCIHA, BCIHA members found themselves occasionally excluded from various political forums. They were constantly dealing with male-dominated Aboriginal organizations that continued to ignore the needs of Aboriginal women, even though some of these organizations, such as the UBCIC, got their start with the BCIHA’s help.

Due to difficulties in access to funding and a general lack of support from government and other organizations, the Indian Homemaker’s Association dissolved in the early 2000s. Their quick dissolution would come as a surprise to anyone familiar with their enormous achievements all the while remaining an independent voice for Aboriginal women.

The BC Indian Homemaker’s Association was a groundbreaking organization that many believe successfully balanced province- and nation-wide organized political action with on-the-ground community involvement. The BC IHA provided advocacy and outreach work in response to issues experienced by many First Nations communities, particularly in respect to women’s rights, and gave much-needed representation to Aboriginal women who continue to be underrepresented in Aboriginal political organizations.

“Yes, those weeks in the summer of 1976 were weeks when we were really fired up. When they were over, those of us who were involved would never again be quite so satisfied to let others do the talking for us while we knitted and made our quilts and raised our families.”

— Mary John, Stoney Creek Woman, 143.

By Erin Hanson.

Recommended Resources

Barkaskas, Patricia. The Indian Voice:  Centering Women in the Gendered Politics of Indigenous Nationalism in BC, 1969-1984. MA Thesis. Vancouver:  University of British Columbia, 2009.

Available online via UBC cIRcle: https://circle.ubc.ca/bitstream/handle/2429/13799/ubc_2009_fall_barkaskas_patricia.pdf?sequence=1

Moran, Bridget. Stoney Creek Woman, Sai’k;uz Ts;eke: The Story of Mary John. Vancouver: Tillacum Library, 1988. 110-117.

Sources Used

Barkaskas, Patricia. The Indian Voice:  Centering Women in the Gendered Politics of Indigenous Nationalism in BC, 1969-1984. MA Thesis. Vancouver:  University of British Columbia, 2009.

Charlie, Rose. Interview with Dr Rose Charlie; April 2008. Conducted by Karrmen Crey, First Nations Studies Program, UBC.

Converse, Cathy. Mainstays: Women who shaped B.C. Victoria: Horsdal and Schubart, 1998. 170.

Haig-Brown, Celia. Taking Control: Power and contradiction in First Nations Education. Vancouver: UBC Press, 1995. 78.

McLellan. Laura. “History of the BC Indian Homemakers Association.” BA Dissertation, University of British Columbia, 2005

Moran, Bridget. Stoney Creek Woman, Sai’k;uz Ts;eke: The Story of Mary John. Vancouver: Tillacum Library, 1988. 110-117.

Tennant, Paul. Aboriginal Peoples and Politics. Vancouver: UBC Press, 1990. 153.

Vancouver Community: Indian Homemaker’s Association of B.C.”  http://vancouvercommunity.net/multicultural/140.html