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As the publication University Affairs reported in a recent issue, it was at a departmental faculty meeting where it suddenly dawned on Monture that her colleagues were asking her opinion on a matter that had nothing to do with aboriginal issues. They were "treating me like a faculty member with the same knowledge as anyone else in that room," she said. It was the first time that had happened in her career.
"She would take aboriginal peoples off the shelf in the museum labelled 'artifact' and put them into the centre of policy discussions, debate and decision-making," remarked Toronto human rights lawyer Mary Eberts, who first encountered Monture when the two were on opposite sides of the debate on the role of women in the constitutional talks of the early 1990s.
"I first met her as an adversary," Eberts recalled, "and her talents and intellect made her a formidable adversary. We later became friends. It was one of the most important friendships in my life."
Monture noted that first nations peoples are much more likely than non-aboriginals to be incarcerated. While aboriginal people comprised 4 per cent of Canada's adult population in 2006, according to Statistics Canada, aboriginal women made up more than 25 per cent of the female prison population.
"She had the courage to voice questions about colonial-inspired law and [its relation to] the devastatingly high number of aboriginal people in the prison system," said Elijah Harper, the Cree leader and former Manitoba politician who famously played a key role in the defeat of the Meech Lake accord.
Monture viewed this over-representation as the result of "systemic" factors, mainly discrimination, and not evidence of intrinsic aboriginal criminality. And she noted a sad phenomenon: A disproportionate number of aboriginal women are classified as "maximum security" and thus ineligible for transfer to a native healing lodge and the "transformative possibilities of aboriginal justice."
Monture played a key role in getting Canadian prisons to agree to provide aboriginal pastoral services, including sacred smudging and pipe ceremonies, healing circles and access to elders.
"She was the epitome of the academic and legal warrior," said longtime friend Dan Smoke, who teaches native spiritual practice at the University of Western Ontario.
Monture also believed aboriginals were responsible for self-determination. "Change," she once said, "has to come from within. It's ours. The government can't do it. It's an act of imposition and oppression even if it's a really good idea. Because it's not ours. We have to do it."
Though she had much to be angry about, she insisted she wasn't.
"Thunder is the image I have replaced anger with," she said. She was 45 years old when she received a Mohawk name: Aywahande, or "the one who starts things with words."
She leaves sons Justin, Michael and Jack; brother David, and a large extended family. Her daughter, Kate, died last summer.