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Thursday December 2, 2010

Aboriginal, indigenous, native? She preferred Haudenosaunee, or 'People of the Longhouse'

Activist worked to help reclaim authentic identity for her people, and learned that Canadian law was not the answer

Special to The Globe and Mail

No sooner had Patricia Monture graduated from law school than she found herself embroiled in her first legal spat. But it was as a plaintiff, not counsel.

In the summer of 1988, Monture made headlines as far away as Britain and Japan when she filed an action against the attorney-general of Ontario and the Law Society of Upper Canada to avoid having to pledge allegiance to the Queen before being called to the bar.

A newly minted graduate of Queen's University's law school at the age of 29, Monture contended that as a member of a sovereign people, the Mohawk Nation, she should not have to swear an oath to a "foreign" monarch.

It was not an act of disrespect, she insisted, and she had nothing against the Queen. The demand for such a pledge, she argued, violated her rights under the Constitution Act of 1982, which recognizes aboriginal rights, and under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Besides, "the whole concept of an oath is offensive to me," she told The Globe and Mail at the time. "In my culture, we do not distrust people and make them swear to tell the truth. My people carry an eagle's feather to symbolize that they will tell the truth.

"If I lose this case," she vowed, "I will not practise law."

She didn't lose - the Law Society voted in 1992 to make the loyalty oath optional, and she was called to the bar two years after that - but she never did practise law. Instead, she taught the subject at Canadian universities and earned a reputation as a fearless and passionate advocate for aboriginal peoples, especially women, and their place in Canada.

Patricia (Trish) Monture, who was 52 when she died in Saskatoon on Nov. 17 of breast cancer diagnosed three years ago, was a larger-than-life presence among Canadian aboriginals.

She served on virtually every major inquiry, commission and blue-ribbon panel convened on aboriginal issues over the past 20 years, including the seminal Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples of 1993-1994. She also served on the Task Force on Federally Sentenced Women and the Task Force on Administrative Segregation, which examined and made recommendations on the use of solitary confinement in Canadian prisons that house men serving two years or more.

"Suffice it to say that Dr. Monture was one of the most authoritative and respected voices for criminal justice transformation and equality in general, and for aboriginal peoples in particular," noted a tribute from her friends.

An abridged version of her curriculum vitae, at 20 pages, overflows with publications, appointments, lectures, consulting work and accolades, including honorary doctorates from Athabaska University and her alma mater, Queen's.

Among her first tasks before students was to point out that every native and Canadian is bound by treaty rights. These were shared agreements and foundations for co-existence, she would say. Her other duty before those unfamiliar with or touchy about nomenclature was to dispel sensitivities about terms: First nations, aboriginal, indigenous, native and Indian are all "imposed words," she felt.

"None of them are our words. None of them express who we are," she once told the National Centre for First Nations Governance. "So I'm not going to engage in a debate about which imposition is less wrong. They're all wrong. They're all colonial."

Though she conceded the word makes many aboriginals cringe, she was most comfortable with "Indian," and wanted to "reclaim" the term. In her own case, she preferred "Mohawk" to reflect her tribal identity, or ideally, "Haudenosaunee." Literally "People of the Longhouse," it's also the traditional name of the Six Nations of the Grand River Territory outside Brantford, Ont., where Monture spent part of a childhood that quickly veered into the stuff of nightmares.

Patricia Anne Monture was born in London, Ont., on Sept. 24, 1958. Her mother was Eleanor Townshend, eldest daughter of William Townshend, a crusading education reformer in southwestern Ontario and Anglican Suffragan Bishop of Huron. Her father was Harold (Moe) Monture, who was born and raised on the Six Nations reserve. He served as a wireless operator and tail gunner during the Second World War. Shot down over North Africa in 1944, he escaped capture, returned to active duty, and was the only gunner in his squadron to survive the war.

The union of a bishop's daughter and a native man was considered quite scandalous at the time.

The family moved off the reserve to avoid having to send their children to the "mush hole," or residential school. But tragedy found Patricia anyway: She was six when her mother died of surgical complications and nine when her father's heart gave out. The orphaned child went to live with her stepmother and found refuge in the world of books and words, devouring Perry Mason novels and being comforted by a line in The Diary of Anne Frank, "Paper is more patient than man." She resolved to become a writer.

That desire had to wait. "At 12, I discovered drugs were a much more effective way to push down one's pain," she recounted in one of two books she authored, the wrenchingly honest Thunder in My Soul: A Mohawk Woman Speaks. She was 35 when a long-suppressed memory bubbled to the surface: Also at the age of 12, she had been raped by two men, an episode she could barely admit happened, let alone talk about.

She completed high school during a brief and quiet interlude living with relatives in Chatham, Ont., but spent most of her teenage years cruising the streets of London, lonely, scared and struggling with her identity.

"I was half-white," she would recount, "and whites clearly thought I was an 'Indian.' They tended not to want me around. But the 'Indians' also felt I did not belong with them. ... For many years I believed the middle was nothing but lonely. It was not until much later in life I learned the middle was the place to be. I can walk both ways."

Despite a guidance counsellor saying she was not smart enough to attend university - "the words rang in my head for a very long time" - Monture signed up for two introductory courses in economics and sociology, and to her "amazement," did better than she ever thought she would. "Maybe I was more than a 'stupid Indian,'" she recalled in her writing. "And I began to dream."

And to work. She earned an honours bachelor's degree in sociology from the University of Western Ontario in 1983, the law degree from Queen's, and a master's degree in law, on full scholarship, from Osgoode Hall Law School in 1998.

She tended to dwell on her law school experience. For one, she would point out, there is no word for "law" in the Mohawk tongue. The closest literal definition is "the way to live most nicely together." And the western model, predicated on conflict and adversarial relationships, is a far cry from that idyll.

She also believed, initially, that Canadian law could help aboriginal peoples. Instead, she learned that "every oppression aboriginal people have survived has been delivered up through Canadian law ... what I learned long after my law school graduation was that Canadian law is about the oppression of aboriginal people."

Monture went on to teach law at Dalhousie University and the University of Ottawa before landing at the University of Saskatchewan's department of native studies. In 2004, she switched to the sociology department as a full professor, specializing in penology and native justice. Her contribution to the advancement of women in the university was recognized with a 2007 Sarah Shorten Award from the Canadian Association of University Teachers.

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.

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