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How a Secwepemc woman fought for equality for Indigenous women and is still helping others

Muriel Sasakamoose at her home near Paul Lake.

KAMLOOPS - In 1968, a small group of Indigenous women met in Vancouver for a government-funded native women’s conference to learn how to become homemakers. 

Among that group was a local Secwepemc woman, Muriel Sasakamoose. Since the women were already well-advanced homemakers, they decided to focus their priorities elsewhere. Sasakamoose didn’t know it then, but she would be one of the women to help form the B.C. Native Women’s Association, a group which represents the political voice of First Nations women and girls among many other things and is a branch of the Native Women’s Association of Canada.

Now more than 50 years later, Sasakamoose recalls their mandate vividly: to change the Indian Act to help fight the legal barrier that discriminated against Indigenous women when marrying a non-Indigenous person. 

“We started talking to all the other ladies across Canada, about this section of the Indian Act,” Sasakamoose says. “When a woman married a non-Indian, they got kicked off the band and they lost their status. They lost everything and that was our mandate in 1968 when we formed to change the Indian Act.”

One by one, the province and territories formed Indigenous women associations respectively in order to help pass Bill C-31. The bill brought the Indian Act into line with gender equality, specifically for Indigenous women to keep their status after marrying a non-Indigenous man. 

“We lit a fire all across Canada,” she says. “We never got the Act changed until 1985, that’s how long it took us.”

Sasakamoose’s passion for equality has been instilled in her for as long as she can remember. She credits that to growing up in a house with hardworking parents who taught her how to be a self-sufficient woman.

“I was always, always taught to work hard and look after yourself,” she says. 

She’s also well-known around the Kamloops and Secwepemc territory as breaking through several barriers as an Indigenous person. 

A few of her historical accomplishments include being the first Indigenous person to get hired at B.C. Tel in Kamloops, being the first Indigenous person to sit on the B.C. Board of Parole, being one of the founding members of the B.C. Native Women's Association as well as being one of the first Indigenous kids to attend public school.

She was also the oldest of her siblings.

“I grew up in a home where there was a lot of discipline and a lot of hard work,” she says. “We were taught to be respectful and my dad drilled it into us.”

When it came to going to school, Sasakamoose’s parents fought the Canadian government to prevent their children from attending residential schools.

“My mom and dad would not send us to residential school,” she recalls. “It took (my parents) until I was eight and my brother and I were allowed to go to school. We are the first ones in Kamloops to go to a public school.”

Her time spent in public schools allowed her to build strong relationships with her teachers. She fondly remembers her Grade 5 teacher, a woman from England who was very affectionate and supportive of her.

Over the years, her accomplishments have also caught the attention of a local film company that is filming a documentary to celebrate the success and legacy of Sasakamoose.

The film, Muriel Sasakamoose: Kind Heart and Secwepemc Matriach, is being created by Nolan McAllister with Alpha-Omega Productions and is set to be released in 2020.

"When you meet someone and hear their life’s work, success and their story, you in your heart know that their story is one that you need to document, preserve and share with others,” McAllister says. “In Indigenous culture, it is a tradition to share knowledge and teachings through storytelling and art.”

When Sasakamoose talks about being approached by a film director to focus a documentary on her life, she jokes saying she doesn’t think her life is that interesting. Even in her 80s she is still serving in her community as an Elder in Kamloops First Nations Court.

“I am accused of being a workaholic,” she says. She’s been a part of the council that makes up the Elders council for the last seven years.

“I personally feel a lot of satisfaction from it, because for the first time in history our people are recognized for what they went through and that’s part of the Gladue Report,” Sasakamoose says. 

A Gladue report is a pre-sentencing report that the courts can request when considering the sentencing of an Aboriginal offender.

“It’s not, 'you go to jail, you come out and you probably go to jail again,'” she says. “Now, when they come to us… they are accountable, they accept their responsibility and they are trying to help themselves.”

But the role of an Elder can have its hardships, she says.

“Sometimes it’s really hard to tell a person who has been drunk since they were 14 years old and he’s in court at 64 to quit drinking. It’s impossible,” she says. 

Finding workable solutions for each person that comes through the court system is a challenge, Sasakamoose says, but it's something she finds pride in when she’s realized she’s made a difference in someone’s life.

“When I see clients downtown, some of them try to dodge me and I will corner them and say 'how are you doing' if they have had a slip-up,” she says.

She looks at First Nations court as one of the first steps to reconciliation between Indigenous people and the rest of Canada.

“Reconciliation is a two-way street. We have to start somewhere and I think that’s one of the first steps we should start at,” she says. “I find this job in First Nations court for me personally really rewarding because I see the results.”

To contact a reporter for this story, email Karen Edwards or call (250) 819-3723 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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