Forming Her Activism


Viola had a rather mobile childhood as her parents travelled around eastern Canada. She attended Indian Day School at Shubenacadie Reserve (Indian Brook), and then went to the Sacred Heart Academy in Meteghan, Nova Scotia, and the Maritime Business College in Halifax. In the early 1940s when she was still a child living at Indian Brook, Viola began to think critically about her own future, observing that while most Canadians seemed to live and move freely in major cities and towns, Aboriginals were confined to reservations. The looming restrictions of such a life influenced her sense of the future deeply: "I had to go somewhere, I had to do something—I wasn't going to be happy just staying there and just getting married and having children".

Even the movies she watched as a child made Viola question comparative standards of living: "I always wondered, how do you reach that level of living? How do you do something like that in life?"

After her marriage, Viola and her husband lived in Ontario and the USA before coming to Yarmouth in 1961. Her awareness of Aboriginal issues was heightened by two pivotal experiences. The first was her refusal to relinquish her status as an Indian after marriage to a Mi'kmaq man who was not at the time registered with the Department of Indian Affairs (he was finally registered in 1980). The second influential event was her reaction to the government policy that restricted delivery of services and programs to those Indians who resided on reserve, leaving many who lived elsewhere ineligible for assistance from the Department of Indian Affairs.

At the time, Indians were beginning to assert their Treaty Rights as well as their citizen rights, and realized they would have to organize themselves to take a political stand for change in the face of entrenched paternalistic views in the Department of Indian Affairs. Across Canada, Aboriginals formed research and lobby groups, and in Nova Scotia, Viola's response was quick and determined to help lobby governments to provide financial resources to Indians in Canada who believed they had aboriginal rights.

Viola had learned of the difficulties faced by Aboriginals dealing with government bureaucracies:

A lot of people had lost status because of marriage to non-natives. They were being excluded in all of the programs and services that are offered by the Department of Indian affairs. If you went to the Province of Nova Scotia, they would look at you and say, "We don't take care of Indian people here, it's the federal Department of Indian Affairs, so you have to go to them"—so you were caught in limbo.

The Union of Nova Scotia Indians had formed as a political organization and came to Yarmouth for discussions. Viola recalled her feeling that "I have to go to this thing because it's got something to do with rights and it's got something to do with treatment of Indian people"—and thus began her trajectory from a nervous 35-year-old with no experience of public speaking or advocacy, to her eventual election as the first president of the organization that was to become the Native Council of Nova Scotia.

A first research task for Viola and her colleagues was to define the social, educational, housing, and welfare needs of non-status and off-reserve Indians. Connecting both informally and formally with people living in communities around the province helped Viola and her board and staff to gather the information needed to develop appropriate programs, and persuade the federal and provincial governments of the day to support them. One example was a program designed by Canada Mortgage and Housing that provided assistance for purchasing or renovating a home. It was targeted to natives living off reserve, as well as other poor and socially disadvantaged people with shelter needs.

As an elected leader of the Native Council of Nova Scotia, Viola understood the need for effective political dialogue with those in power in Ottawa:

I was expected to represent my people in a political way that was going to bring some justice and socially economical advancement to them. And I felt that I had to be talking at a very high level and in a political way, which meant talking to federal ministers and prime ministers and provincial premiers—whatever it took.

Viola led the Council between 1975 and 1990, at a time when women leaders were a rare species and the majority of aboriginal leadership was male. This meant for Viola that she had to work twice as hard to gain the confidence of colleagues and government alike. Women in visible positions of leadership were viewed as having an exclusive voice for women's issues, which in her case was a challenge to overcome since she was speaking for all issues related to Aboriginals, and for men and women alike.

I have to go to this meeting because it's got something to do with rights and it's got something to do with the treatment of Indian people.