Practicing Social Activism


In the late 1980s the climate for public discussion in Canada was conducive to change, legally and socially. Women's groups were challenging old habits of mind, inequities that disadvantaged women, and economic and political privileges needing critical examination. Provincial government offices sprang up across Canada, Advisory Councils on the Status of Women, with a mandate to focus on interrelated issues on the place of girls and women in society—a development that influenced Viola's activism. Indian women right across the country were becoming much more vocal in their fight for equality, and organized to fight the discrimination against native women that was enshrined in the Indian Act.

The Charter of Rights and Freedoms

By this time, the Canadian Constitution was repatriated from Britain, and in 1982 the British North America Act was replaced by Canada's new Constitution and Charter of Rights and Freedoms. With Charter guarantees of equality, the federal government would finally be forced in 1985 to amend the Indian Act, which from 1969 had discriminated against women who married non-native men or non-status Indians by removing their treaty and aboriginal rights.

Other sections of the Indian Act were also amended to ensure that women would not suffer penalties because of marriage, which resulted in many native women being reinstated with full status rights. During this tumultuous period, Viola was working as a negotiator with her band (the Acadia Band) to research and settle various land claims.

Negotiating land claims

The Acadia Band had a land claim for a 200-acre lot that had been illegally transferred by the Government of Canada, a claim that was validated and accepted by the Department of Justice and Indian Affairs who wanted to negotiate a settlement with the Acadia Band. The Band asked Viola to negotiate with federal authorities. Even though a Band always has independent legal counsel well-versed in Indian rights and valuations of land and assets, Viola stressed that the negotiation of land claims is a highly complex and detailed process:

It's a lot of work because even though it was only 200 acres of land, you had to first assess what it was worth then and what it's worth now, what was the loss then and what it is now. All you do is talk about what it's worth—what kind of timber was on there? And what was removed? What would it have been worth? What would the community have done with it if things had not happened that way?

Viola has been very successful in proving to non-Aboriginal authorities that Mi'kmaq claims were valid.

While conducting land claim negotiations, Viola was also serving her people in various volunteer capacities. For example, on top of her work with the Native Council of Nova Scotia, she served as president of The Native Friendship Centre, and chair of The Native Communications Society of Nova Scotia. Eager for a change from Nova Scotia-based activism, and having served the Native Council of Nova Scotia as president from its inception in 1975 through to 1990, Viola successfully offered her candidacy in 1990 for president of the Native Council of Canada. Little did she know how the move to Ottawa would shortly bring about dramatic changes in her life.

The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples

When we went in to talk, they looked at us with so much hope, and I felt so inadequate because I thought their expectations were so high.

From her point-of-view, the invitation to serve on the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) was "out of the blue." It was a project expected to last perhaps two years. Summoned to the Ottawa office of Chief Justice Brian Dixon, a surprised Viola asked how her name had arrived on the recommended list of possible commissioners:

He and his assistant both said, "Because your name was coming in over and over and over, by the native community and by the non-native community. It was coming in more than anyone else's… so, are you going to take it?"

And so Viola became part of a Commission with three female and four male commissioners who would work intensively over the next five years, travelling across Canada to interview hundreds of citizens and officials.

The depth and breadth of the final RCAP report remains a reference and an inspiration for Viola:

It was such a challenge—I enjoyed it! I really enjoyed it because it was the most exciting thing I think that happened in my whole life. It was such a challenge, and it was something that I believed was going to change things forever in the country.

The Commission's consultation process was community-driven and Viola's duty was to go to the people in communities all across Canada and listen to what they had to say about their own problems and issues:

We went into communities that (non-native) people had never been into before. I was always asking the presenters, "What is it that you'd do if you had a chance to do anything in the world that would change how things for you?" And sometimes they had an answer, and sometimes they didn't. That got them thinking about it because we were there to hopefully change things.

From five years of consultation and research, the most extensive research ever done on Aboriginal people in Canada, a report with 443 recommendations was published.

One of the women commissioners became an admired legal mentor and friend to Viola. Madam Justice Bertha Wilson had just retired from the Supreme Court of Canada and inspired Viola to study law after the work of the Commission was finished. Viola felt she needed to understand in more depth and detail exactly how the legal thinking, language, and case presentations that she had experienced during the RCAP work operated. In 1998, she graduated with her baccalaureate law degree (LL.B.) from Dalhousie University—eight years after receiving an honorary Doctor of Laws degree (LL.D.) from the same institution!

Current activity

With continued reference to her Royal Commission work, Viola presently works as a land claims negotiator for the Acadia First Nation Band. Additionally, she is a continuing member of the National Board of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, and a Senior Mi'kmaq Advisor on the Negotiations Team with the Mi'kmaq Rights Initiative. Her most consistent task in all her roles is to listen in meetings "to see what is going on" in the minds of those present, rather than use the meeting as a stage for her own opinions. However, she also takes pains to let the record show her evaluation of an issue regardless of the arguments for or against an issue.

Often invited to speak to citizen groups across Canada, Viola also serves on public forums that analyze and critique social issues affecting Aboriginal people. In 2010, she took over from Sister Dorothy Moore as the Chair of the Order of Nova Scotia Advisory Council.

High points of activism

The high water mark in her activist career was when the federal government acknowledged some of the recommendations in the Report of the Royal Commission and provided funding to create the Aboriginal Healing Foundation. Viola said that while this was not enough, "it did a lot of good." The shocking treatment of Aboriginals at residential schools had been raised repeatedly during the Commission's hearings across Canada, and as well as making claims in court and "a lot of public noise," many Aboriginals came forward to the Commissioners. There were sessions held in private because people could not speak in an open forum:

We had grown men who were literally sitting there crying because they were telling their experiences at a residential school. A lot of the people were saying that a lot of the social ills and problems that were in communities—and a lot of them, for example, related to suicide—led back to residential schools trauma.

Viola quickly recognized that healing was needed in many Aboriginal communities and that the process should be linked to a formal Apology acknowledging the debilitation resulting from the residential school experience.

It took another ten years before the federal government saw fit to issue that apology. After continuous pressure from communities and the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Phil Fontaine, the Prime Minister of Canada in 2008 read aloud to a crowded House of Commons the federal government's apology to former students of Indian residential schools.

While the RCAP investigations and report writing were valued and inspiring activities for Viola, the post-publication absence of serious revision of government policy has caused her grave disappointment. She reflected that while establishment of The Healing Foundation and the government's Apology were relatively easy and highly vote-winning actions, the general public has not pushed government to act further in the public realm:

The easy thing is to do things that would float easily to the public—those are the things that government would implement. But anything that had any real, true, deep meaning they sort of ignored because they don't want to damage their relations with the public.

How politics works

Women were complaining and complaining. I said, "Don't complain, do something about it. There are more of you than there are of men. If you want equality, then do something about it!"

As a successful advocate for her people, Viola has learned that the intricate dynamics of political process is directed by the intensity of public lobbying, so activists must be prepared to keep up continuous pressure. Also, there must be significant support for an issue from other groups, as well as one's own. Viola sees that more women are ready to call publicly for changes in how society operates, and considers this progress. But there is much more to be done.

Every time you're talking about governments, you're talking about policy, about agenda, about legislation. It doesn't matter what you're talking about—you only meet with government when you have a beef and you want to change it. And that to me is all about negotiation.