“Set my sisters free”


A plea from Mary Two-Axe Earley at the Federal-Provincial Conference of First Ministers on Aboriginal Constitutional Matters, 1983.

Mary Two-Axe Earley, a Kanyen’kehà:ka (Mohawk) elder, was a champion of Indigenous women’s rights. Her activism focused on the provisions of the Indian Act that stripped “Indian Status”, the legal status of persons registered under the Act, from Indigenous women who married non-status men.

Two-Axe Earley “married out” when she married a non-status man, Edward Earley. She lost her Indian Status, along with the ability to pass that status onto her children. She was denied rights such as owning property on reserve, inheriting family property, accessing treaty benefits, and being buried with her ancestors. She was one of thousands of Indigenous women who found themselves barred from their birthright because of their choice of spouse.

Starting in 1966, Two-Axe Earley fought tirelessly to have these rights be restored. A highlight came during the Federal-Provincial Conference of First Ministers on Aboriginal Constitutional Matters. This famous series of meetings featured, among other things, tense exchanges between Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and Mary Simon, who became the first Indigenous Governor General under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in July 2021.

In a dramatic moment at the conference in 1983, Premier René Lévesque gave up his seat to Two-Axe Earley. Having his own thorny relationship with constitutional reform and Indigenous sovereignty in Quebec, Levesque’s sympathies lay with Indigenous women at the conference. Two-Axe Earley, whose request to speak had been denied, implored the participants to “search your hearts and minds, follow the dictates of your conscience, set my sisters free.”[1]

In 1985, Parliament passed Bill C-31. The bill allowed Indigenous women who had been stripped of Indian Status through marriage to have their status reinstated. In recognition of her decades of activism, Mary Two-Axe Earley was the first of over 114,000 Indigenous women and their descendants to gain or regain Indian Status.

Mary Two-Axe Earley lived at her home on the Kahnawake reserve for the rest of her life. She died in 1996 and was buried among her people in Kahnawake.


Mary Two-Axe Earley receiving the Governor General’s Award in Commemoration of the Persons Case in 1979 for her work in seeking equality for women and girls.

Image Source: Library and Archives Canada


[1] Verbatim Transcript, Federal-Provincial Conference of First Ministers on Aboriginal Constitutional Matters, 1983.


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