Early Life and Education

Gloria Mary Maureen George, who uses an English name for interacting with Canadian authorities and in her professional career, was born of Wet’suwet’en (Dakelh), St’át’imc, Cree, Welsh and French heritage. George’s Wet’suwet’en name is Goo-htse Awh, which is the title of sub-chief in her Laksamshu (Fireweed) clan. She also holds the title of hereditary chief, Smogelgem. George was raised traditionally, on a small farm in Hubert, British Columbia (near Prince George), in the ways of the Wet’suwet’en people. George grew up with her siblings and extended family, learning to respect the land and each other.

When she started attending school, George became, in her words, a “chameleon” because she dressed in the contemporary fashion for school, but returned to traditional dress afterwards. From a young age, George learned how to effectively move between the worlds of Indigenous traditionalism and Western culture.

However, in a 2011 interview with the We Can BC campaign — an initiative to end gender-based violence — George expressed that this move between two cultural worlds was not easy. George said that at school, she was subjected to racism, stereotypes and discrimination. In addition, George disclosed that she had been abused as a child by older men and by a missionary on different occasions. She also shared how her parents removed two of her brothers from residential school after learning that they were being mistreated. This act of defiance caused her parents to lose their Indian status. George would go on to advocate for non-status Indians in her adult life. Her and her family’s victimization created deep and long-lasting psychological wounds that George only came to fully address later on in life. “Alcoholism,” George stated in the interview, “brought my family to its knees.” Now sober, George has advocated for Indigenous peoples suffering from the intergenerational trauma of residential schools, from abuse and addictions, and from being disadvantaged.

George attended the University of Saskatchewan’s Native Law Program, and she earned her Bachelor of Laws at the University of British Columbia in 1989. As of 2011, she was pursuing a Master’s degree in First Nations Studies at the University of Northern British Columbia.

British Columbia Association of Non-Status Indians

The late 1960s was a politically charged time for Indigenous people in Canada. The Trudeau government’s 1969 White Paper, which called for the removal of any special status for Aboriginal peoples, paired with increased oil and gas exploration in traditional ancestral lands by extractive industries, provided ample reason for Indigenous peoples to organize into formal policy organizations to protect their livelihoods, lifeways and traditional homelands. (See also Indigenous People: Political Organizations and Activism).

The British Columbia Association of Non-Status Indians emerged from this environment in 1969. George was one of the first involved with the association, serving as an officer. In this capacity, George worked to improve the opportunities for non-status peoples to receive quality education. She also pushed to uphold Indigenous women’s rights, and to eliminate discriminatory government legislation and policies based on fabricated concepts of Indian status. (See also Rights of Indigenous Peoples).

Native Council of Canada

Over time, more organizations emerged to represent both status and non-status peoples. While groups like the National Indian Brotherhood (now the Assembly of First Nations) worked to represent those who had status, others, like the Canadian Métis Society, developed to represent those without status. By 1971, the Canadian Métis Society was renamed the Native Council of Canada (now the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples), and served as the national voice of both provincial and territorial organizations that worked to represent Aboriginal peoples who did not have Indian status.

In 1972, George was elected the Native Council of Canada’s secretary-treasurer, a post she held until 1974, when she was elected vice-president of the organization. From 1975 to 1976, when George was president, she became the first woman to become an elected leader of a major Aboriginal political organization. As president, George advocated for greater government recognition of the Native Council of Canada and more consideration from police and the justice system with regards to the human rights of Indigenous peoples throughout the country.

Canadian Human Rights Commission

In 1977, Parliament passed the Canadian Human Rights Act with the expressed intent of providing equal opportunity to individuals who may have been victims of discrimination. As a result of this statute, the Canadian Human Rights Commission was established to investigate complaints of discrimination. George was elected commissioner of this organization in 1978, a post she held until 1980.

British Columbia Human Rights Commission

In 1980, George was appointed, alongside Charles Paris and Renate Shearer, as a commissioner of the British Columbia Human Rights Commission. The commission actively worked to distribute grants, to engage with the media on human rights issues and to produce educational booklets and short videos for teachers to instruct students on instances of discrimination. As vocal critics of the government, the commissioners worked consistently to reform and improve the code on which the commission was based. However, the commission’s recommendations for amending the Human Rights Code were never enacted. The commission was disbanded in 1983.

Indian Status and Indigenous Identity

After the passage of Bill C-31 on 28 June 1985 — an amendment to the Indian Act — George regained her Indian status, which she had lost as a child when her parents had also lost their status (see Indian and Indigenous Women and the Franchise). Although many saw Bill C-31 as a step forward in the protection of Indigenous women’s rights, George has stated that her Indian status carries little real value for her. George does not want to be defined by the Indian Act. As she told the We Can BC campaign in 2011, “No government should tell [Indigenous peoples] who we are.” George sees true Indigenous identity as defined by and connected to one’s Indigenous nation, culture, community and heritage.

We Can BC Campaign

In support of the We Can BC Campaign, George participated in an interview program called Breaking the Cycle. A project of the Justice Education Society of BC, Breaking the Cycle featured Indigenous leaders speaking about violence in their communities. George told personal stories and spoke about Indigenous identity, violence and abuse, and the ongoing intergenerational trauma of residential schools. She also offered advice on ways to break cycles of abuse, part of which, George argues, involves reconnection to Indigenous identity and heritage.

Teaching

As of 2011, George lived in Prince George, British Columbia, and was an instructor in the Northern Advancement Program at the University of Northern British Columbia.

Significance

George has worked to protect the rights of non-status Indians, Indigenous women and Indigenous peoples in general in Canada. Her efforts have raised awareness about the socioeconomic and historical factors that have disempowered many Indigenous peoples, the painful legacy of residential schools, Indigenous rights, and how stereotypes about Indigenous peoples must be identified and overturned.