Viola Robinson, A Leader Inspired by Women
NOTE: Following is a feature in honor of Women's History Month written by Catherine Martin for the Advisory Council on the Status of Women.
Viola Robinson's work has led to court cases validating the Mi'kmaq Treaty of 1752 and protecting Mi'kmaq rights in Nova Scotia. Inspired by women like her mother and Supreme Court Justice Bertha Wilson, she has taken on challenges and leadership whenever she saw a job that needed to be done.
"Thirty years ago there seemed to be no hope that this day would ever come, but it's here now, marking a beginning of a new era in the struggle of Mi'kmaq people," she said. Mrs. Robinson continues to dedicate her life to pursuing the rights of Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq as one of the senior Mi'kmaq advisors to the Mi'kmaq Rights Initiative.
Her choices in adult life were shaped by the tough lessons learned growing up. Born in Amherst, and raised in Indianbrook for a time, she attended the Shubenacadie Indian Day School and high school in Meteghan. She married young and had seven children.
"Life was really hard when my children were small, not like it is today," said Mrs. Robinson. She stayed home to raise her family struggling to survive day to day. She called those years "the worst place to be - having nothing."
She realized as she got older that Mi'kmaq people were being discriminated against and began working to stop that discrimination. She entered politics in 1975 and was elected president of the Native Council of Nova Scotia. Her service during 16 years included working to change the section in the Indian Act that denied Aboriginal women their rights if they married a non-native person.
"Canada was the only country in the world with legislation that was so blatantly discriminatory. I knew that it had to change," she said. New legislation was a beginning, but Mrs. Robinson believes work remains to be done.
In 1990, she was elected president of the Native Council of Canada; within 10 months, she was appointed to serve as a commissioner on the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.
"That was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, to have heard all the problems Aboriginal people in this country were facing, especially women's stories. They were so powerful," she said.
When her term ended 1995, Mrs. Robinson entered Dalhousie Law School, graduating in 1998. Her work with the commission and her conversations with Justice Wilson persuaded her to study law. While attending law school, she worked part time for her band, the Acadia First Nation. She is now their full-time consultant and advisor.
Past the age when many Canadians retire, Mrs. Robinson continues to love her work. She also wants to leave a legacy.
"I would like to see young people in this province be able to pick up text books, videos, historical records and see that we're still here, we've got a better life with a lot of good things happening, and it's all because people did something about it."