The president of the Native Women's Association of Canada is stepping down to spend more time with her family, just weeks after the historic launch of a national inquiry into Canada's missing and murdered indigenous women.
On Thursday morning, Dawn Lavell-Harvard, who was elected to a three-year term in July of 2015, issued a letter of resignation to NWAC's board of directors after more than 20 years of formal advocacy. Her presidency straddled two federal governments with markedly different positions on indigenous issues and culminated in the appointment of a long-sought independent commission to probe the disproportionate rate of violence against indigenous women.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Dr. Lavell-Harvard said she recently became aware of a potential opportunity closer to home that will allow for more time with her husband and three young daughters. Her next step is not set in stone, but she wanted to resign before NWAC's annual general assembly this weekend so that representatives from member chapters can elect a new president.
Looking back on her time at the helm, Dr. Lavell-Harvard is struck by the heightened awareness among Canadians about indigenous issues, as well as the dramatic shift in political tone. "I was at the head of the association during this amazing shift from a government that said the violence against indigenous women and girls was not even on their radar, to a government that has [launched] an inquiry," said Dr. Lavell-Harvard, a member of Wikwemikong First Nation, in northern Ontario. "This is something we have been pursuing for years."
Former prime minister Stephen Harper dismissed calls for an inquiry, saying the tragedies were not part of a "sociological phenomenon" but rather criminal matters best handled by police. NWAC, as the leading voice for indigenous women in Canada, was in a constant state of agitation. Although the organization had been championing an inquiry for more than a decade, never had the matter been so prominent and hot-button. It was a major issue in last year's federal election, which saw the Liberals rise to power on the promise of a renewed nation-to-nation relationship with indigenous peoples.
On Aug. 3, the government appointed five commissioners – including Dr. Lavell-Harvard's predecessor, Michèle Audette – to lead the national inquiry over a two-year period. She concedes that the timing of her resignation is unfortunate, given that the commission is not even one month into its mandate. NWAC has also been without an executive director for several months, though the organization expects to fill that position soon.
NWAC will undoubtedly remain a critical player as the inquiry unfolds, monitoring the work and acting as a de facto liaison between victims' families and the commission. If NWAC representatives elect a president this weekend to a three-year term, the new leader could find herself presiding over the release of the commission's interim and final reports, in late 2017 and late 2018.
"There's a lot of work that's going to have to be done going forward, specifically as the recommendations come out," she said, adding that NWAC will be positioned to have a "really strong role" in ensuring the calls to action are implemented. "I leave with the hope that the commission shares our sense of urgency."
Dr. Lavell-Harvard's formal advocacy dates back to 1994, when she joined the board of the Ontario Native Women's Association as a youth director. She went on to serve as ONWA's president for 11 years, and then served as NWAC's vice president for nearly three years before taking on the presidency, initially on an interim basis, in February of 2015. Dr. Lavell-Harvard has a PhD in education, focusing on the experiences of indigenous women in Canadian secondary and post-secondary school systems.