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Women Warriors: 5 Standout Indigenous Female Leaders in Canada

“A nation is not conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground,” advises a proverb commonly attributed to the Tsistsistas (Cheyenne). “Then it is done, no matter how brave its warriors or strong its weapons.”

In the country today known as Canada, indigenous women have always been at the forefront of defending their lands and cultures—from the iconic 1990 standoff between Mohawk warriors and the Canadian army near Oka, Quebec to Elsipogtog First Nation's ongoing anti-fracking battle near Rexton, New Brunswick.

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In the most recent Assembly of First Nations elections two years ago, an unprecedented number of Native women campaigned to lead the body representing 633 bands. This week, women's decades of campaigning for a national inquiry into missing and murdered women has hit Parliament once again.

On International Women's Day, Indian Country Today Media Network highlights just some of the women leaders, artists and advocates at the forefront of change across Canada.

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Ellen Gabriel

Photo: Assembly of First Nations handout

Mohawk land and culture defender Ellen Gabriel.

Twenty-four years ago, Indian country exploded with unrest that has shaped Native politics in Canada in a way no other event has since the 1960s. The spark was the quiet town of Oka, Quebec's attempt to expand a nine-hole golf course in 1990 atop a Mohawk burial ground and into the pine forest that’s sacred to the community of Kanehsatake. Their outrage ignored by authorities, women from the community set up a small blockade on the road. But when the provincial police force and even Canadian army was deployed, the blockade transformed into a months-long armed standoff that saw Native warriors from all corners of Turtle Island to draw a line in the sand, flooding into Mohawk territories, blocking major bridges along the U.S. border, setting police cars ablaze, and seeing railway blockades across the land in solidarity.

Women remained the decision-makers behind the blockade, and one 26-year-old became the face and voice of Kanehsatake for Canada. Ellen Gabriel, whose traditional name is Katsitsakwas, was chosen by her community at the time to represent the blockade.

In the decades since the so-called “Oka Crisis,” Gabriel has continued her fight for her people. She became the president of Quebec Native Women, and went on to protect her language and culture through Kanehsatà:ke Language and Cultural Center, where she works to this day.

Two years ago, Gabriel entered the spotlight once again, challenging incumbent National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Shawn Atleo, in a race centring on standing up to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and pushing for Indigenous self-determination. Her campaign was unsuccessful, but Gabriel told the aboriginal news site Windspeaker that her goal was “to bring back the voice of the people.”

“In 1990, Aboriginal peoples asserted our sovereignty, and we were criminalized for doing that,” she said. “We are at a crossroads right now, whether we will be totally assimilated and whether we will have the ability to be self-determining people... We’re still dealing with the challenges of how to de-colonize our relationship with Canada, but also to decolonize the one we have with each other.”

Gabriel received the International Women’s Day Award from the Québec Bar Association in 2008 and has also received the Native Women's Association of Canada's Golden Eagle Award, and a Jigonsaseh Women of Peace Award, for her ongoing advocacy work.

Michele Audette

Gabriel's successor at Quebec Native Women, Michele Audette, has since gone on to become the president of the Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC).

Photo: David P. Ball

Michele Audette, president of the Native Women's Association of Canada

NWAC has carried the battle cry for a national public inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women for decades. Until 2010, when the federal government slashed its funding, NWAC maintained a growing database of missing and murdered women that held the government's feet to the fire and raised public awareness of a historic crisis that affects almost every community. As an advocate for aboriginal women across the country, the mother of five hails from an Innu community in northern Quebec and fought against sexist laws in Canada's Indian Act that arbitrarily stripped many Native women of their Indian Status based on who they married. Women successfully fought to have those laws changed in the 1980s.

“My heart beats, of course, to denounce the violence in our communities, and across Canada, for Aboriginal women,” she told Windspeaker after beginning her work at NWAC. “[I’m] always passionate for Aboriginal women’s issues. I think it’s going to be until my last breath. I’ll be fighting, working and doing stuff for my family and for aboriginal people.”

Buffy Sainte-Marie

Renowned musician and digital artist Buffy Sainte Marie

Since capturing the attention of a generation with hit songs like “Up Where We Belong” and “Universal Soldier,” Buffy Sainte-Marie keeps not only packing her rock music with lyrics both politically challenging, romantic and beautiful, but also continuing to pioneer her distinctive digital artwork, and supporting education efforts about and for indigenous people.

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Born in Piapot Cree First Nation, in Saskatchewan, the 73-year-old Cree artist now resides in Hawaii, but continues to tour aggressively and show her conceptual artwork—what she terms “digital beadwork”—across the continent, and promoting her Cradleboard Teaching Project, a program to convey accurate information about Native peoples through educational systems.

“It's still art, but it's art with a different tool,” she told Indian Country Today Media Network in a phone interview. “For me, it's very similar to music: You do what you want to do, there's aren't a lot of rules.

Sainte-Marie was profiled in the 2008 documentary Buffy Sainte-Marie: A Multimedia Life, which traces her roots from the Prairies to the burgeoning Greenwich Village folk scene and to today's groundbreaking artwork. She brought indigenous self-determination into the public consciousness with songs like Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and, on her most recent album, Running for the Drum, she continues to advocate for her people with songs like “No No Keshagesh,” a warning to those destroying the Earth.

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Sainte-Marie was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, and her music has been celebrated with a Governor General's Performing Arts Award in 2010, and a Canadian Gemini Award.

Bridget Tolley

Hailing from Kitigan Zibi First Nation in Quebec, Bridget Tolley has carried the torch of missing and murdered women for more than a decade.

Photo: KAIROS Canada

Bridget Tolley, co-founder of Families of Sisters in Spirit, speaks at a missing women rally.

Long before she co-founded Families of Sisters in Spirit, a national advocacy group on the issue, the Algonquin grandmother of five was galvanized to fight for justice and change after her mother was killed by a police car. It turned out that the policeman investigating the death was the brother of the officer responsible for it, reported at the time.

Her passion for social change has seen her speaking at massive rallies on Parliament Hill, in government committee hearings and frequently in the media. But she believes that today's indigenous women are still at the frontlines in a struggle that goes right back to the foundation of the country.

“Aboriginal women and families have been on the frontline all along trying to expose violence against indigenous women and its deep-seated roots, as well as to bring about change,” she told Indian Country Today Media Network in 2012. “It has been more than 519 years that our women are still resisting colonial violence against us, our people, our nation and our land. It is the longest social movement in North America. To end violence for all people, aboriginal women must be at the epicenter of the solution.”

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Eriel Deranger

Photo: David P. Ball

Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation spokeswoman Eriel Deranger speaks at an event in Vancouver, B.C.

Though Canadian rock star Neil Young garnered attention for himself and his cause with a tour of Canada early this year—raising more than half a million dollars to help a First Nation fighting oil sands development—the concert series would not have been possible without one woman's persistent work behind the scenes.

Eriel Deranger is not just the spokeswoman for Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, a community in the heart of Alberta's oil sands that has seen drastic rises in rare cancers linked to petrochemicals. The 34-year-old activist, mother and former Prairie region director for the Sierra Club is also the face of a generation fighting to put the brakes on climate change and the destruction of indigenous territories. Working for countless hours to pull off Young's controversial tour, Deranger gave a stirring speech beside the iconic singer that was not broadcast on the major news networks, but captured the energy and eloquence of a young woman who is no stranger to activism.

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Watch Neil Young Sing 'Mother Earth' as Tar Sands Mining Ravages Her

On stage alongside Young on January 12, Deranger spoke of Alberta's tar sands as “runaway development,” and said the crisis is not only environmental but also about fundamental indigenous rights.

Raised by parents active in the American Indian Movement who met at the Wounded Knee standoff, Deranger remembers from her childhood her family's fight to protect their Saskatchewan traplines from a mining company.

“Eriel’s a remarkable young woman,” renowned White Earth author and activist Winona LaDuke told Windspeaker. “She’s a really committed person from a beautiful community.... Her whole life, she’s fought the largest corporations in the world. She’s very smart and also very strong.”

NEXT: Women Warriors: 9 More Standout Indigenous Female Leaders in Canada