Women Warriors: 9 More Standout Indigenous Female Leaders in Canada
David P. Ball
“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.
In the last Assembly of First Nations elections two years ago, an unprecedented number of Native women campaigned to lead the body representing 633 bands, and last week women’s decades of campaigning for a national inquiry into missing and murdered women has hit Parliament once again.
On March 8, women around the world marked International Women’s Day, and Indian Country Today Media Network celebrated five indigenous women leaders.
To keep the spirit alive during Women’s History Month, we bring you five more of the women leaders, artists and advocates who are at the forefront of change across Canada.
Sylvia McAdam, Jess Gordon, Nina Wilson and Sheelah McLean
One of the most energetic examples of indigenous women’s leadership and vision is the Idle No More movement, which to this day continues to raise the alarm around the gutting of Canada’s environmental laws, its relationship with aboriginal peoples, and the failure to uphold the country’s historic treaties. Founded at the end of 2012 by four Saskatchewan women, the grassroots movement sparked a year of flash mobs, round dances, teach-ins, blockades and protests in every corner of Canada and even in other parts of the world, designed to bring attention to indigenous issues.
The movement’s Twitter hashtag was coined by another indigenous woman, Tanya Kappo. Last year Foreign Policy magazine listed the four co-founders on its list of the “100 Leading Global Thinkers of 2013,” citing the movement’s demand that “Canada not leave its First Nations behind.”
Idle No More’s founders continue to educate and raise awareness today on environmental and other issues of concern to Indigenous Peoples in Canada.
Métis visual artist Christi Belcourt has captured widespread attention with her acrylic paintings on large canvasses. She was commissioned last year to design a stained glass window in Canada’s House of Commons in honor of the 150,000 children forced into residential schools.
A motto on her website captures the philosophy behind her art: “Based on Tradition, Inspired by Nature,” and she often takes creative cues from traditional Métis and First Nations beadwork, as well as from the natural world. Belcourt’s floral patterns and imagination have made her one of the most recognized indigenous artists in Canada.
Now living in Espanola, Ontario, she has also authored several books, including Medicines To Help Usand Jeremy and the Magic Ball, and says that one of her enduring passions is for traditional plant medicines—not only their healing properties, but also the world of story-telling, naming and language surrounding them.
Belcourt’s work in displayed in the high-profile First People’s Hall at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Quebec. But last year she took her project “Walking With Our Sisters” on the road in her quest to bring attention to missing and murdered women.
“There has been an awful silence around this,” she told Indian Country Today Media Network in 2013. “There has been a silence by government, by police and by the dominant society. It’s as though indigenous women’s lives aren’t considered important.”
“Walking With Our Sisters” launched in Haida Gwaii, British Columbia, features layers of cedar, red cloth, the tops of leather moccasins, and the chance for visitors to offer tobacco in memory of the women.
First Nations celebrated after Canada’s environment minister issued a final rejection to Taseko Mines’ New Prosperity mine proposal last month.
The woman behind the rejection was Leona Aglukkaq—who before her current environment post was the first-ever Inuk person appointed to federal Cabinet, as health minister after her election in 2008.
Born in Inuvik, what was formerly part of the Northwest Territories but has since become part of the new province of Nunavut, Aglukkaq served in the newly formed Nunavut Legislative Assembly since 2004. Being Indigenous herself has not insulated her from criticism, however. The card-carrying Conservative came under fire for publicly rebuking Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence during her months-long hunger strike near Parliament Hill last winter, urging her to end her protest and back down on her demands to meet the Prime Minister and Governor General.
As health minister, Aglukkaq also came under scrutiny when body bags were shipped to a remote Manitoba First Nation during an outbreak of H1N1 flu on reserves in the region, which many saw as sending a message of federal hostility to aboriginal people. Aglukkaq investigated the body-bag delivery and said she had accepted an apology from the official responsible.
In the face of European boycotts and animal rights activist campaigns, the environment minister has been a vocal supporter of the northern Canadian seal hunt and its importance to indigenous cultures. Many aboriginal people are watching closely as she approaches her final decision on several other controversial resource extraction proposals, such as Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline, which has garnered near-unanimous opposition from First Nations in B.C.
The chair of Ryerson University’s Centre for Indigenous Governance has long been a voice featured in Canadian media. But with the explosion of the Idle No More movement, Pam Palmater came to prominence as one of its most media-savvy proponents.
When she entered the Assembly of First Nations leadership race to replace incumbent Shawn A-in-chut Atleo, Palmater quickly became an obvious protest vote, earning second place to Atleo from the first to final rounds of internal voting. She may have scarcely dented Atleo’s landslide support, but Palmater’s voice of criticism to what she deemed overly conciliatory approaches to Harper’s federal government was backed by Prairie province chiefs who have in the last several years become a thorn in Atleo’s side – even forming a rival organization based on fighting for Canada to recognize its historic treaty promises to First Nations.
Originally from Eel Bar First Nation in New Brunswick, Palmater’s office is full of the flags and territorial maps of her people, the Mi’kmaq. She has continue to speak forcefully in support of Indigenous land defence, including the conflict at another Mi’kmaq band, Elsipogtog First Nation, over fracking by SWN Resources last fall.
For her, sovereignty is “fundamental to everything that we are as indigenous people,” she told ICTMN after her AFN leadership bid.
Palmater has her share of detractors, unsurprisingly. Within some aboriginal circles she represents a dissatisfied faction within the AFN which some dismiss as sour grapes for losing the election. From the other side, some Idle No More organizers have questioned her Centre for Indigenous Governance’s early acceptance of nuclear industry donations when it was established, though those have since discontinued.
Shortly after the AFN race, Palmater said the Canadian media had belittled the large number of women running for National Chief, even though she herself gained attention.
“They barely even mentioned the other women,” she told ICTMN. “They were almost nonexistent. There still is an issue—a gender issue—because the majority of leaders are male.”
But Palmater pointed out that women are better represented among First Nations chiefs and councilors than they are in Parliament.
One of the foremost warriors for children’s rights in Canada is Gitxsan Nation, British Columbia, advocate Cindy Blackstock.
She is not only on the front lines with a historic lawsuit against the federal government—over its dismal underfunding of services for First Nations children on reserves, which she argues is a form of racial discrimination—but also her legal challenge alongside the Assembly of First Nations so worried the government that it launched ongoing surveillance of her activities in 2007, until it finally admitted it was monitoring.
Now based in Ottawa as executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, which she founded, Blackstock has worked in child and family services for more than two decades, written at least 60 publications, and acting as UNICEF’s Expert Advisor on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Her persistence in children’s advocacy doesn’t simply arise from being aware that a vastly disproportionate number of children in foster care are aboriginal – nearly half, even though Native children make up only eight percent of Canada’s children.
“In Canada, families have been denied the same publicly funded opportunities that every other Canadian receives to be able to care for their child,” Blackstock told ICTMN. “Residential school showed us that when you take aboriginal children out of their culture, and you place them in a non-aboriginal culture, what we see are a lot of issues with identity and self-esteem. Children need to grow up in their families, then they learn the culture of themselves and their people. That leads to higher levels of self-esteem, stronger personal identities; Canadians know that makes sense.”
“One of the big lessons that all of us should have learned, and certainly the government should have learned, from residential school, is that children need to grow up in their families,” she said. “Then they learn the culture of themselves and their people.”
A generation of Indigenous women filmmakers has been galvanized and influenced by one woman: Alanis Obamsawim.
Many cite the National Film Board director of Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance—the first of her four influential films about the 1990 military siege at Oka, Quebec – for inspiring their careers in documentary film.
On March 9 the Abenaki artist raised mainly in Quebec was recognized with one of Canada’s top film honors: a Canadian Screen Award for her humanitarian work in honour of her “exceptional contributions to community and public service.”
But few are aware that Obamsawim got her start in music, touring North America and Europe after gaining success as a singer-songwriter in 1960. Her first foray into film was her 1971 documentary Christmas at Moose Factory, after which she went on to produce more than 40 films about Aboriginal people in Canada – most recently her films Hi-Ho Mistahey! about a teenage activist, and before that one on the widely denounced Attawapiskat housing crisis.
She has also won a prestigious Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts, and is also part of the esteemed Order of Canada, which recognizes Canadian luminaries and leaders.