Sask. women are lead­ers

Regina Leader-Post - - News - By KERRY BENJOE Leader-Post

In­creas­ingly more First Na­tions women are en­ter­ing the po­lit­i­cal arena and emerg­ing as strong lead­ers.

Ac­cord­ing to the Fed­er­a­tion of Saskatchewan In­dian Na­tions (FSIN), which rep­re­sents 75 First Na­tions, there are 14 women chiefs and an­other 101 fe­male band coun­cil­lors.

“I think it’s ex­cit­ing,” said FSIN Chief Lawrence Joseph. “Tra­di­tion­ally in the past el­ders have al­ways said (women) have the most im­por­tant work any per­son can be called to do and that is the rear­ing of chil­dren and keep­ing the home fires burn­ing.”

He said the ex­cit­ing part is that each year more and more women are do­ing both. Joseph be­lieves it’s im­por­tant to have women in­volved in de­ci­sion-mak­ing be­cause they bring new ideas and a dif­fer­ent voice, which has been miss­ing for far too long.

“Frankly, it’s about time,” said Joseph. “It’s not only some­thing that’s re­quired not only in to­day’s po­lit­i­cal ta­bles but at pro­fes­sional ta­bles ev­ery­where.”

He said women bring a bal­ance to dis­cus­sions be­cause the is­sue shouldn’t al­ways be about eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment and mak­ing money. Joseph said women are of­ten more in tune to the needs of fam­i­lies and the so­cial is­sues af­fect­ing com­mu­ni­ties — and that voice needs to be heard.

“It’s some­thing that’s got to hap­pen not only at the band level but the tribal coun­cil level and cer­tainly at the re­gional and na­tional level,” said Joseph.

The File Hills Qu’Ap­pelle Tribal Coun­cil (FHQTC) rep­re­sents 11 First Na­tions and has the high­est per­cent­age of fe­male chiefs.

FHQTC Vice-Chair Myke Age­coutay agrees that women bring a dif­fer­ent voice to dis­cus­sions.

“We’re pleased, we’re hon­oured to be very dif­fer­ent in Saskatchewan,” said Age­coutay. “Our tribal coun­cil has been known to be very dif­fer­ent. We rep­re­sent five dif­fer­ent lin­guis­tic groups: Cree, Saulteaux, Dakota, Lakota and Nakoda. We have five fe­male chiefs and one young tribal (rep­re­sen­ta­tive). Our tribal coun­cil is very di­verse and we are very unique from ev­ery other re­gion in the prov­ince.”

He said hav­ing the high­est con­cen­tra­tion of fe­male chiefs in the FHQTC fo­rum is some­thing to be proud of be­cause it’s a sign of change. Age­coutay said there is a bal­ance be­tween eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment and so­cial con­cerns which is what the com­mu­ni­ties need.

Marie-Anne Day Walker-Pel­letier from the Okanese First Na­tion is the long­est-serv­ing fe­male chief in Saskatchewan, hav­ing first taken of­fice in 1981. When she was first elected there were few fe­male chiefs in the prov­ince. Day Walker-Pel­letier faced her share of chal­lenges but did not let that stand in her way be­cause she was there to do her job.

“I’ve al­ways thought of my­self as, ‘I’m from the com­mu­nity and I’m here to rep­re­sent my com­mu­nity,’ ” said Day Walker-Pel­letier. “It’s not about me as an in­di­vid­ual, it’s about the is­sues and how I take for­ward those is­sues.”

She takes her role very se­ri­ously be­cause it’s her re­spon­si­bil­ity to do what’s best for the peo­ple of the Okanese First Na­tion.

“My vi­sion is to pro­vide a qual­ity of life in a holis­tic approach and work­ing with all spheres — men­tal, so­cial, phys­i­cal and spir­i­tual,” said Day Walker-Pel­letier.

She said the past is im­por­tant to re­mem­ber but equally im­por­tant is to look to the fu­ture and to find ways to move for­ward. Day Walker-Pel­letier be­lieves it’s a for­mula that works be­cause in the most re­cent elec­tion she won by ac­cla­ma­tion.

“I am very ac­ces­si­ble. I lis­ten to el­ders, I uti­lize el­ders. I uti­lize all groups — youth, women and men. Over the years I have built a re­la­tion­ship,” she ex­plained. “I al­ways call it my fam­ily. I’m just a big mother there look­ing af­ter all the kids. So it’s about strength­en­ing the fam­ily unit and em­pow­er­ing them.”

She got into pol­i­tics to pro­vide the peo­ple of Okanese with a voice and has stayed in of­fice be­cause it’s what the peo­ple want. Prior to run­ning for chief, Day Walker-Pel­letier vol­un­teered her time work­ing at the band of­fice just be­cause she wanted to help. Her ded­i­ca­tion to want­ing to im­prove her First Na­tion is why the peo­ple asked her to run for chief, which she did.

Af­ter serv­ing as chief for nearly three decades, Day Walker-Pel­letier says she hopes to one day move into other ar­eas and work to­wards im­prov­ing the lives of First Na­tions through­out the prov­ince. How­ever she will pur­sue her other pas­sions only af­ter her com­mu­nity de­cides to let her go from her du­ties as chief.

“You’re there for the peo­ple. You are not there for your­self. If you’re there for your­self then you’re in the wrong area,” said Day Walker-Pel­letier about be­ing a chief. “You have to give up your life for the com­mu­nity and that’s what I do.”

She ex­plained that bal­anc­ing home and com­mu­nity re­spon­si­bil­i­ties can be dif­fi­cult but she’s man­aged to meld the two parts of her life be­cause she’s open with her band mem­ber­ship. Day Walker-Pel­letier said her com­mu­nity gives her the time to still be a mother and a grand­mother be­cause those roles are equally im­por­tant and can­not be ig­nored.

“You’ve got to main­tain a well-bal­anced life,” said Day Walker-Pel­letier.

FHQTC not only has the longestrun­ning fe­male chief but it also has the prov­inces’ new­est fe­male chief.

El­iz­a­beth Pratt won the Mus­cow­petung elec­tion in April and is look­ing for­ward to the next two years. Her in­ter­est in pol­i­tics be­gan back when she was a young girl when she would sit and lis­ten to her fa­ther, William Pratt Sr., talk pol­i­tics. Pratt de­cided that now was the time for her to use the knowl­edge that her fa­ther passed down to her be­cause there was a need for some­one to speak for the peo­ple.

“So many of our band mem­bers are women and chil­dren that have not had a voice. The so­cial im­pacts on our com­mu­nity have been hard and vis­i­ble to ev­ery­body. They can no longer be ig­nored. We have to have our lead­er­ship come for­ward and be the voice for our peo­ple,” said Pratt. “I have been blessed with a tal­ent to speak but there are many who have been forgotten and crushed.”

She has two years to do what she can to bring her com­mu­nity to­gether. Pratt be­lieves com­mu­ni­ca­tion and unity are the keys to build­ing a stronger fu­ture for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.

“Lis­ten­ing to them is the most im­por­tant thing be­cause you can have your ideas fix things but if you ac­tu­ally don’t sit with the peo­ple and lis­ten to them you’re go­ing to go blindly for­ward as­sum­ing and we don’t have the time to think and as­sume,” said Pratt. “As the chief of Mus­cow­petung I have to know what the needs of my com­mu­nity are and bring forth those needs and con­cerns.”

She’s ready for the chal­lenge of be­ing a leader and con­sid­ers her­self lucky be­cause she can look to ex­pe­ri­enced chiefs like Day Walker-Pel­letier for ad­vice when she needs it.

Pratt is Mus­cow­petung’s first fe­male chief.

He­len Ben is the tribal chief of the Meadow Lake Tribal Coun­cil which rep­re­sents nine First Na­tions. She was elected by her peers who are pre­dom­i­nantly male. An­other pre­dom­i­nant fe­male chief is Tammy Cook-Sear­son of the Lac La Ronge In­dian Band — which is one of the largest First Na­tions in the prov­ince. She was voted by the mem­ber­ship to serve her sec­ond term as leader.

The in­crease in the num­ber of women tak­ing up lead­er­ship roles comes as no sur­prise to some peo­ple.

Bill Asik­i­nack, in­dige­nous stud­ies de­part­ment head at the First Na­tions Univer­sity of Canada, said he knew the day would come when First Na­tions women would take on lead­er­ship roles.

“We kind of saw it com­ing in the 1950s when as a young whip­per-snap­per-squirt-teenager we were de­vel­op­ing stuff in Toronto when the friend­ship cen­tre move­ment started,” re­called Asik­i­nack. “We pre­dicted then that our peo­ple were on the come­back trail.”

Tra­di­tion­ally it was not un­com­mon for women to take on such lead­er­ship roles, par­tic­u­larly in ma­tri­ar­chal so­ci­eties, he ex­plained.

“Af­ter 1921 with the In­dian Act, (women) ‘lost power’ when the elec­tive sys­tem came in,” he ex­plained.

How­ever he in­sists that al­though women were not elected lead­ers they still played a sig­nif­i­cant role when it came to choos­ing lead­ers.

“Most of the time even in the west here it’s the women who make the sug­ges­tions and it may be an­other man who puts a man in place. But it’s usu­ally the women who pass on rec­om­men­da­tions and make the choices,” said Asik­i­nack. “They still had in­flu­ence in a num­ber of places.”

He said with the high per­cent­age of First Na­tions women grad­u­at­ing from post-sec­ondary in­sti­tu­tions he ex­pects this to con­tinue. As a greater num­ber of women en­ter more non­tra­di­tional roles, they will bring more bal­ance to First Na­tions com­mu­ni­ties and thus re­turn them to a more tra­di­tional so­ci­ety based on equal­ity.

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