Sask. women are leaders
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.