First Nations women chiefs on the rise in Ontario

Women are reclaiming their place as Indigenous societies learn more about their past
Photo: Jordan McQueen

A growing number of women are assuming leadership positions in Ontario First Nations, breaking into a world long seen as an old boys’ club.

“When you go to the gatherings you see a lot of women chiefs,” says Patricia Big George, chief of the Big Island First Nation, located on Lake of the Woods, Ontario. “I’m proud to see that.”

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Most recently, Anna Betty Achneepineskum, a member of Marten Falls First Nation, was chosen as one of three deputy grand chiefs for the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, a political organization serving 49 First Nation communities in Northern Ontario.

“This is the second time that we’ve had a female in the executive” since the organization’s founding in 1973, says Achneepineskum, who served as a band councillor before her election as deputy grand chief. The organization also has 14 woman chiefs, according to its website.

Women’s roles were diminished by government policy and Christianity.

When Esther Pitchenese was elected chief of the Wabigoon Lake First Nation, she became one of 10 women leaders in the Grand Council of Treaty #3, a political organization representing 29 Anishinaabe communities in Manitoba and Ontario.

The percentage of Indigenous women leaders in Nishnawbe Aski Nation and Grand Council of Treaty #3 — 30 per cent and 34 per cent respectively — might not seem high, until you compare it to Canadian municipalities, where women make up just 16 per cent of mayors.

Reclaiming roles

Chief Big George says this trend harkens to the not-so-distant past, when Indigenous woman made major decisions for their communities.

“Years ago, it was the woman that said, ‘Go check to see if the wild rice is ready to be picked.’ It was the woman that said, ‘Go check to see if the moose are ready to be hunted,’” she says. “It was the woman that made that decision.”

“They’re all females trying to come back and help their community.”

Not until European contact, Big George explains, did things change. Women’s roles were diminished by government policy and Christianity, rooted in Victorian values where females were seen as inferior.

As more and more First Nations begin to learn about their past and their traditional ceremonies, women are reclaiming their place in Indigenous societies, says Big George.

Reaching higher

Sara Mainville, chief of Couchiching First Nation in Northwest Ontario, believes the high proportion of female chiefs also reflects a more recent trend — the growing number of Indigenous women attaining higher education.

“People have gone out to get some kind of professional credentials and have gone back home,” says Mainville. “In Treaty 3, we have people with a master’s of social work, people with an engineering background, and they’re all females trying to come back and help their community.”

Just 7.6 per cent of Aboriginal men aged 35 to 44 had university degrees in 2011, according to Statistics Canada. For Aboriginal women of the same age, the figure almost doubles to 13.6 per cent.

Achneepineskum is one of them. When she was in her late 20s, she returned to school to provide a future for her children, whom she was raising alone. She enrolled in a business administration program at Confederation College in Thunder Bay, Ontario, which eventually led to a long-standing career with Nishnawbe-Aski Legal Services.

“Many of us [women] are the providers for our families,” Achneepineskum says.

“So it’s only natural we have females taking on these roles, whether they’re executive directors, in the legal field, becoming justice of the peace or getting their doctorate and going into politics.”

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