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.
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.
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.
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