Women Warriors: 5 Standout Indigenous Female Leaders in Canada
Hailing from Kitigan Zibi First Nation in Quebec, Bridget Tolley has carried the torch of missing and murdered women for more than a decade.
Long before she co-founded Families of Sisters in Spirit, a national advocacy group on the issue, the Algonquin grandmother of five was galvanized to fight for justice and change after her mother was killed by a police car. It turned out that the policeman investigating the death was the brother of the officer responsible for it, Rabble.ca reported at the time.
Her passion for social change has seen her speaking at massive rallies on Parliament Hill, in government committee hearings and frequently in the media. But she believes that today's indigenous women are still at the frontlines in a struggle that goes right back to the foundation of the country.
“Aboriginal women and families have been on the frontline all along trying to expose violence against indigenous women and its deep-seated roots, as well as to bring about change,” she told Indian Country Today Media Network in 2012. “It has been more than 519 years that our women are still resisting colonial violence against us, our people, our nation and our land. It is the longest social movement in North America. To end violence for all people, aboriginal women must be at the epicenter of the solution.”
Though Canadian rock star Neil Young garnered attention for himself and his cause with a tour of Canada early this year—raising more than half a million dollars to help a First Nation fighting oil sands development—the concert series would not have been possible without one woman's persistent work behind the scenes.
Eriel Deranger is not just the spokeswoman for Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, a community in the heart of Alberta's oil sands that has seen drastic rises in rare cancers linked to petrochemicals. The 34-year-old activist, mother and former Prairie region director for the Sierra Club is also the face of a generation fighting to put the brakes on climate change and the destruction of indigenous territories. Working for countless hours to pull off Young's controversial tour, Deranger gave a stirring speech beside the iconic singer that was not broadcast on the major news networks, but captured the energy and eloquence of a young woman who is no stranger to activism.
On stage alongside Young on January 12, Deranger spoke of Alberta's tar sands as “runaway development,” and said the crisis is not only environmental but also about fundamental indigenous rights.
Raised by parents active in the American Indian Movement who met at the Wounded Knee standoff, Deranger remembers from her childhood her family's fight to protect their Saskatchewan traplines from a mining company.
“Eriel’s a remarkable young woman,” renowned White Earth author and activist Winona LaDuke told Windspeaker. “She’s a really committed person from a beautiful community.... Her whole life, she’s fought the largest corporations in the world. She’s very smart and also very strong.”
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