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Choose to Challenge: celebrating the women of Eeyou Istchee

BY Nation Editors, Ben Powless, Patrick Quinn Feb 26, 2021

International Women’s Day celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women every March 8. It is a call for gender parity across the globe. 

The IWD grew out of a socialist labour campaign in New York City in 1908, when 15,000 working women marched for shorter hours, better pay and the right to vote. A year later, the Socialist Party of America marked the first annual National Women’s Day. The first International Women’s Day was observed two years later, in 1911.

This year’s campaign theme is “Choose to Challenge.” According to the IWD website, “a challenged world is an alert world… We can all choose to challenge and call out gender bias and inequality. We can all choose to seek out and celebrate women’s achievements. Collectively, we can all help create an inclusive world.”

The Nation salutes and celebrates the women of Eeyou Istchee. Your work for the Cree Nation enriches our lives. 

By Ben Powless & Patrick Quinn

Mandy Gull, Deputy Grand Chief

When Deputy Grand Chief Mandy Gull was growing up in Waswanipi, she remembers hanging out after school at the band office where her mother worked, thinking one day she’d like to work there. After having children very young, she did find employment in that office as a secretary at the age of 18. 

“When I was secretary, I was so inspired by Violet Pachano,” Gull recalled. “When she became the Deputy Grand Chief, I thought wow, this is going to open doors for other women. I never at that time thought I would go into politics. I find that ironic now that I was the second person to go in the door right after her.”

Gull worked in several departments first under former Waswanipi Chief Paul Gull, who had a big influence on her career. To learn more about administration, she studied political science and public affairs before returning home to work with her re-elected mentor. 

“My late mom really wanted me to try my hand at politics, so I decided to try it and it worked,” Gull told the Nation. “In a room dominated by men, I thought there’s so much opportunity for women to present their views. As a female leader, I have to remind people that quality of life, family and the impacts of relationships play a large role in the decisions we make.”

Gull encountered her fair share of obstacles, occasionally feeling judged by men questioning her place and her command of the Cree language. As she didn’t speak much Cree growing up, she initially resisted running for elections. 

“If you want to get into a leadership role, work hard on your language,” Gull advised. “I’m not a perfect Cree speaker but I’m pleased with where I’ve come today. You have to trust yourself that your Cree will flow, even if you’re not completely fluent. You’re doing your best and people will recognize that.”

After being elected, Gull was told that she couldn’t go wrong if she listened to the people. She has focused on three key priorities – completing the protected areas network, building a relationship with women throughout Eeyou Istchee and better understanding the youth. 

“This past December, it brought me a lot of joy to see those protected area targets reached,” said Gull. “Elders have such a deep compassion for their traplines and hunting territory – I hope that gets transmitted to the youth. They have a responsibility to take over protecting our culture and heritage, and that begins in having a drive to care for it like our ancestors did.”

Visiting Indigenous peoples around the world, Gull is grateful that the Cree Nation can sustain itself through harvesting activities while remaining fully involved with developing the territory. A memorable moment was travelling with Youth Grand Chief Kaitlynn Hester Moses to Finland in 2018 to stand in solidarity with the Sámi. 

“It was my first time travelling overseas,” shared Gull. “To see Kaitlynn go through that experience as a new leader, as a Youth Grand Chief, helped shape her, and to watch her grow as a leader is something I will not forget.”

With demographics suggesting that the Cree Nation facing a booming demand for services, homes and community programs, Gull believes that encouraging entrepreneurship will help develop a self-driven economy. 

“I encourage anyone to not only pursue the types of employment known now – working in the band office, becoming a nurse or teacher – but also alternative employment paths that interest them,” Gull recommended. “We’re going to have a lot of demands from a new and evolving younger generation.”

Gull also wants people to consider how the territory will develop in the future. Existing government structures need to be re-evaluated to ensure that future needs will be met.  

“We talk about developing our territory – we have to do the same thing in looking at our institutions, ensuring all of these good entities that were created from our agreement also reflect the realities of what our population is going to need in the future,” Gull said. “In five to 10 years, things are going to be very different in the Cree world.”

Gull encourages any woman in a leadership role to mentor a young woman just as others have supported her journey. She said one of her best experiences was being honoured by the Chisasibi Women’s Association with an outfit.

“I thought it was such a beautiful experience to have a leader be recognized by other women, especially women who didn’t really know me,” Gull exclaimed. “It is so rewarding to help younger women pursue a path and give them the encouragement they need to become strong and successful. We have to continue to support and push one another.”

Daisy House, Chief of Chisasibi

When Daisy House was elected Chief of Chisasibi last August, it seemed a logical next step for the respected community leader who had served as Deputy Chief for the previous 13 years.

However, she says she got into politics by accident, having dreamed of being a teacher or a nurse growing up. Calling herself the shyest person in high school, House tries to maintain a private life despite her public office. She spoke with the Nation on a rare day off.

“People keep reminding me it’s not a sprint,” House shared. “I really have to take that to heart and take care of myself because no one else will. That’s another reminder I’ve been getting a lot lately. Leadership is about listening to understand, and not listening to respond.”

Growing up on Fort George Island until Grade 2, House credits her mother and late stepfather for teaching her a strong work ethic and to take responsibility for her actions. She was told to live with the decisions she made and to keep learning from them.

“That’s why I have no regrets about my childhood,” said House. “It wasn’t an easy one, but it has made me who I am today. As I continue to grow as a person, I learn from everyone I meet day in and day out. We never stop learning.”

Education is a lifelong priority, which continues as she completes an online master’s degree in Education Leadership. All this while balancing her busy work and family time. Before working for the band council, House worked as daycare director, student affairs technician, teacher and academic advisor.

When asked to run for council in 2007, she was enjoying maternity leave with her second son. She agreed but was surprised to win the highest number of votes, which in those days meant becoming Deputy Chief. Initially reluctant to assume that responsibility, persistent community members convinced her to take the position.

“Not many people know I ran for chief in 2015,” said House. “I got sick to my stomach and really didn’t want it. Davey [Bobbish] got in and I was so happy. That’s when I told myself no one will ever force me to run again. It’s got to come from me.”

She remained true to her vow by turning down a nomination to run as Deputy Grand Chief a few years later. Besides preferring to focus on local issues, House was also concerned the job’s travel requirements would rob her of valuable family time. She’s thankful for her husband’s support over the years, learning to cook and staying at home when their children were babies. Still, she’s proud that she could breastfeed her son for 27 months.

“I have two boys and a husband – a house full of men,” said House. “Tell them if you have an assignment to complete, ask for help. It’s tough being a working mom, hockey mom – both my sons are playing high-level hockey – and online courses. That’s the balancing act of being a mom.”

While the workload is higher than ever as Chief, she continues to meticulously read band council meeting minutes, adding her own comments and questions. 

“When you’re in leadership you don’t rely on anybody else,” House asserted. “You have to know what you’re signing and approving. We ask what’s working, what’s not working and how else can it be. Every chance I get on local radio, which is pretty big in Chisasibi, I do the Covid update in Cree as much as possible and add a little tidbit about social issues.”

House tries to create space for common concerns, discussing issues like couples’ therapy, budgeting and substance abuse.

“We can’t solve the world’s problems, but as individuals, as a family and as entities we all have a part,” House suggested. “Some have the mentality that it’s one person, or the police or the health board. At the last general meeting, Eddie Pash said, ‘The Chief cannot lift a heavy rock by herself. We have to help lift that rock with her’.”

Although House knows some don’t attend general meetings, she values that opportunity for citizens to respectfully raise their concerns without fearing repercussions. She recalls that Elders would often have heated arguments at these meetings, but all would be forgiven in friendly encounters the following day. 

With women historically elected as both Chief and Deputy Chief in Chisasibi, she advises girls with similar aspirations to keep watching and observing, learning from both the successes and shortcomings of others. She recommends educating oneself as much as possible, acquiring wisdom from both schools and the land.

“We have to know where we came from to know where we want to go,” House said. “Our values and traditions become our ammunition for our future, to get something for the people. One former Chief said there’s nothing wrong with being an educated hunter so you can have the best of both worlds. It’s medicine for the soul being out on the land.”

Stella Masty, president of CWEIA

Cree culture has always been a passion for Stella Masty, president of the Cree Women of Eeyou Istchee Association (CWEIA). It has been a constant for her as a business leader and while working alongside pioneers of the Cree Nation. 

“You have to know when to be soft-spoken and when to be outspoken,” Masty told the Nation. “I’m a strong alpha female – I’ve taught my children to be independent. Your career path doesn’t matter if you’re true to your passion and honest with the work you do. If you’re not honest, you’re always going to live with regrets.”

Living most of her early childhood on the land, Masty was 13 when Phase 2 of the Great Whale hydroelectric project was announced. She convinced her principal in Whapmagoostui to let her participate in an essay contest for Secondary 5 students about protecting the river, even though she was four years younger.

“I was the last one to present,” Masty recalled. “I won the contest and was so happy I cried. It allowed me to be the voice for the caravan that went to New York for Earth Day. I was already persistent, determined I would defend my culture and land, to speak for what could not speak.” 

As the famous Odeyak expedition took their protest south, Masty made speeches at universities and community halls along the way to a huge Earth Day concert in Times Square in April 1990. Support from then-New York City mayor David Dinkins for the Grand Council eventually helped lead to the project’s cancellation. 

Masty’s life took a tragic turn as she prepared for nursing studies. A house fire claimed the lives of her grandfather, aunt and six-year-old sister. She stepped back from everything to support her family. She finally returned to postsecondary education three or four years later at Concordia University’s John Molson School of Business. 

“When I was there acing most of my subjects. I thought maybe this is my new role,” said Masty. “After graduating, we started our construction company. I took an opportunity because there was a company that had gone bankrupt. The assets were liquidated, and we purchased everything.”

Saskounan Excavation became the only Cree company at the Eleonore mine, which led to other large partnerships. With her husband Keith Bearskin, they pursued local contracts back in Chisasibi and were recognized by the Commission de la construction du Québec (CCQ) as the highest employer of Indigenous people.

“We hired people who nobody would want to hire,” shared Masty. “They were considered alcoholics, not reliable. It was a different approach for me than it would have been for a man. When I was able to build that trust, they ended up being my best workers. They were really motivated because we took care of them, made sure they would have a pension.”

Masty is proud she learned to hold her own in a boardroom, to make arguments without holding grudges. While business is often numbers-based, she strives to focus on the human aspect and keep calm – something learned from working with the Nishiiyuu Council of Elders.

“It could be a mountain, but they see a molehill and simplify it for me,” said Masty. “When everyone’s in a panic mode, just breathe and think, ‘This is going to work out.’ When you come into a situation like that it changes how everybody reacts.” 

Masty considers herself lucky to have had great role models, beginning with her hardworking parents – both teachers who nurtured her Cree fluency. Working alongside Billy Diamond and Violet Pachano enriched her life immensely. Diamond became Grand Chief with the Elders by his side, and she would arrive at work early just to hear his stories. 

As the first female Chief and Deputy Grand Chief, Pachano is an inspiration for many in the Cree Nation. Masty respects her for questioning everything and always speaking her mind. More recently, Masty has been inspired by Janie Pachano to explore the Cree cultural aspect of femininity, which she believes was distorted by religious influences. 

Before becoming president of the CWEIA, Masty was busy with a second construction company, a consulting firm and work with the health and school boards. She also expanded her horizons by working for the Native Women’s Association of Canada.

“That helped me empower women from across Canada, developing a lot of friendships and some partnerships,” Masty explained. “I’ve put my consulting company on the shelf for now – I had to prioritize myself. When asked if I could run [for CWEIA], I felt it was a fitting time because I’ve already done so much.”

Shifting between projects throughout her career, Masty remained rooted in her beliefs as she let some doors close to allow others to open. She’s working on helping women trust themselves in assuming their role as “the heartbeat of the family”.

“We’re an evolving culture,” Masty said. “You have to find a way to adapt to that culture without compromising your own human value. If you don’t find that acceptance, maybe it’s not meant for you. Let things play out without holding onto them and trust the process.”

While addressing important issues with the CWEIA, Masty is working on self-care and enjoying being a grandmother. She was recently nominated as one of the 100 most powerful women in Canada and apparently made it to the last round. 

“If a girl can see I made it that far, maybe they can see the possibility in themselves,” Masty asserted. “Everything I do is to inspire young girls and women to be their possibility in life. We don’t have enough Cree role models. If I can do that for one girl, I’m happy. I’m not done yet – I still have a lot of work to do.”

Sarah Pash, Cree School Board Chairperson 

The Nation: Can you tell us a bit about what your life was like growing up?

Sarah Pash: My brother and I were born when my dad was going to Trent University, so we spent our early years going back and forth between Peterborough and Fort George. We also spent some summers at Caniapiscau Island because my dad was part of the research team employed by the Cree before the flooding.

After he finished, he became a teacher and we moved to Moosonee. When the Cree School Board took over schools, my parents were offered positions, so we moved to Wemindji. I love the community and connections I had. It was a wonderful time growing up there. When Fort George relocated, we were offered a house in Chisasibi. 

I was still in elementary school when my mom became a teacher in Chisasibi. We started at James Bay Eeyou School, and I finished high school a year early in Toronto, when I was 16 or 17, because I had done an enriched program.

My first degree was in arts. I started in economics but decided to switch to drama and English. When I finished my Bachelor of Arts, I tried to figure out what I would do as a career. My mom suggested teaching. I had done some supply teaching, coming home on breaks and replacing teachers in classrooms at different times. I had enjoyed it, so I decided to do a Bachelor of Education degree at the University of Toronto.

I met my husband at the University of Toronto. His goal was to become a teacher too. He was a couple years behind me, and when I finished my Bachelor of Education, I told him that I felt like I’d been away from home long enough. I was homesick and I felt like I needed to get back to my community, family and friends.

We moved back to Chisasibi, I taught at the high school a few years. Then I decided to do a Master’s in Education at Lakehead University. My husband finished his bachelor’s degree at the same time. 

We brought our two children with us, and our third child was born there. That was an amazing experience – I gave birth about two weeks before finishing my master’s. That was a little challenging, but we made it through.

After I finished my courses, we moved back to Chisasibi. My husband started teaching again and I finished my master’s while working full-time. Then I worked for a couple years before pursuing a PhD in education. 

While working on my PhD, I started to become ill. I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I was in pain all the time with migraines and nerve pain. I couldn’t get a diagnosis from the hospital. I reached a point where I just couldn’t do it. I felt like a failure because my health problems were getting worse.

At that time, I started working at the cultural institute in Ouje-Bougoumou. My symptoms got so bad one day I went to emergency and said I couldn’t function. They ordered a scan, and I was diagnosed with a brain tumour. 

It was a terrifying moment. The tumour was almost the size of a golf ball. They said it was too large for anything other than surgery. It was going to be a long surgery, and there could be nerve damage.

I was worried for my kids. I was worried for my mom and husband, my support system. They were also worried and scared. And I was also worried because I thought I wouldn’t finish my PhD or reach my goals – that maybe this was the end of my career.

Then I had this realization that everything was going to be okay. We were going to get through this together. I realized the strength I had, a lot from the support around me, but also because I had been given this sacred space to understand the strength we inherit.

The strength we inherit from our ancestors is passed down because of what we’ve experienced as a people and a nation and in the history of our families. 

I had the surgery and recovered. My family spent a lot of time helping me through that recovery, even my kids took me out on walks and helped me get back on track.

I went back to work and finished my PhD. I ended up graduating in 2014 – it took me nine years because of the illness instead of four, but I did it.

TN: How important was education to you growing up?

SP: I didn’t grow up speaking Cree fluently. A lot of that has to do with moving around, but also my dad’s residential school experience. It was hard on him and affected our family life quite a lot.

Not being able to speak Cree in the way I should was difficult growing up. I couldn’t communicate with my grandparents the way I wanted. I also had to deal with bullying growing up. 

School was a refuge, which became a way of healing. I could set goals and really enjoy learning. 

When I went away for post-secondary studies, I looked at the experiences we’ve had as Indigenous people. Building an understanding of the situations in our communities and families – because of history, because of colonial actions, residential schools, all these things that really impacted my own family.

My PhD was about what young people need from us in the education system to best support them. Education has given me a way to give back and contribute to our future. 

TN: How did you decide to embark on your current career?

SP: It was humbling to be nominated to run for chairperson; it was also a little scary. I’m not a politician. I didn’t know how to go about it.

Even if I hadn’t been elected, it was a good chance to talk about our education system and how we’re schooling our young people, about the importance of language, culture, learning our own history, and helping young people build their own identity.

I ran because I felt those things needed to be discussed. These issues are so important that I felt I needed to put myself out there.

TN: Can you tell us about a high point in your career?

SP: I think this period is the real high point in my career. This is the most challenging position I’ve had, but also the most rewarding. I work with an amazing group of elected officials from all the communities. 

The opportunity to focus on making a difference is a gift. There’s not a moment I take for granted because I know it’s only temporary position. 

Sometimes there are difficult decisions to be made and difficult truths to be acknowledged, like our difficulty with attendance and graduation. There are huge opportunities, too. If we’re going to make a difference in our education systems, we have to be brave enough to acknowledge what is happening out there.

TN: What do you think has changed for women and girls coming up today?

SP: We’ve come into a time where we really know that anything is possible. I think back to when I was a young girl. There were a lot of things I wouldn’t have thought were possible. Now we know that women can do anything.

We have women who are doctors, pilots, working outside of traditional women’s career fields like teaching and nursing, and doing wonderful jobs in those fields. 

I’m seeing young women do traditional activities that would have normally been done by young men. Many young women are engaging in cultural activities, learning from Elders. The future is wide open and if we focus on strength and empowerment, we’re going to see the results in the future that we’re building together.

Bella Petawabano, former Chairperson, Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay 

The Nation: Can you tell us a bit about what your life was like growing up? 

Bella Petawabano: I grew up on the land for the first 10 years of my life. March 2 is my birthday; it was that time of the year when it was the end of the fur-hunting season. This is when men would go hunt for bigger animals like moose and caribou. It was during that time when I was born, only the women and children were left behind at the camp. 

My mom went into labour after a full day’s work outdoors. My mom would tell me stories of how easy it was. They say women gave birth very fast, they said the snow didn’t have time to melt – can you imagine? 

We lived on the land 10 months of the year, and we only returned early in the summertime. We went back on the land sometime in mid-August before schools opened for the kids who stayed in the village, but I always missed that. When I returned in mid-June I would always go back to school, but I’m not sure what I learned. 

But in any case, it was good to be back, reconnected with my friends. I knew it would only be a few weeks, so I made the most of it. We travelled from the village to the hunting ground by canoe and portage in spring and fall. I always remember my mom had a child on top of her load, always a toddler walking in front or beside her, that’s how I remember her. That was my life, the first 10 years. 

After that, I considered myself one of the lucky children, if I can say that, to have gone to residential school after 10. I’m not sure how that happened, I’m sure it had a lot to do with my parents going on the land in mid-August so we missed when they would come and scoop up all the kids. Maybe that was my father’s strategy – to keep us home as long as we could until we started to receive threats that our family allowance would be cut off. 

I spent six years in residential school, and there were good times and bad times. I can only speak for myself, what helped me was being with my friends from the same community. It was important for me to make the best of it knowing my friends were there and we were in it together. But the worst part of it was being taken away from our tight-knit family and the punishments. 

There’s that other aspect we didn’t talk about – the abuse. Whatever kind of abuse – mental, psychological, physical, sexual – we didn’t talk about that. We didn’t know how to name it. 

Even at that age, we all knew what we had to do to survive, so that’s probably where I got all my resilience to meet the challenges in my lifetime. One of the things, as young as I was to have faith in a higher being. If you want to call it God or Creator, I knew there was a higher being which kept me going, it came with the hope that it can only get better. 

That’s probably what got me through all of this. When I was there, I lost a sister in an accident, she died a few days before going home for the summer. It was devastating for my parents. My mother went into a deep depression. Today when we talk about people attempting suicide, at that age, I can say that I did experience that. It was just because it was so difficult, not knowing who to talk to, feeling alone. 

But it was a turning point in my life too, where I decided that living a non-Cree way of life was easier, so I decided to stay in school much to the disappointment of my parents. 

TN: How important was education to you growing up? 

BP: Education for me was very important.  

My father talked about how life would be different for us, would be different from the life he lived, we would have to prepare ourselves for when times will change, so one of the best ways was to get educated. The land will be there, keep the skills you have, continue to learn traditional skills when you have the chance. 

He was a visionary, he could see the future of what was coming, he prepared us for that. 

I knew because of my father’s teachings – telling us we needed to learn another way of life, for me learning a new way of life is about education. Learning a new culture, a new way of doing things, because I did stay in school, I knew what I wanted to do since quite young was work in the health field. 

TN: How did you decide to embark on your current career? 

BP: It was in early 1979 when I took on my first job in Mistissini for the Cree Health Board. I had worked with a social worker in Chibougamau, so that was my job, when the CHB took over I did that for a number of years.  

There were still lots of people on the land, kids weren’t going to residential schools but boarding homes, and more people started to stay in the community – you could see the problems that were emerging from all of this, that’s when I realized I wasn’t skilled to do the job of community worker.  

I was looking for that magic wand, I didn’t find it. I went to Montreal, moved with my three kids, and I attended McGill University for social work. When I was ready to come back, there were no positions for professional social workers. Mistissini welcomed me, so I became a public health officer in the agency. 

TN: Can you tell us about a high point in your career? 

BP: A high point of my career I would say was coming out of my comfort zone. That’s always moved me from one phase of my life to another, and that’s evolved. I felt like a pioneer, I feel like in all of my career, I was a pioneer. I went into places nobody had been before. 

I was never really given a job where I could say this is what somebody did before me, take it from there and move on.  

Around 2001, I became the interim Executive Director of the Cree Health Board and I sat for almost a year, 10 months while they were recruiting for an Executive Director. That was quite the experience to have done that. I continued to work for the Cree Health Board for 10 years, that’s when I decided to run for chair of the Cree Health Board. 

So that’s what I did, I did that for eight years. And I was ready to go another four years! People maybe think I’m too old, but the day I consider myself old is the day I’m not able to walk. I have to keep my brain ticking. 

TN: What advice would you give to girls and women growing up today? 

BP: This is something I learned from my mother and father. 

In my mother’s teachings, she would watch me do something that normally a man would do, she would say you know that’s one of the great qualities you have, when you have it in your mind that you can do something, and you go ahead and do it, that’s going to take you places, that’s going to take you far. If you have it in you to dream, then go for it. 

My father’s teachings were that when my brothers were being taught to hunt and other manly activities, my father used to say you know if you’re going to pursue education, that other way of life, then go ahead and do it. Do what it takes to do it, because you never know what life has in store for you. Today there’s so many separations with children being involved, more reason why women have to get what they need to function on their own and be successful.  

LATEST ᒫᐦᒡ ᑎᐹᒋᒧᐧᐃᓐ

Will Nicholls, Lyle Stewart & Martin Siberok are the editors of the Nation magazine.

Ben Powless is a Kanien'kehá:ka and Anishnabek writer and photographer, currently living in Ottawa. He has a degree in Human Rights, Indigenous and Environmental Studies from Carleton University.

Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.