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Community ᐄᐦᑖᐧᐃᓐ

Outstanding Cree women honoured at CWEIA awards gala

BY Ben Powless Nov 23, 2022

After moving to Gatineau from Chisasibi without a high school diploma in 2016, Tiffany Bearskin started studying at Algonquin College, getting her certificate in Aboriginal Studies in 2017. From there, she enrolled in the Office Administration program, getting that certificate in 2018. 

She went on to get a diploma in Business Management from Algonquin in 2020 and is currently enrolled in another one-year program at Algonquin while she works on a business plan for an enterprise that she hopes to launch in 2023. 

Her efforts are paying off: Bearskin was honoured with the Woman in Education Award at the Outstanding Women Awards held by the Cree Women of Eeyou Istchee Association in Val-d’Or October 15.

“I was struggling to find a job because of my lack of education; that’s how I got into education,” Bearskin remarked. “I felt honoured to be recognized with all the struggles I went through all those years, coming from my community without a high school diploma to being recognized for education – that’s really an honour.”

Other winners include: 

  • Amy Dick of Whapmagoostui, Humanitarian/Compassionate Award
  • Frank Atsynia (Wemindji), Man of the Year Award
  • Maggie Lynn Sandy (Whapmagoostui), the Arts and Culture Award
  • Mary Jane Salt (Waskaganish), the Woman in Health Promotion and Fitness Award
  • Sharon Blackned (Nemaska), the Woman in Leadership Award
  • Tammy Petawabano (Mistissini), the Woman in Public Service Award
  • Alycia Lameboy Dixon (Chisasibi), the Youth of the Year Award. 

“We would like to congratulate all of the recipients and encourage them to keep up their amazing work in their communities,” CWEIA President Charlotte Ottereyes said in a statement.

Josephine Sheshamush, CWEIA Program Coordinator, said that the event initially had to be postponed several times because people had scheduling conflicts, but everything worked out in the end.

“It’s important to recognize women in all walks of life because we hardly give recognition to women and they’re the backbone of our communities, with some in leadership roles,” Sheshamush explained. “We want to bring back the strong women to acknowledge them for the hard work they do that’s not paid sometimes, and to inspire them to become more than what they can be.”

This is the first year for the youth award, she added. “We wanted to include young women to inspire them to be forward looking and to recognize who they are, young leaders and trailblazers.”

About 60 people attended the event. While the organization has 11 award categories, they only received nominations the year for eight, and not all the winners were able to attend in the end. Sheshamush encouraged community members to nominate women, youth and men for next year’s awards.

Bearskin said she didn’t know who nominated her, and she was surprised to win. “I didn’t think I would have that recognition, knowing I’ve been in school for six years now,” she shared. “It’s been quite the journey.”

Bearskin hopes her example can inspire young women and mothers to get their education and follow their own career paths. “I pretty much started over, over here,” she said. 

Her parents helped with her son in those years, and now she has a good support system thanks to her family and boyfriend, with her son keeping her motivated. 

“It’s never too late to chase your dreams,” she said. 

When she won the award for Woman in Health Promotion and Fitness, an elated Mary Jane Salt said, “I felt motivation kicking in for what I’ve been doing all this time.” 

She attended the event with her parents and five-year-old daughter. “When I told my mom, after I found out, she said you have to go, this is a very special award,” Salt said, even though she initially planned to go to Chisasibi that weekend for a volleyball tournament. 

Salt’s journey began in doctors’ offices, where she confided that she often found herself in tears after consistently receiving bad news from her doctors about high blood pressure, while dealing with high sugar, lots of stress, panic attacks and anxiety attacks.

“Every time I visited my doctor, he would say I wasn’t in good health: ‘If you don’t do something there’s a chance for heart attacks or diabetes.’ I tried playing sports, but I didn’t watch what I was eating,” she said. 

Salt still remembers the day – March 20, 2018 – when she finally decided things needed to change. “I said okay, I’m going to change this lifestyle and do something about it. It’s enough.”

She began going to fitness sessions in her community with her second daughter who had just been born. “I’d go with her and learn how to eat well and healthy. Then I started to see results. Every time I’d go for checkups, the nurse would say my blood pressure was going down.”

“I used to take three pills in the morning and at night. I always thought, only old people take pills. But I’m not old. I became more motivated every time my nurse would give me good news,” she said. 

She began attending marathons, since running a marathon was always a dream of hers. However, her fitness journey hit a road bump in 2019, where she broke her foot running for a homerun in a baseball tournament in Val-d’Or. 

However, where others might give up, it only inspired Salt as she reflected on people more unfortunate than her. “My doctor said you’re very lucky because there was no pulse on your foot. It reminded me that things happen to people, and they can’t walk anymore. So never take health for granted or life for granted,” she added.

Salt continued with her exercises and health diet, eventually getting to the point where she didn’t need pills anymore. “I’m really happy where I am right now. I have all these happy moods,” she shared. “Getting the award is a blessing for me, all this time I asked God what’s going on with me?” 

Now the Programs and Events Coordinator for Waskaganish, Salt started inviting people to work out with her and get help with their workouts during the pandemic. She hopes to make people realize how important it is to take care of themselves. 

“It’s all about the mindset. You have to get motivated. And you have to be dedicated if you want better health,” she added. “I learned that it really helps when I have a positive mindset. Believe in yourself.” 

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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.