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Politics ᐊ ᓃᑳᓂᔅᑭᑭᓂᐧᐃᒡ ᐊᐱᑎᓰᐧᐃᓐ

First Indigenous Women’s Leadership Conference builds on recent success

BY Patrick Quinn Mar 16, 2024

The first Indigenous Women’s Leadership Conference brought together influential female leaders for two days of inspiring panel discussions, informative seminars and traditional teachings beginning on International Women’s Day, March 8. 

Envisioned by Cree Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty and hosted by the Cree Women of Eeyou Istchee Association (CWEIA) at Montreal’s Queen Elizabeth Hotel, the gathering’s speakers shared insights regarding their leadership styles, values and personal role models. Workshops delivered reassuring and empowering guidance to advance women in leadership roles. 

“Being the first elected female Grand Chief was a challenge,” shared Gull-Masty. “Sometimes I had questions that only a woman could understand, and it compelled me to create a network to seek support or advice. I also suspected a need for leadership training, even greater than I realized because our event was sold out beyond capacity.”

With participants from all of Quebec’s 11 First Nations, the conference provided a safe space for women to speak about their experiences, reflect on their personal needs and develop new connections. Gull-Masty said it’s important for communities to understand the motivations of women leaders, invest in their empowerment and create workspaces that enhance relations.

“I had my own epiphany when I was asked how I celebrate success with my team,” Gull-Masty said. “I realized I don’t put enough effort into that – it always feels like we are in ‘go go go mode.’ Challenges that I often feel like I have to work twice as hard.”

The past five years has seen many Indigenous women rising into leadership roles across Canada, including many firsts such as Gull-Masty. The Cree Nation now has five female chiefs. With such rapid shifts in organizations long viewed as patriarchal, this conference was an opportunity to establish connections and share experiences unique to women leaders.

“Women experience leadership differently breaking through that glass ceiling,” the CWEIA’s Julie Ann Cooper explained. “There’s a little more pressure. They have to work a little harder to prove themselves as a leader. Some are wives and mothers – how do you balance family life?”

Kahnawake Grand Chief Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer, the first female leader of her Mohawk community, welcomed attendees to the conference and participated in the relationship-building panel along with Gull-Masty, Algonquin Anishinabeg Grand Chief Savanna McGregor and Quebec Native Women President Marjolaine Étienne.

“We need more forums like this,” Sky-Deer told the Nation. “Through knowing each other you build trust, relationships and information share. Why reinvent the wheel? We can raise up other nations by sharing best practices and challenges we were able to overcome.”

Sky-Deer believes that walking in balance with our modern times shouldn’t come at the detriment of preserving traditional culture and language. Maintaining that “Elders are our greatest resource,” she said that they have much to teach younger generations in treating each other better.  

“You’d think with everything First Nations people have been through we would be more gentle with each other, lifting each other up rather than lateral violence and bullying,” asserted Sky-Deer. “It gets disheartening. Leadership is an easy target – we can’t always say the things we would like to say and have to be more diplomatic.”

Representing the Gookumnouch Advisory Paatakasuun, a CWEIA consultative committee of grandmothers, Elder Irene House shared cultural teachings about the traditional role of a woman and the values she carries. Explaining that “we’re made of two genders, and everything is made of that,” House told the Nation that women nurture and move the creation of all life. 

“The woman was given to make that energy move where the male part of us is what’s static,” explained House. “The door has been opened for the woman to be allowed to practice her true role – it’s very urgent.”

According to ancestral wisdom, female energy is needed to counter the violence of our world. House said the conference emphasized the need to bring life back into balance. 

“We need to be reminded to make that movement,” said House. “We’re beginning to acknowledge that sacred role of the female part of us and we’re liberating the true nurturing and loving roles of women that were suppressed.”

The conference was an opportunity for new Assembly of First Nations National Chief Cindy Woodhouse Nepinak to connect with regional leaders. During her keynote address, Woodhouse Nepinak demanded immediate action on the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls national inquiry’s calls for justice.    

“This day serves as a reminder for all levels of government to take meaningful steps in supporting, uplifting and protecting First Nations women, girls and marginalized genders,” stated Woodhouse Nepinak. “It is essential that we create a future where all women can thrive without fear, with their rights fully recognized and their contributions celebrated.”  

Manon Jeannotte, Quebec’s new lieutenant general and a member of the Gespeg Mi’kmaq First Nation, addressed the importance of self-care and “the leader behind the leadership” in her keynote speech. 

Some of Jeannotte’s former colleagues at HEC Montréal First Nations Executive Education conducted workshops in leadership and “weaving a compelling narrative.” Other workshops addressed self-defence, networking essentials and media communication. Media access to the conference was kept intentionally limited, with no livestreaming to promote intimacy. 

“When women get together and it’s a little more private, they tend to share more,” suggested Cooper. “We wanted to create that safe space. We didn’t want a man wandering around, asking questions and making participants feel uncomfortable.”

The conference elevated many women’s voices from across Eeyou Istchee, including four of the region’s five women chiefs, Cree School Board chairperson Sarah Pash and CWEIA president Charlotte Ottereyes-Ratt. Kathy Shecapio, executive director of the Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute, served as master of ceremonies throughout the event.

Nicole Charron, Viviane Snowboy and Vivianne Sheshamush delivered an interactive and reflective workshop on both days titled “The Peace Medicine of a Leader.” By honouring participants’ dignity and humanity, they invited women to explore how they approach deep-rooted conflicts within themselves and their communities.

A Friday banquet for International Women’s Day facilitated networking, honoured established leaders and elevated younger ones, such as princesses from the popular regional pageants. Musical talent included Mistissini’s award-winning Siibii, Ouje’s up-and-comer Josée Bernier, cellist Kelly Cooper and Innu singer-songwriter David Hart. 

“The whole theme of International Women’s Day is inclusion,” Sky-Deer said. “You don’t have to be in leadership to be a change-maker in our community.”

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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.