IN DEPTH: ABORIGINAL CANADIANS|
Women in First Nations politics
CBC News Online | November 22, 2005
Roberta Jamieson's failed bid for the top job at the Assembly of First Nations in 2003 underscores a recent trend in aboriginal politics. Women are becoming more visible, but the challenges they face continue to hold back leaders like Jamieson from heading national organizations, and the Assembly of First Nations is no exception.
"Any woman who would dare to do that needs to be supported and encouraged," said Linda Otway, who has been teaching courses on the role of women in aboriginal societies for nearly a decade. "These organizations are pretty much male-dominated from the elected positions on down."
Doug Cuthand, a freelance journalist who writes weekly columns on aboriginal issues for the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix and the Regina Leader-Post, says that Jamieson faced more barriers because she's a woman.
"There are a lot of very traditional and conservative chiefs who will not vote for a woman, even though we have more and more women elected as chiefs across the country."
Women weren't always marginalized in aboriginal politics. In pre-contact society, many First Nations in Eastern Canada and on the West Coast had matriarchal structures that gave women a strong political voice.
"In these matriarchal societies, if there was any unequal power to be had, it was had by the women because they would hold the positions of clan mothers and they were the ones that made all the major decisions. So they had more say in many of the key areas than the men," says Otway.
In this system, chiefs were still male but were chosen by clan mothers and removed by them if they didn't like what the chief was doing.
It was different on the Prairies where First Nations societies tended to be patriarchal. Men held the political power, but women were still respected "…because the women's role was so important to the survival of the people that they weren't to be shunned or abused or anything like that," says Otway.
Gender inequality in First Nations societies started to creep in during the fur trade. European men often refused to do business with First Nations women, even though they were the ones who prepared the furs for market.
Later, that inequality was written into law. In the Indian Act, Indian was defined as a male. "So the only way a female could be an Indian is if her father was an Indian, or her husband. So in her own right she could not be an Indian according to law," Otway says.
Native women who married non-native men lost their Indian status while non-native women who married native men gained status. That didn't change until 1985 when Bill C-31 was introduced, reinstating status for women and children who lost it through marriage. Until 1951, women weren't allowed to run for chief or council positions and couldn't vote in band elections.
"All this is fairly new, when you compare it to the overall historic overview of pre-contact Indian society," says Otway.
Although it didn't take much time to see the gender roles change, Otway worries it's taking too long to reclaim some traditional female roles. "I've been involved now in the movement for 35 years and in that 35 years, I've seen such small, slow, painful change that it likely isn't going to be happening in my lifetime."
Despite that, she remains optimistic. More aboriginal women are taking advantage of post-secondary education opportunities and that's opening doors for them.
"There's going to be a tidal wave of them taking over significant positions," Otway says. "Right now, male-dominated organizations are still getting away with hiring aboriginal males that don't even have a Grade 12, for example, and they'll hire them in high-up positions, and that's why you have all the problems with funding and what-not, because these people aren't qualified."
At The First Nations University of Canada, the majority of the student body is female, a promising sign for someone like Pat Deiter, who says education is key to women succeeding in politics.
"In the Plains Cree society, women never had a voice politically, and we still don't have a voice politically," she says.
Deiter tried to change that, running in an election for vice-chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations in 1997. She was not the first woman to do that in Saskatchewan history, but she was the first in 26 years. The FSIN has been in existence since 1958 when it became the provincial governing body for First Nations.
"When I first ran, I got to tell you, there was a lot of women telling me 'that's an old boys network, you'll never break through.' I got no support from women, they just absolutely gave up on that organization and just felt it was an old boys' club, and I'm glad I ran, just to break that barrier."
Deiter's inspiration came from her late father Walter Deiter. He was president of the FSIN and a founder of what has since become the Assembly of First Nations.
"I grew up on politics, and I knew all the networks and I had all the family connections, I guess," Deiter says. "But more importantly, I had the income that would allow me to run and it is a very expensive venture. That's probably the biggest barrier for women, the amount of dollars that are required in order to be part of the game."
Another barrier for women like Deiter is male domination in First Nations political organizations. Otway says that, because of this, it's in the men's best interests to keep things the way they are. The current system of First Nations government is based on European systems and imposed by the Indian Act, which implicitly favours men over women.
"And if these women do anything they don't agree with, because there's only six to eight of them, they'll be forced to do what these men are wanting them to do. So it's a very fine line that they're walking continually not to upset the men to the point that they're going to pull their funding," says Otway.
Otway says female chiefs often have different priorities than their male counterparts. Women tend to focus on social issues like housing, child welfare and health care. Male chiefs tend towards land, resources and treaty rights around hunting and fishing.
She says even when women are in elected leadership positions, they are still dominated by men within the organization. The FSIN, for example, has more than 70 chiefs, and only seven are female.
Women FSIN chiefs are now developing legislation to lay out a set of priorities for the Saskatchewan First Nations Women Council. They're hoping for special recognition at the next FSIN legislative session. Otway says that even with that, male chiefs continue to hold the power and whether women are given a distinct role remains to be seen.
"The idea of the poverty of women and all the issues around the justice system is something that an Indian woman leader would look at, more so than the Indian males. As well as on- and off-reserve, women make up the urban migrants, and so I think there would be much more attention on program delivery as opposed to economic development ventures," says Deiter.
That's why she wants a special position to be set aside for women leaders in organizations like the FSIN. She says that might encourage more women to run for leadership positions if there is a venue for their talent.
There are more women being elected as leaders every year right across the country. That makes Deiter hopeful for the future. "I really believe it's changing," she says.
"There's a movement underfoot and it's going to start paying off," says Otway.
Total population of Canada: 31,414,000|
Total people of aboriginal origin: 1,319,890
North American Indian:
More than one aboriginal origin:
People of aboriginal origin living on reserve: 285,625
People of aboriginal origin living off reserve: 1,034,260
People of non-aboriginal origin living on reserve: 36,230
(Source: 2001 Census, Statistics Canada)
*includes people of a single aboriginal origin and those of a mix of one aboriginal origin with non-aboriginal origins