Assembly of First Nations elects first woman as Alberta Regional Chief
'Aboriginal women have taken the back seat for so long, and now it’s time for us to step up'
In the nearly four decades that the Assembly of First Nations has existed, a woman has never occupied Alberta's Regional Chief position. Marlene Poitras changed that Thursday when she earned two thirds of the vote from 39 Alberta chiefs.
She ran against four other candidates, and clinched a second-ballot victory for the role, in which she'll represent Alberta's First Nations for the national advocacy organization.
- Assembly of First Nations to have seat at international climate change conference for first time
- Perry Bellegarde readies re-election campaign for Assembly of First Nations national chief
Poitras, a member of Mikisew Cree First Nation, has a background in nursing and received the Aboriginal Humanitarian Role Model Award of Alberta in 2015. She has worked with a variety of Indigenous organizations, including the Athabasca Tribal Council and AFN.
Poitras said it's about time a woman took the top job.
"Aboriginal women have taken the back seat for so long, and now it's time for us to step up because Aboriginal women are the backbone of the communities," Poitras said. "They're the ones that do the work behind the scenes to maintain the communities."
Indigenous women have a history of being oppressed, but more are starting to come into leadership roles, she said.
Brenda Kehewin, the Chief of Kehewin First Nation, nominated Poitras for the position. Grand Chief of Treaty 8 Rupert Meneen seconded.
Kehewin said it's crucial that Indigenous women develop working relationships with First Nations and the government.
"We need more women to become involved in leadership roles, which builds strength and confidence for our young Indigenous women," she said.
When Poitras worked with the Athabasca Tribal Council to negotiate resource development agreements with three levels of government and 19 developers, all of them were men.
"So I really had to work extra hard because I was a woman and I was Aboriginal," she said.
"Now I can be in a position where I take action on behalf of the chiefs of Alberta."
Working with Alberta's chiefs
Ensuring treaties are respected by the provincial and federal governments is one of Poitras's top priorities as regional chief, she said.
"The sacred and spiritual intent of the treaties is that we were supposed to live in peaceful coexistence and share the land, and that never happened," she said.
It's not about me. It's about our people and what the chiefs want.- Marlene Poitras, Alberta Regional Chief, Assembly of First Nations
Her work will be guided by the priorities of chiefs across the province, she said, adding she hopes to have a strategic planning session with Alberta chiefs to determine her direction and mandate.
"It's not about me. It's about our people and what the chiefs want in terms of the decisions that they're making on behalf of their communities," she said. "And I will be able to advance it because I'm not just going to sit back and not do anything about it."
Poitras highlighted concerns about Canada's justice system as a potential discussion she'll have. She said it was "detrimental" for Indigenous communities when Saskatchewan farmer Gerald Stanley was acquitted of second-degree murder in the death of Colten Boushie.
"I have a son that's the same age as Colten," she said, highlighting how she raised two boys as a single mother. "So I feel for that, and I think that I can push things effectively for Alberta."
- High-profile court cases highlight difficulties for Indigenous youth, say leaders
- OPINION: Cases like Colten Boushie's are handled unjustly, and there's nothing wrong with saying that
Kehewin said Poitras is a determined "go-getter," and is confident she'll successfully promote positive outcomes for Alberta First Nations.
"I know that she will do a good job and get results," Kehewin said.
Poitras said she also hopes to deliver on protecting and empowering youth.
"Our young people are the future. They're the ones that are going to carry on this work that we're doing. They're the ones that are going to protect our sacred treaties," she said.
"I hope that with the work that I do, that I can be an inspiration to them and help them to want to get out there and do things on behalf of the community."
Poitras said she'll head to Ottawa for her first AFN executive meeting Wednesday, officially kicking off her three-year term.