'These women are powerful': Record number of female chiefs leading Manitoba First Nations

Ten of Manitoba's 63 chiefs are female — a record number of women leading First Nations in the province.

10 of 63 chiefs in province are female: 'The people are recognizing that there needs to be a balance of women'

Members of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs' women's council in 2017. Left to right: Chief Viola Eastman, Chief Cathy Merrick, Chief Doreen Spence, Chief Stephanie Blackbird, Chief Betsy Kennedy and Chief Karen Batson. The six are among 10 female chiefs leading First Nations in Manitoba. (Doug Thomas)

A record number of women are now leading First Nations in Manitoba — something the latest woman elected says is a sign of hope, and a recognition of the importance of women's voices in Indigenous communities.

Ten of the 63 chiefs in the province are now female, including Chief Deborah Smith, who was elected in April as chief of Brokenhead Ojibway Nation, 65 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg.

"I noticed that there was a lack of representation of women [on council] in the last six years," she said.

Smith defeated four men to become chief, including Jim Bear, who held the position since 2012.

"It's very exciting, but it is also, I think, a sign of change," said Smith, who also ran for the job in 2016.

Deborah Smith was elected chief of the Brokenhead Ojibway Nation on April 18. (Submitted by Deborah Smith)

"I think that it's also a sign of hope. The people are recognizing that there needs to be a balance of women within leadership and directing and guiding our communities."

Smith joins nine other female chiefs in the province:

  • Viola Eastman, Canupawakpa Dakota Nation.
  • Cathy Merrick, Pimicikamak (Cross Lake).
  • Priscilla Colomb, Marcel Colomb First Nation. 
  • Stephanie Blackbird, O-Chi-Chak-Ko-Sipi First Nation.
  • Karen Batson, Pine Creek First Nation.
  • Vera Mitchell, Poplar River First Nation.
  • Francine Meeches, Swan Lake First Nation.
  • Doreen Spence, Tataskweyak Cree Nation.
  • Betsy Kennedy, War Lake First Nation.

War Lake Chief Betsy Kennedy said First Nations politics have come a long way since she was elected in 2006. 

"I think we are more respected now in the way we do things," said the chief of the northern Manitoba community, about 700 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg.

"We don't come out as being very forward and demanding. We come out as trying to make them understand about our issues."

Strength in numbers

Kennedy, who is currently the longest-serving female chief in Manitoba, said there is strength in numbers when it comes to making changes on women's issues.

She said the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs' women's council handles the child welfare, family violence, and missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls portfolios.

She said in the past, when all chiefs gathered, those issues weren't always given priority.

"We were always on the last day," she said. "Finally, when there was more of us women chiefs we spoke to the assembly and we wanted our issues up on the first day."

She said not only has the agenda changed, she feels more support from her male counterparts.

'I believe women have much more challenges. We have to prove ourselves,' says O-Chi-Chak-Ko-Sipi Chief Stephanie Blackbird. (Doug Thomas)

"These women are powerful. You get them in one room, you can feel it," said Stephanie Blackbird, who is chief of O-Chi-Chak-Ko-Sipi First Nation, about 240 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg.

"As the women came together, it sure did empower us and it gave us a sense of belonging and the support we needed to be able to succeed in a male-dominated environment."

Blackbird went back to her home community after 30 years in Winnipeg to run for chief in 2016, becoming the lone woman on council, and will seek a second term at the end of May. She believes the bar is set higher for women when they run against men.

'A big responsibility'

"I believe women have much more challenges. We have to prove ourselves," she said.

"Quite often you find most of them have really good careers, they're highly educated, they're good speakers, they're very involved in their communities — they give up a lot of themselves to make that choice to run."

Blackbird has 30 years' experience working in finance and holds a certified Aboriginal financial manager designation.

Brokenhead's Smith holds a bachelor of education degree from the University of Manitoba and has 17 years' experience working in economic development. War Lake Chief Kennedy was a councillor before becoming chief. She was also a community health worker at the nursing station in War Lake.

Smith said she is looking forward to attending her first meeting with the AMC's women's council and learning from her peers.

"I have such a big responsibility. I need to be able to identify where my supports are, but also reach out and ask for help when I need it," she said.

She will officially be sworn in as chief on May 26 for a two-year term. She said she is looking forward to opening up the lines of communication with band members in her community.

"They are partners," she said. "They need to be respected and they need to be included in the direction that our community is going."

About the Author

Jillian Taylor

CBC Reporter

Jillian Taylor has been with CBC Manitoba since 2012 and has been reporting for a decade. She was born and raised in Manitoba and is a member of the Fisher River Cree Nation. In 2014, she was awarded the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association's travel bursary, which took her to Australia to work with Indigenous journalists. Find her on Twitter: @JillianLTaylor