'It's achieving a balance,' says newest of 4 female chiefs in 10 Quebec Cree communities

The election of Christina Gilpin as chief of Wemindji has moved the leadership of Quebec's Cree communities close to gender parity.

Christina Gilpin was elected the 1st female chief of Wemindji this week

Christina Gilpin, the new chief of Wemindji, is the first female chief in that community. (Wemindji First Nation)

The James Bay Cree community of Wemindji has elected it first-ever female chief, Christina Gilpin.

Her win means four of the 10 Quebec Cree communities now have women chiefs.

"It's a great honour to be trusted to take this position by the people," said Gilpin, who grew up in the community about 1,300 kilometres north of Montreal on the shore of James Bay. She says she's been interested in politics since Grade 5.

And while she says she didn't think of the gender balance when deciding to run for chief, she does believe it will have a positive impact.

"It's something that would inspire young women and girls. I think it's important they see women in positions that are very influential. It's positive for the community as a whole … it's achieving a balance."

'We are in exciting times'

In Grand Council elections this past July, Mandy Gull was elected deputy grand chief, which has only happened once before in the Cree nation.

Deputy Grand Chief Mandy Gull and Grand Chief Abel Bosum. (Deputy Grand Chief Mandy Gull and Grand Chief Abel Bosum)

"I feel a tide of balance turning," said Gull. "We are in exciting times."

The shift towards gender parity among chiefs is welcome news to the president of the Cree Women of Eeyou Istchee Association, Linda L. Shecapio.

"Women's contribution at the political level is very much needed in Eeyou Istchee," said Shecapio. "Many concerns and issues need to be addressed and [we need to] work toward holistic and collective actions, instead of the 'silo' effects that are continuously happening in our communities."

Violet Pachanos broke the barrier

On top of the current deputy grand chief and the four women chiefs in Whapmagoostui, Washaw-sibi, Waskaganish and now Wemindji, more than a few of the key Cree organizations, including the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay and the Cree School Board, are run by women.

The Niskamoon corporation, which provides a framework for cooperation between the Cree and Hydro-Quebec, is chaired by Violet Pachanos. She was the first Cree woman to break the gender barrier by becoming chief of her community of Chisasibi in 1989, according to The Nation. A decade later, she was elected the first woman deputy grand chief.

Shecapio says all these women, as well as the many others who are now working as councillors, need to be celebrated and validated, "in the still-male-dominated arena of Eeyou Istchee and First Nations politics."

But she sees many reasons to be hopeful.

"I am confident to say, Eeyou/Eenou Nation is becoming more aware and giving more thoughtful responsiveness to the impact of the patriarchal and hierarchical political systems which we, the Eeyou/Eenou nation, have adopted from the colonial state."

Wemindji is about 1,300 kilometres north of Montreal on the shore of James Bay, (Wemindji First Nation)

Job creation a high priority

Gilpin's most recent role has been as chief executive officer of the community's Tawich Development Corporation. She also served one term as councillor for the community and spent several years working as a career counsellor for Cree Human Resources and Development.

Gilpin will be sworn in Thursday morning. She says her priorities include education and economic development.

"The key thing to have a good quality of life is to have meaningful employment," she said.

"People in the community tend to do better when there is a lot of job creation. This is something that I'm experienced in."