'The time is here': Sask. has record number of female First Nations chiefs

According to figures provided by the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, 16 of the province's 74 chiefs are women.

2 of 5 FSIN executive members also women

Sakimay First Nations Chief Lynn Acoose says federal officials refused to deal with female leaders during treaty talks, but First Nations leadership is moving back toward gender balance. (Jason Warick/CBC)

A record number of Saskatchewan First Nations are now led by women.

According to figures provided by the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, 16 of the province's 74 chiefs are women. Plus, two of the five FSIN executive members are women, as are three of 10 heads of tribal councils.

That's a similar ratio to the provincial legislature, where 15 of 61 seats are occupied by women.

The longtime chief of the Sakimay First Nations near the town of Grenfell, Sask., Lynn Acoose, said she's happy to see things are changing. Crown officials refused to deal with women during treaty talks, she said, and that colonial sexism lingered for more than a century.

In 1954, at age 24, Gwen O'Soup of the Key First Nation became Saskatchewan's first post-treaty female chief. She was joined by Muskeg Lake's Alphonsine Lafond in 1960, Piapot's Rose Desjarlais in 1969, and Carry the Kettle's Jessie Saulteaux in 1971.

"There's a greater awareness, more commitment to reviving our own governance systems," Acoose said during a break at the Assembly of First Nations meetings in Regina on Wednesday.

"Balancing gender roles in politics is part of our decolonization."

It wasn't until the last decade or two, though, that female chiefs became more common.

Following in their families' footsteps

Acoose comes from a long line of male leaders. Her partner, Gilbert Panipekeesick, and father, Riel Acoose, were each chiefs at one time. Older relatives, such as the world record holding distance runner Paul Acoose, were band councillors.

"I was pushed to run by the men in my life," Acoose said with a laugh.

We're starting to believe in each other again.- Lynn Acoose, chief, Sakimay First Nations

After studying English literature and taking various jobs in Regina and at Sakimay, she ran for office and won.

She said things are getting better for women entering politics, "but they still need to be twice as good and work twice as hard."

Acoose noted that elected chiefs make up only one type of First Nations leadership. Women are also estbalishing themselves as doctors, lawyers, teachers, social workers, and protectors of the land and water.

"We internalized so much. We're starting to believe in each other again," Acoose said.

One Arrow First Nation Chief Tricia Sutherland says she's encouraged by the rise in female First Nations leadership. (Jason Warick)

Newly-elected One Arrow First Nation Chief Tricia Sutherland also comes from a political family. Her mother, Mary Claire, became chief of their First Nation near Batoche in the mid-1990s.

"I think we all run to give back to our communities," Sutherland said.

"The elders have said there again will be a time when women start leading. The time is here."