Indigenous

Indigenous women still face resistance, but making gains in politics

Indigenous women are hoping to break the glass ceilings of Canadian politics and inspire more to join them.
'I try to represent our people in the best way,' says NDP MLA Nahanni Fontaine. (Manitoba NDP)

Indigenous women are hoping to break the glass ceilings of Canadian politics and inspire more to join them.

For three Indigenous politicians, that's a good thing for the future of this country — even though they've had to face misogyny and hateful comments.

CBC Indigenous spoke to three Indigenous politicians, both former and current, about their challenges.

Nahanni Fontaine, NDP MLA

For over two decades, the outspoken Nahanni Fontaine has worked to advance the rights of Indigenous people in Manitoba. Before being elected MLA for St. Johns, she was an advocate for the families of missing and murdered Indigenous women.

"It's a blessing to get to know other people and other people's struggles. And to see other people's struggles. To learn other people's histories," Fontaine said.

Her role in provincial politics has made her feel closer to Manitobans, she said.

I will stand up for our people.- Nahanni Fontaine

"I love being able to participate in honouring different people or different communities. It's such a blessing," said Fontaine.

While she enjoys her job as MLA, it hasn't come without resistance. 

Fontaine recalls being harassed earlier this year while on the campaign trail. At a forum in the run-up to the election, she had to be escorted out of the debate by her team after a man in the room threatened that "she was going to f***ing get it."

It didn't end there.

"I started getting emails from individuals saying vulgar things. Someone called my office saying that I should watch what I say," said Fontaine.

Still, Fontaine said the threats are not enough to stop her from working on issues that are important to her.

"I just feel that maybe from being an Indigenous woman, I am very vocal, I don't care. I will stand up for our people. And I think that some people are not used to that."

Although she is still fairly new to mainstream politics, Fontaine is hoping to inspire more Indigenous people to get involved. 

"If our people see themselves reflected in the Manitoba Legislature, maybe they will get more politically engaged. My hope is that there will be more Indigenous women that will choose to run for political office. That's my hope. That's my goal."

Judy Klassen, Liberal MLA

'There's a lot of fights that other women have taken on. The path is not as hard as it was previously,' says interim Liberal Leader and MLA Judy Klassen. (Manitoba Liberal Caucus)
Judy Klassen, a mother of six, jokes that she is the "master of time management, and the master of chaos."

Klassen, from St. Theresa Point, Man., was elected as a Liberal MLA for Kewatinook earlier this year. She is also the interim leader for the Manitoba Liberal party, making her the first Indigenous women to lead a political party in Manitoba.

She had originally wanted to become an accountant for First Nations communities after seeing that their finances were often handled by non-Indigenous management.

She gives thanks to her grandparents for teaching her values as a young person.

"My plan was always to help the people back home," said Klassen.

'They would look past me'

Klassen ran an underdog campaign in a massive riding with very little funding.

She recalls going to meetings with leadership in the northern communities and being overlooked.

"I always had my campaign manager or my official agent, and they were all guys. Speaking with them, they would look past me and speak with the guys," said Klassen.

"Now that I am the MLA, they're willing to give me the time of day," she said with a laugh.

She thinks in spite of the challenges she and other Indigenous women face on the campaign trail and in office, they are making gains.

'There's a lot of fights that other women have taken on. The path is not as hard as it was previously,' 

Klassen said she is enjoying her gig as interim leader. Her favourite part of the job is "knowing that we can make a difference. Knowing that there is a lot of hope," for people in the north.

Tina Keeper, former Liberal MP

'I think if we're earnest in trying to make changes for our people, Mother Earth, and find ways to do that, then that's the road that we have to walk,' says former Liberal MP Tina Keeper. (Submitted)

Despite being not allowed to vote until 1960, Indigenous people have become more engaged in mainstream Canadian politics in recent years. 

The 2015 federal election saw a record 10 Indigenous people elected to the Parliament of Canada — following Ethel Blondin-Andrew, who was the first Indigenous woman to be elected to Parliament in 1988.

Women like Tina Keeper have followed in her footsteps.

Keeper was elected in 2006 as a Liberal MP for the Churchill-Keewatinook Aski riding (formerly Churchill).

She had planned to enter politics when she was older but said the opportunity to run for office came up unexpectedly.

The former North of 60 actor recalls her campaign being tough. 

"What I found shocking was that there was little credence or little value given to Indigenous candidates. They treated you as if it was an anomaly," said Keeper.

Despite that, she was elected to the opposition in a riding that is predominantly comprised of Indigenous peoples.

Back then, she was "overwhelmed by the amount of resistance by mainstream parties and Canadians within the riding" toward Indigenous candidates.

Keeper said, though, overall her experience in politics was positive.

Politics as 'reconciliation'

Keeper views Indigenous people in mainstream politics as part of the process of reconciliation, "where they start to acknowledge that we're all part of this country and that a First Nations leader can be just as effective as a mainstream Canadian in that role."

And politics isn't the only way to create change in this country, she said.

"We all have different roles and it's all integral. I think if we're earnest in trying to make changes for our people, Mother Earth, and find ways to do that, then that's the road that we have to walk."

Keeper said she is open to the possibility of running for office again someday.

About the Author

Lenard Monkman is Anishinaabe from Lake Manitoba First Nation, Treaty 2 territory. He is the co-founder of Red Rising Magazine and has been an associate producer with the CBC's Indigenous unit since 2016. Follow him on Twitter: @Lenardmonkman1

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