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'A lot of Nations were matriarchal societies,' Monika Ille says. 'Indigenous women played and continue to play key roles in decision-making processes at every level of the community.'

Illustration by Chief Lady Bird

Monika Ille is a member of the Abenaki First Nation of Odanak in Quebec. She serves as chief executive officer of the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, or APTN, and has had a 25-year career in the media industry. A recent graduate of the McGill-HEC Montréal executive MBA, she wrote her final paper on Indigenous women’s leadership identity, a subject she thinks about daily in her role as the leader of a national network that highlights stories made by and for Indigenous peoples.

When did you first see yourself as a leader?

I’ve asked myself that question so many times and to come up with an answer, I’ve first had to define the role of leader. Every time I have a question or I’m doubting myself, I reach out to my grandmother, even though she passed away more than 30 years ago. She was somebody who inspired me. She listened to me. She was there for me. For me, this woman was a leader. Her example helped me realize that I became a leader when I started being able to inspire people to be the best that they can be. I think I may have always been able to draw out people’s passion without realizing it. But I’m doing it more consciously since coming to that realization.

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In your experience, do Indigenous and non-Indigenous leadership styles differ?

Indigenous and non-Indigenous leadership qualities or attitudes are pretty much the same. The difference resides in what influences your personal type of leadership. Leadership comes from within. It’s who you are. Your history and your culture influence your type of leadership. Indigenous peoples come to leadership with their own history and consequently see things differently. Leadership means to be true to oneself, respecting and honouring your Nation’s history, culture and beliefs.

I also believe that I have an added responsibility to teach non-Indigenous peoples. When I face non-Indigenous people’s ignorance or misunderstanding when it comes to Indigenous history and culture, I will take the time to explain the Indigenous context. I believe that for change to happen, people need to understand and acknowledge the First Peoples of the land. I do this knowing that I can at least illuminate their thinking.

Did the residential schools and other forms of systemic racism leave a mark in your life and your community?

My mother and her family attended the Académie St-Joseph, a Catholic day school established in Odanak. Quite soon after they began to operate, parents started to think that you needed to learn French and English to succeed in life and that speaking your Indigenous language wouldn’t get you anywhere. Unfortunately, within three generations the Abenaki language is now almost gone. When you lose that, you lose a big part of your culture and your identity. Some words and phrases still exist but that way of seeing the world has been lost. Fortunately, there is a revitalization effort to preserve and promote the language, my mother being one of the main defenders.

What makes APTN stand out in the media landscape?

For more than 20 years, APTN has blazed new trails in the television industry. By focusing on Indigenous peoples, who have been largely ignored by the nation’s mainstream media, the network has become a powerful platform for hundreds of Indigenous communities separated by distance and identity. We are all united in our demands for greater recognition in Canadian society, and Indigenous media plays a critical part in this recognition.

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As APTN grows in popularity, we continue to expand the distribution of our unique content, which is available in English, French and a variety of Indigenous languages. APTN is well aware that the traditional TV industry is changing at a rapid pace. Along with it, our audiences are evolving and seeking out entertainment through new mediums. With the launch of our streaming platform, APTN lumi, in September, 2019, we continue to find ways to meet our audiences head-on and anticipate their changing needs.

What is your strategy for APTN looking ahead?

We are planning on placing greater emphasis on our APTN kids programming, as we believe that children are our future and will continue to map out our journeys. The content they consume at a young age, especially Indigenous-focused programming, can help shape their futures. But their futures are only as strong as the Indigenous cultures they’re built on, which is why we will focus on more Indigenous-language programming.

As we move along the path of reconciliation, we recognize the need to showcase Indigenous cultures from all over the world, not just those that are closer to home. While we have already acquired fantastic Indigenous programs from places like New Zealand, Australia, Thailand and the Netherlands, we would like to see even more foreign Indigenous content grace our screens.

Who are Indigenous leaders that inspire you?

Aside from my grandmother and my mother, one of the leaders who comes from my community is Alanis Obomsawin. She’s a pioneering filmmaker with more than 50 films under her belt. I’ve known of Alanis my whole life, but the first time I understood what she did was seeing Incident at Restigouche, which is about the Mi’kmaw struggle against the fishing laws. In the documentary, there’s this segment where she’s sitting down with the minister of fisheries and pushing him for answers. In that moment, I knew that I wanted to be like her. She fights for what she believes in and she’s not afraid.

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Has the role of female Indigenous leaders changed from what it was before today?

A lot of Nations were matriarchal societies. Indigenous women played and continue to play key roles in decision-making processes at every level of the community. Before colonization and the Indian Act, women and men were generally seen as equals. They were seen as complementing one another. When the Indian Act was imposed upon First Nations peoples, many women lost the right to participate as leaders, subjecting generations of First Nations women and their children to a legacy of discrimination. Right now, there is this renaissance movement that is enabling women to take back the place they used to hold. Regaining our leadership is fundamental to our well-being. Deciding for ourselves and moving our path toward healing and reconciliation will only make us stronger and united.

How do you find a work-life balance?

I love my job. Giving storytellers the opportunity to tell their stories is something I thrive on. When I go to bed and I’m thinking about a project that is going to go through or a series that is finally going to materialize, it makes me so happy. I surf on those feelings, but I take time for myself, too. I take alone time to be creative and that helps me find balance.

How can non-Indigenous people educate themselves and become better allies to Indigenous peoples?

Become interested. Take the time to learn the stories of the Indigenous peoples of Canada. Take the time to get to know the culture. Go to powwows, go to gatherings. Sometimes people are afraid or shy, but many of those events are open to all. Watch APTN programs and our APTN News because it covers what’s happening in Canada from Indigenous perspectives.

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You must want to learn and be open to Indigenous point of views. This land is shared with all and everyone needs to know that collective history. But it’s essential that it comes from a place of genuine interest.

About the series

Canada has a long history of dispossession, oppression and discrimination of Indigenous peoples. The future, however, is filled with hope. The Indigenous population is the fastest growing demographic in Canada; its youth are catalyzing change from coast to coast to coast. Indigenous knowledge and teachings are guiding innovative approaches to environmental protection and holistic wellness worldwide. Indigenous scholars are among those leading the way in exciting new research in science, business and beyond. There is no better or more urgent time to understand and celebrate the importance of Indigenous insight, culture and perspective.

Optimism is rare in media. And coverage of Indigenous peoples often fails to capture their brilliance, diversity and strength. In this weekly interview series, we will engage Indigenous leaders in thoughtful conversation and showcase their stories, strategies, challenges and achievements.

Karl Moore is a professor at the Desautels Faculty of Management, McGill University, in Montreal. He is also an associate fellow at Green Templeton College at Oxford University. He was the host of a long-running video series for The Globe and Mail in which he interviewed chief executive officers and business professors from the top universities in the world. His column, Rethinking Leadership, has been published at Forbes.com since 2011. He has established a global reputation for his research and writing on leadership, and he has interviewed more than 1,000 leaders, including CEOs, prime ministers and generals.

Wáhiakatste Diome-Deer is completing her master’s degree in educational leadership at McGill. She holds a bachelor of arts degree in psychology and brain sciences from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and has completed graduate work at Harvard University in Massachusetts. She is a consultant in education, leadership and Indigenization for organizations and schools, and has previously held positions at the Kahnawake Education Center, the Quebec Native Women’s Association and the Canadian Executive Service Organization. Ms. Diome-Deer is a traditional Kanien’keha:ka woman from the community of Kahnawa:ke.

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