Those who have seen it in action know exactly what Big Auntie Energy is.
It is the ability of some Indigenous women to persevere, to stand up and keep going, when no one else seems to be able to get it together. And Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) Deputy Grand Chief Anna Betty Achneepineskum embodies this spirit.
Thunder Bay, Ont., is where Ms. Achneepineskum lives and works for Northern Ontario’s largest Indigenous political organization. This is important to note, because as the late CBC journalist Jody Porter said, the city represents the “raw edge of that existential angst of what it is to be a Canadian.” Those who have settled here over the last 150-plus years are only now grappling with the fact that their very presence and governance structures kill our people. It is a city that keeps breaking our hearts – yet this is where many Indigenous peoples living in the Robinson Superior Treaty area, along with Treaty No. 9, Treaty 3, and Treaty 5, come when they need services that aren’t available on reserve – whether it be to shop, see a pediatrician or a dentist, or attend high school.
It is in this context that Ms. Achneepineskum navigates her way through the daily double-speak of “decolonization” and “reconciliation” she gets from bureaucrats and institutions that purport to help but in fact often hinder progress.
What the great-grandmother deals with on a given day would cower others. Consider her last two weeks, alone. On Mar. 6, Ms. Achneepineskum, who oversees the policing and justice files, travelled to Toronto to meet with the Ontario Provincial Police about their investigation into the multitude of Indigenous death cases still waiting to be properly addressed after systemic racism was found in the force in 2018.
Also this: On Feb. 27, NAN suspended Grand Chief Derek Fox pending a code-of-conduct inquiry. An emergency meeting of the remaining chiefs, including Ms. Achneepineskum, is happening this week to decide a way forward.
And in between, she’s had to deal with other crises, including another fire in Pikangikum First Nation, which claimed the lives of Vernie Turtle, 44, Kirsten Moose, 38 and Kendriyanna Turtle, 8, on Feb. 22. Inadequate fire safety infrastructure prevented first responders from putting out the blaze in frigid temperatures. “It is outrageous that we must plead with our Treaty partners every time an innocent life is lost,” she said in a statement. “… We do not need condolences or sympathy from the governments of Ontario and Canada. We need action.”
The protection of children is where Ms. Achneepineskum’s heart is. She works hard to make sure the next generation is cared for and safeguarded by helping to get status cards or birth certificates, or advocating for healing in communities ripped apart by trauma.
She is uncomfortable when there’s a spotlight recognizing her for her work. “I would rather be the one clapping really hard when a woman is receiving a doctorate or succeeding,” she told me in an interview, conveying that acknowledgement – being seen – is important.
But her stands do not always make her popular. She is steadfast in making sure discrimination or sexual abuse is not tolerated, and refuses to back down. “I wouldn’t continue to be in my role as a deputy if I compromised my values; my children, my grandchildren and great-grandchildren deserve to have someone in their lives who is living in the right way. When we take those positions, we have to support each other,” she says.
She believes this cost her in 2018, when she fell short for re-election in the role of NAN deputy grand chief, which she first won in 2015. “What hurt most was I worked hard for the people,” she said. “I am brave and I am willing to take risks when it comes to protecting the people. When I didn’t get re-elected, that is what really hurt.” As always, though, she got through the pain by attending ceremony, before being elected again in August, 2021. And recently, when Ontario’s Indigenous Affairs Deputy Minister Shawn Batise posted on Facebook that “Anna Betty could very well lose” if an election is called as a result of NAN’s leadership crisis, she said she shook it off and professionally accepted his apology. (Mr. Batise declined to comment.)
Ms. Achneepineskum says she has felt alone many times, but knows the day will come when women are more commonplace on band council and as chiefs. “When I walk into my office and see all these pictures of men who were grand chiefs … I can’t wait until there is a picture of a woman there.”
And when that happens, that woman will, in part, have Ms. Achneepineskum and her Big Auntie Energy to thank.