Tania Cameron is a campaign organizer in Indigenous, provincial and federal politics who led the First Nations Rock the Vote initiative in 2015. She is from Niisaachewan First Nation in northwestern Ontario.
There have been 20 elections for the position of national chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) since 1968. The next will come in July, 2021, with Perry Bellegarde announcing on Dec. 7 that he would not be seeking re-election – and it will be due time for the AFN to finally end the drought of female leaders.
First Nations women are always fighting for fairness and for a seat at the table. Our mothers and grandmothers had to fight for the right to retain Indian Status if they married a non-status man, for matrimonial property rights, for the right to run for chief and council positions, for the right to vote, and even for the right to enter a bar. It has always been a struggle, even though we are a matrilineal society – and unfortunately, that’s even been the case in our own organizations.
When she lost the 2012 election to the incumbent Shawn Atleo, Pam Palmater – a Mi’kmaq lawyer, Indigenous rights advocate and Ryerson University professor – expressed to the media that gender played a role. “Many people were very straightforward about that,” she said. “The Indian Act messed with everything and wiped women off the leadership map, prevented them from being chiefs and prevented them from voting.” It’s hard to disagree. Until the the early 1980s, the AFN was even named the National Indian Brotherhood – a sexist signal that women were not even a consideration for leadership.
It wasn’t until 1994 that Delia Opekokew, a lawyer and writer from Canoe Lake Cree First Nation in Saskatchewan, became the first woman to offer herself up for the leadership of the more than 600 reigning chiefs across Canada. And since then, nine other fierce women – all with extraordinary curriculum vitae, notable accomplishments and years of service to the First Nations community – have followed in her footsteps, vying for the elusive seat of AFN national chief. Yet none of them won.
In the 1997 election, Wendy Grant-John, who served three terms as chief of the Musqueam and was the first woman elected regional vice-chief of the Assembly of First Nations, had a strong showing, but placed second to Phil Fontaine. Marilyn Buffalo, the former president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, tossed her hat in the ring in 2000, but she placed fourth on the first ballot.
In 2003, there was much excitement about the candidacy of Roberta Jamieson, a formidable lawyer and First Nations advocate steeped with experience in the AFN, having been the executive assistant to former national chief George Manuel in the early 1970s. But Mr. Fontaine managed to return and secure another term, with Ms. Jamieson finishing a strong second.
The election of 2012 set an exciting record with eight people running for the leadership, half of them being powerhouse women: Ellen Gabriel, Joan Jack, Diane Kelly and Pam Palmater. The election went to the third ballot. While Mr. Atleo won, Ms. Palmater maintained a strong second in each voting round.
And in the last election, two women put their names forward to run against the incumbent, Mr. Bellegarde. Like Ms. Palmater, Sheila North, the former grand chief of the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, placed second on both the balloting rounds. Katherine Whitecloud, former Manitoba regional chief for the AFN, also ran, but placed fifth on the first ballot.
That’s 10 women over 26 years who have felt the sting of defeat, a discouraging result for any talented Indigenous women hoping to achieve high office. But that didn’t prevent those women from serving their respective communities all the same. Many went on to greater service and prominence in academia, law, social justice and Indigenous-rights circles, guided by our teachings, which tell us that we don’t need a title to lead or to serve.
I have high hopes for this year’s AFN election, however. There are many strong women we can encourage to run, including Ms. North and Ms. Palmater. Michèle Audette, the commissioner of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Inquiry, and Ontario Regional Chief RoseAnne Archibald could be contenders, too. And although she is currently serving as an independent member of Parliament for Vancouver Granville, Jody Wilson-Raybould would make a fine national chief.
I urge chiefs across Canada to consider making history – not simply because they are women, but because of their accomplishments and the game-changing qualities they could bring to the table.
It’s time. Chiefs, elect a female national chief.
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