I want to start by thanking the Standing Committee on the Status of Women for this opportunity to speak today. I consider this a great honour. I accepted the invitation without hesitation. Once I started to prepare my thoughts on how I was going to present this, I realized I could only present a statement based on my own personal issues and experiences as an indigenous woman in Canada, and drawing upon my role as the regional manager for the National Centre for First Nations Governance. I also appreciate the fact that there are many different approaches that could be considered on how we, as Canadians, collectively work toward improving the economic prospects for Canadian girls. But for my presentation today I've decided to centre my thoughts around the theme of “nation rebuilding and indigenous women—the strength of our nations”.
Today we hear about many reconciliation processes. A very important healing movement is under way in Canada between indigenous and non-indigenous people, overseen by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, dealing with the devastating legacies left by residential schools. However, I want to bring in another aspect of reconciliation, because I feel that it's a multi-dimensional process, and talk about other issues of restoring lands, economic self-sufficiency, and expanding the jurisdiction of first nations. It can also provide an opportunity to reaffirm the role of our indigenous women through the reclaiming of balance in their home communities and in the Canadian society at large. It is only through forums for dialogue such as this that all parties can search for respectful approaches that will recreate the just relationship we are seeking.
It has been said that indigenous women are the strength of our nations. Traditionally, indigenous women have always played a central role within families and within their nations. Specific tasks were overseen by women in traditional governance structures and in spiritual ceremonies. Cultural teachings passed through oral traditions of indigenous peoples illustrate that indigenous men and women were equal in power, and each had the autonomy within their own personal and social lives.
No more can we ignore the misplaced role and the marginalized voice of indigenous woman. There are too many stories of our indigenous women's accomplishments, their unique strengths, and their ongoing resilience. It is from showcasing these types of examples that our indigenous women will find a place of empowerment and celebration, leading them to their rightful place in society. In an effort to reclaim this balance, indigenous women need to begin to understand the historical context that has challenged the role of indigenous women in today's society, especially in the areas of leadership, governance, and economic development.
Speaking about historical context and traditional indigenous societies, indigenous women played a central role within their families, their government, and in ceremonies. Women were viewed as both the life-givers and caretakers. Men respected women for the sacred gifts they believed the creator had given them, such as being responsible for the early socialization of children, and keepers of the home fires.
In a presentation I recently went to by Kathleen Whitecloud at a conference of first nation managers said that colonization—the imposition of foreign values and their cultural standards—brought about tremendous historical, social, and economic changes.
Suppression of indigenous society and their traditional practices was a common custom—a way to bring about assimilation and the dismantling of the indigenous identity. Unilaterally imposed federal legislation, such as the British North America Act and the Indian Act; attempts at assimilation such as the 1969 white paper; residential schools; over-policing; an ineffective justice system; the loss of our traditional livelihoods; and the removal from our traditional lands to be placed on reserves have all contributed to dependence on a welfare economy, thus creating intergenerational poverty and a very poor socio-economic status. Women were all but ignored, as can be seen in the treaty-making process and in subsequent federal legislation such as the Indian Act, and in many administrative rulings regarding citizenship and gender inequalities.
Today we see the effects of colonization as a dispossessed people, alienated from their traditional practices. The breakdown of families is apparent. There is overrepresentation of aboriginal people in the justice system. There are social inequalities, institutionalized discrimination, systemic racism, lateral violence, discriminatory hiring practices, and violence against women—such as the file on missing and murdered aboriginal women of Canada.
I've come to learn, and I have always talked about this when I'm in communities delivering workshops, that the path to self-determination and nation rebuilding begins with the self, and any journey begins with one person. For indigenous women, empowerment and decolonization will appear in the form of sharing indigenous knowledge, increasing leadership roles, and capacity development with special attention being paid to post-secondary education and skills development, indigenous language revitalization, and the revival of the traditional role of women.
The importance of post-secondary education and skills development as the turning point for anyone seeking to better their life and the lives of dependants cannot be overstated. However, what must be stressed are the types of support systems that are required for indigenous women as they pursue their educational and career goals. The treaty right to education means investing in the future by educating our indigenous people. Educated people will be part of the solution.
Adequate resources don't just mean funding, scholarships, and bursaries, especially for indigenous women. Additional factors are often associated: proper child care, health, transportation, and access to student services that are first nation specific, for example, ceremonial activities and elder counselling. Never mind the fact that to pursue the dreams of higher education or career development means once again leaving their home communities for urban centres and all that this change entails.
Indian control of Indian education speaks to the need for culturally appropriate educational institutions and the need to have educational opportunities that focus on this cultural alignment. Bilingual, bicultural education talks about the challenges of walking in two worlds, and it is equally important for an indigenous person to have the knowledge base from both worlds, both contemporary and traditional.
Indigenous knowledge includes traditional teachings about creation; learning our songs and our stories; exploring our indigenous laws, protocols, and methodologies; practising our ceremonies; sustaining the arts; reconnecting to our sacred places; and much more. As these teachings are shared among indigenous people, women's identity and cultural connections will increase, resulting in long-term, positive impacts on their families and communities.
Why am I talking so much about this cultural identity and how it is linked to stronger economic independence?
I'm taking a quote from a professor at the University of Regina, Dr. Bob Kayseas. He just made a presentation to a conference here and he talks about this. He says:
Over time the strengthening of aboriginal culture will converge with the entrepreneurial pursuits of our people. This convergence will lead to increased involvement in sustainable entrepreneurship.
As we navigate away from the nucleus of the self and the family, and move toward the larger realm of community and nation rebuilding, we start to see another group of challenges that discriminates against the role of the indigenous woman. Today's mainstream approach to leadership, business, and governance structures is very top down and non-inclusive, and too often these approaches are adopted by first nation contemporary governance structures, once again marginalizing the voice of the indigenous woman.
This is reaffirmed by Dr. Kayseas' research when he spoke of livelihood and economic independence with a group of elders who spoke of the disruption in the family and the community systems, and the impact on the transmission of culture, the language, and the value system. The researcher made the connection that indigenous peoples' traditional pursuit and conception of livelihood are strongly linked to their world views and their survival depends on innovation, hard work, sharing, and mutual respect for all creation. Our resilience as independent people, our livelihood, can be described in today's terms as economic independence and prosperity.
The National Centre for First Nations Governance, Prairie region, has listened to the concerns of the people in our workshops and our forums, in the work that I do working and sitting as a board member for the First Nations University of Canada, and also in participating in the Indigenous Leadership Development Institute and Aboriginal Women's Leaders: Saskatchewan. We talk about the need to bring women together so they can start discussing these issues, and how to move forward and come up with strategies to deal with them.
So we are developing a proposal to host a forum to discuss these issues.