Someone informed me the other day that there is a Women’s History Month designated by the Government of Canada. Women are celebrated during the month of October for their contribution to Canadian society. This got me to thinking about all the strong women that I have known in my life.
The first person that comes to mind when I think of women in my life is my mother Susan. She grew up in a traditional lifestyle on the shores of the Nawashi River, north of Attawapiskat on the James Bay coast. She lived with an extended family of grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters and cousins. There were plenty of women in her life and she grew up in a spirit of strong bonds and family ties. The men of the family did much of the main hunting and gathering but women had a great role in their survival as well.
When my people lived a traditional, nomadic way of life, women were equals to their male partners. It was a way of ensuring survival in the harsh conditions of living on the land. Women could not rely completely on men to bring them their food or to do all the hard work of maintaining a home. Nomadic hunting and gathering required someone to go out on the land to hunt and trap, which usually required a great deal of moving around from location to location. This was not easy for a family with children, so young ones were left at a home base with one of the parents, most often the mother.
While the father hunted by himself or with a small group of adults, the mother had to maintain the home. This meant that hunting, trapping or fishing had to be done close to home to maintain a supply of food for the family. She also had to spend much time alone holding the family together. She had to maintain a fire and collect firewood, roots for rope, and fresh pine tree boughs for the shelter, all the while caring for the children.
Mom has many stories of growing up on the Nawashi River with her family. Her stories are similar to many I have heard from female Elders I know up north. Women were just as capable as men in working, hunting, fishing and gathering. When families were left alone in the wilderness, the mother had to know how to hunt, trap, fish and gather to ensure the survival of the family. The women had all the skills of a male trapper or hunter. This included tracking, handling firearms, skinning and butchering animals, storing food and preparing food for eating. Having a female partner who knew everything about fishing meant that both partners could gather food and provide a better future for their family.
Women can be physically strong individuals as well. Mom related many stories of working hard with her family to transport their belongings when the family was moving on their land. Women had to bear the weight of heavy loads and be capable of travelling great distances in any season whenever necessary.
Both my parents, Marius and Susan, encouraged all their children to be able to do everything to maintain a home. They cautioned us to not fall into modern way of thinking when it came to male and female roles. They taught us boys to never shy away from activities, chores or work that would be considered feminine. Our two sisters received the same treatment and they were taught all types of skills.
When my grandfather, Xavier Paulmartin, died in the early 1980s, my grandmother Louise was left with her youngest daughter and granddaughter in their small home. She was always a strong-willed person and after the initial loss, she pretty much felt comfortable in doing everything there was to do for her home. She had a lot of help from her sons and relatives, but she wanted to be self-sufficient.
I can remember her thinking nothing of taking her small Yamaha Bravo with a toboggan in tow to fetch snow for drinking water or to collect wood for her fire. As young boys, my brothers and I were often called upon to serve as helpers whenever she went to do any work or chores, but she was capable of working right alongside us.
Our women also have a great role in leadership positions. They bring a wealth of knowledge and a different perspective that often centres on the health of communities and people rather than for power and control. In recent years I have seen more and more women taking the roles of chiefs, administrators and decision-makers in our First Nation communities.
It has taken many years and generations to instil our modern ideas of the roles of men and women but our traditional system of equality for survival is still alive in the women who are taking an active role in the organizations that greatly affect the lives of our people. You go, girlfriend.