Celebrating the achievements of Cree women in leadership, the Quebec Native Women’s Association (QNW) ended off its 40th anniversary symposium with a celebration dinner honouring eight Cree women who have worked hard for their communities.
The November 8-9 event at the Sheraton Laval brought together Aboriginal women from various backgrounds and regions of Quebec to celebrate the achievements of four decades of struggle for Native women’s rights.
“This year, we decided to really underscore the presence of Aboriginal women in leadership,” said Viviane Michel, President of the QNW, “and Eeyou Istchee is, at the moment, the place where there is quite a strong presence of female leadership.”
Now, she noted, women play key leadership roles in seven of the 10 Cree regional organizations and share a tenacity to bring a change to their community.
Bella Moses Petawabano was recognized for her years on the board of the Cree Health Board, where she is currently the chairperson. Petawabano said the history of Cree women has come a long way.
“Our history has been that it is the men who would go out hunting and would bring the animals home,” she said. “Then the women would take over and take care of what the husbands brought for the rest of the family and the community. The way I see it now, the Cree men in leadership did a lot for the Cree Nation. They bring a lot to the communities and now the women are out to take care of what the husbands bring to the people.”
Dianne Ottereyes Reid was honoured for her role serving the youth of her community and for helping build a foundation for the next generation of Cree leadership. Among her achievements as president of the Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute in Oujé-Bougoumou was the beautiful longhouse-inspired building that houses the institute.
“I really feel that I have come full circle,” Ottereyes Reid said. “As an individual I always focused on the work behind the scenes doing what is required in order to help the leadership. I always had strong women around me over my 35 years of work.”
Throughout her career Ottereyes Reid found inspiration and motivation from some of the friends who were likewise recognized at the symposium. “It’s a special gift to always have that friendship and to share that sense of achievement together, as women, as sisters, as grandmothers and mothers.”
All of the women honoured are role models in their own right. But Violet Pachanos stands out for being a trailblazing role model over the past 30 years for Cree women in leadership roles.
“I never expected anything like this evening,” Pachanos admitted. “You do what you have to do because you’re there working for your people. It’s always a surprise when something like this happens to you, but it’s truly a great honour to be recognized by other Aboriginal women.”
Pachanos was the first woman elected Chief of Chisasibi in 1989. Her life of community service then resulted in becoming the first woman to be elected to the position of Deputy Grand Chief of the Grand Council of the Crees. She currently serves as president of the Niskamoon Corporation, an organization committed to providing training and jobs for the youth of Eeyou Istchee.
“I believe Cree women, or any women for that matter, have the potential to move upwards into any type of leadership position,” Hester said. “We are experiencing today a lot of women coming forward in leadership roles and I believe it will only continue to grow.”
The youngest of the eight, Julie Ann Cooper could not attend the celebratory dinner due to responsibilities elsewhere. Cooper, from Waswanipi, was elected president of the Cree Outfitting & Tourism Association in August 2011.
All of these women completed years of post-secondary education before taking on leadership roles. Kathleen Wootton began her journey in search of her roots during the time she taught in British Columbia.
“Women have a harder job of trying to earn a living, be a leader, and raise a family at the same time,” Wootton observed. “The women here have done all of that. It is through having confidence and believing in yourself that you can accomplish all of this.”
After returning to Quebec and completing her Master’s degree, she won the race for Deputy Chief of Mistissini, the first female in that leadership role. Now Wootton chairs the Cree School Board. “I encourage all young Cree women who are thinking of going on and becoming leaders to just go ahead and do it with confidence,” she said.
Virginia Wabano’s many years of political activism and community service, as a teacher and a foster mom helping many youths through troubled times, were also honoured.
“It is amazing to be among the inspirational women that have done so much work. I feel like a baby compared to them,” Wabano said. “They have so much knowledge and experience. I’m very proud of being honoured amongst them this evening.”
As the chairperson of the Board of Compensation and the President of CREECO, Darlene Cheechoo is a sterling example of what a person can achieve if they work hard and persevere. With more than a decade of post-secondary education, Cheechoo has earned several degrees in the fields of education, law and arts.