Eeyou Istchee is filled with many inspirational women
who don’t always get the credit they deserve. March 8th marks International Women’s day, a time to celebrate the creators of life and our mothers, grandmothers, sisters, and aunts. In this issue we profile four very different women with one common trait – personal strength.
Rita Rabbitskin: Flying Higher and Higher
Mistissini’s Rita Rabbitskin decided as a little girl that she was going to be a pilot, much to the amazement of her friends and family. Yet, as soon as she was old enough to pursue her dream with fervour, every one exclaimed, “Wow, she really is going to do it!”
For Rita, it was never a flippant childhood dream. As soon as she finished high school, she attended John Abbott College in Montreal to study general science. From there, she took flying courses at Laurentide Aviation for two years, where her determination was unwavering.
She was pregnant with her first child during her schooling and, just before exams she rushed home to give birth to a healthy baby boy. Two days later, she was back in class to take her tests!
“I’m trying to do everything I can so that I can say I’ve tried everything. It’s an amazing feeling to achieve what you’ve set out to do.”
Upon graduation, she returned home to Mistissini to work as a bush pilot, transporting trappers, prospectors, and other clients. She counts herself among the lucky for being able to land a job that allowed her to be home every night, which is a rare luxury for a pilot.
But Rita still dreamed of another type of flying – she wanted to fly a “chopper!” Not one to give up, she set off back to school, this time in Quebec City. Occasionally, she had to hear sexist or racist remarks in the male-dominated field but she let them bounce right off her.
“Actions speak louder than words,” she says. “In the end, it shows who can stick it out.” While pregnant with her second son, Rita mastered the flying beast and graduated with pride. And now she’s set another goal for herself. She wants to work for Air Creebec, to see the beautiful landscape of Eeyou Istchee from even greater heights.
Susan Esau: Dealing with Life’s Many Battles
Susan Esau of Waskaganish is a survivor and a role model for us all. She has had to face many excruciating hardships throughout her life. Despite the sorrow, she has remained strong and has committed herself to helping others heal from their own personal tragedies.
She spends much of her time working with the Waskaganish Wellness Centre, helping with its many programs and workshops. Her compassion for people who are hurting stems from her own personal experience with grief.
Susan’s first harrowing test came when she was placed in a residential school as a little girl. Being away from her family and stripped of her culture were not the only injustices she lived with; she also suffered many vile ordeals at the hands of her caregivers.
When she returned home as a teenager, she was a very angry person. She used drugs and alcohol to help escape the painful memories of her past. But when her first son began abusing substances too, she knew things needed to change.
“I realized that I couldn’t help my son until I helped myself.”
But Susan had more hardships to endure: she lost her two sons, one to suicide and one to heart failure. She had to deal with an immeasurable amount of grief and pain. But she didn’t give up.
“There are too many unnecessary tragedies. There are times when it seems like everything is working against you – but it won’t last. Things will get better. That’s what my life has been like.”
She feels strongly that people need to seek out healing because problems are being passed down to the next generation. She is committed to helping people reclaim the self-esteem that was stolen so many years ago, because only when one can love oneself can the Cree people move forward.
Margaret Cromarty: Blending Two Worlds Together With Ease
Chisasibi’s Margaret Cromarty, 68, is a woman of the world, but her heart has always belonged to the land and waters of her hometown. It was this passion for her surroundings that catapulted her into cities across North America when she decided to share her soul with others through poetry.
She found that writing came easily to her, allowing her to explore the duality she felt about her identity. Over the years, Margaret has watched the Cree lose a lot of their land and traditional ways, much to her sorrow. But, she admits, many of the changes have been unavoidable.
While education and health care have been a blessing, the social problems associated with “the white man’s way” have been very disheartening.
Through three books of poetry, published in 1992, 1994, and 1999, Margaret decided to capture both the happy and sad moments of her life as a Cree woman. Her books brought her to visit many universities across Canada and the United States, where she was able to further share her experiences and raise awareness.
“It’s good to dream. I tried something new and it worked out. Now I’m able to share what I’m most proud of: being a Native person.”
She continued to share her culture by opening up a camp for tourists. She operated the business with her husband for four years before deciding to retire. Within that time span, she welcomed people from all over the world as far away as Palestine and Egypt. As with all good times, there is usually good food and Margaret estimates that she’s cooked a total of 51,000 traditional meals!
While retirement might mean a bit more relaxation, Margaret has no plans to stop expressing herself. Today, she has moved on to painting the country she loves so dearly: Eeyou Istchee.
Phoebe Sutherland: Bringing Traditional Cree Cooking to the Big City
Mistissini’s Phoebe Sutherland knows all about the trials and thrills that are involved in chasing a dream. She has known since high school what she wanted to do: create and run a restaurant that would celebrate Native cuisine.
Her journey began in college, where she studied hotel and restaurant management. Afterward, because her real passion was for cooking, she studied at the Culinary Institute of Vermont. As part of her studies, she further developed her idea for her restaurant.
Upon graduation, she worked in restaurants in Boston, Maine, and Arizona, where she learned some hard facts about the business. Men dominated the field and it would take years for her to climb to the position she knew she was born to fill – head chef.
Instead of resigning herself to the way the system worked, she decided to live by her own rules. In 2002, she moved to Ottawa, pulled up her sleeves, and began the process of opening her very own restaurant.
“Opening a business is hard work,” Phoebe says. “I’m here day and night. But dreams do come true as long as you keep up and don’t give up.”
Through hard work and dedication, she opened the doors of the Sweetgrass Aboriginal Bistro in November 2003 to rave reviews. One month later, Ottawa magazine Where declared Sweetgrass Aboriginal Bistro the Best New Restaurant of the year, a title it won again from the City of Ottawa in 2004.
Phoebe couldn’t be happier that her efforts have proven to be successful. Her greatest pleasure is hearing the positive comments from her customers and greeting her “regulars.” She is especially proud that her restaurant and its success are a positive reflection for all Native people across Canada.
But this is only the beginning as she has bigger plans for the future. She hopes to eventually open other Sweetgrass restaurants across the country and, when time finally permits, to devote her time and energy to her biggest dream of all: starting a family.