Trailblazers are those people who break uncharted ground, who go where none have been before and who open the door for others to pass through in the future. When we think of trailblazers within the Cree communities, one name that comes to mind has to be Violet Pachanos. She broke the Cree traditional gender barrier in 1989 when she became the first woman to be elected chief of Chisasibi. Then 10 years later, she broke another barrier by becoming the first woman to be elected to the position of Deputy Grand Chief of the Grand Council of the Crees (GCC).
It wasn’t a role she had dreamed about or even thought of until someone asked her to run for office in 1989. She had been working for the Grand Council for many years as the liaison officer and was living in Ottawa at the time. Before that she was the corporate secretary with the Cree Regional Authority when it was founded, later working as CRA treasurer. So, as she puts it “I was aware of the politics.”
It was not a position that came easily. “There was opposition when I got in, especially from the men,” Pachanos says. “There Were four other candidates at the time, including a couple of former chiefs. Even after I got in, there was opposition to the fact that I was a woman. It wasn’t the tradition, it was always men.”
“I think it’s always a challenge to try to make changes, to make changes within the band administration. People are always resistant to change. The finances are difficult because everybody wants something.”
She didn’t let it faze her and did such a good job that she was re-elected for another term, and years later, elected again. One way of overcoming the opposition at the time was by pointing out that there were other women in leadership roles. Margaret Thatcher was prime minister of England at the time, someone also referred to the Queen of England.
“After a while, they faced it.” She says about those who opposed her.
As Chief and Deputy Grand Chief, she did quite a bit of international traveling to important summits and forums. She was in New Zealand twice with the Grand Council on factfinding trips. She was invited to Japan to participate in a forum on different international Native issues. David Suzuki was another one of the invitees, along with Mohawk representatives to talk about the Oka crisis. Violet was there to speak about Hydro Quebec. Violet also attended the World Conference against Racism in South Africa in 2002 where she made a statement that was heard in the Cree communities. Another summit she attended was on social development in Copenhagen.
Her position has also taken her all across Canada where she has been involved with other native groups. “So I got to know a bit about other nations in Canada”.
When asked if she had always wanted to be involved in politics, she says, “I don’t know if I could say I wanted to, it just kind of happened. Someone asked me to run and I just got involved. I had the background for it. I didn’t jump into it though. I had to be a bit cautious. You always wonder how people will accept you. It wasn’t in my mind that I was a female and therefore couldn’t, I just went at it because work needed to be done.”
The Nation: How has it changed since you first won the position?
“I feel it’s more acceptable now. I would hope that women who get into these positions would have an easier time. Right now it bothers me that there are no women in leadership roles, there’s nobody in the Grand Council, and all the chiefs are men. There’s only one woman on the Board, from Waswanipi.”
TN: How does it feel to be the first woman to attain these positions?
“It’s not something I think about or thought about when I got into it, it just happened. Any woman is capable of doing a man’s job. I don’t think there’s anything a woman can’t do”.
Words that Violet has obviously lived by. She didn’t get involved because she was supporting a cause or because she wanted to prove that women could do it, she did it because she believed she could regardless of her gender. She inadvertently became the first, among the future many. She also inadvertently proved that women could be successful leaders, that they have a voice that should be heard and needs to be heard.
These days Violet works for The Cree Construction and Development Corporation, as the coordinator for the relocation project. She is also presently part of the Working Group for the Cree Nation Governance, where she works on recommendations for how the Cree government is going to work.
She would like to encourage more women to get involved, “Especially in the community. It doesn’t matter what it is as long as you feel it. Don’t be afraid to speak out and participate, especially in politics. It’s the only way you are going to be heard.”