Flora Kitchen has noticed a change in the role of women in Cree society. They are becoming more assertive about their concerns in public, and Cree society is changing to accommodate them. “Women are starting to be heard,” said Kitchen, who is president of the James Bay Cree Native Women’s Association. “Today, I find it’s more open.”

She said that openness has led to open dialogue about social problems like family violence, sexual abuse and teen pregnancy, and attempts to find solutions. Still, cautioned Kitchen, much remains to be done. Kitchen, who is also a representative for the Grand Council/CRA Native Parajudicial Services and is active in Waswanipi community life, would like to see women’s associations in all nine Cree communities, better funding, more information to parents about birth control and more women’s shelters.

The Nation: We have seen a lot of changes to Cree society in the last 30 years. What changes have you seen to the roles of women in Cree society?

Flora Kitchen: First of all, I can say women are starting to be heard. They’re voicing more of their concerns, especially at the local and regional levels. A few years back, people were shy to talk about certain things and women were always put in the back. So right now, I think people are starting to listen to women.

Do you find that it’s like it was in Canada—at one point, women were the silent majority and then they started to come to the forefront? Do you think this is the situation with Cree women?

Yes, if we look back, women were always respected. But when we talk about respect, it didn’t mean we didn’t listen to women. It’s just that we didn’t hear them voicing their concerns in public. It was done at home or through another person. Today, I find it’s more open and women are voicing their concerns. Now we have the Women’s Association and it’s a lot easier when you have people supporting you.

How much support do you get outside your organization in terms of the Grand Council or at the local level with band councils?

In Waswanipi, the band council has mandated the Women’s Association to start up a daycare centre. In other communities, it’s starting to be like that. We are getting full support from our councillors. At the regional level, I think they are starting to wake up too, and they are supporting us whenever they can.

On the Canadian level there is conflict between the Native Women’s Association of Canada and the chiefs. Is this on a reserve-to-reserve basis or across the board?

I wouldn’t say that is happening overall, but I’d say it’s on a nation-to-nation basis. If we talk about Bill C-31 [gave women and their children back Indian status], it’s not everybody who has the same problems with it. It’s nation-to-nation.

What is your association’s view of Bill C-31 [the 1985 federal law that restored status to many First Nations people]?

It was a great thing to happen for women. But then again, when I went to a meeting back in November for the association there were a lot of women who had problems trying to return to their communities. Their husbands wouldn’t be accepted because he’s white. This was the type of problem they were having. Some of them had moved back to their community and were asked to leave because their husband wasn’t accepted. In the Cree case, we don’t have many problems on those levels. I know that to the Crees, respect is important and this is why we don’t have these problems. But for the other nations, they have a lot of problems.

Why do you think this is? A lack of respect or understanding?

I really can’t say. This is another nation. I don’t know all their problems.

Were the Crees the first to get a native daycare?

Not necessarily. Other nations have them. There are three or four in Quebec. The first one was set up by the Native Women’s Association in Mistissini back in 1991 or 1992.

Do you find this clashes with our traditions where the children were left with the grandparents or other relatives?

I knew you were going to ask me that, [laughter]… I don’t think it goes against our traditions because today a lot of women are starting to work. Today, both women and men have to work to bring up their family. These days everything costs so much. So if you really look at it, it’s not against our traditions. Some people have their mothers baby-sit but that takes a lot out of them. Even though the grandmothers like babysitting, I find the daycare center is helpful. It’s more like an education for them in a way. They get to know other children too, and learn about sharing. Even if they are one or two years old, they learn to get along. So I don’t find it’s against our traditions, but complements them.

What other accomplishments has the Women’s Association had within the past couple of years?

One of the things that was difficult for us to bring out was family violence and sexual abuse of children. I remember the first time when we started to talk about family violence four or five years ago, we tried to have a meeting to make people aware that this was not right and barely 10 people showed up. I don’t know if people wanted to ignore the subject or if they didn’t want to talk about it, but today I see a big difference.

Today, I can tell you, people are starting to break the ice. We had a workshop a couple of years ago where we just talked about family violence and sexual abuse of children. We did this without papers, consultants or anyone else coming out to the community. It was just people from the community. I saw the difficulty for people to talk about it and it’s not easy, but there’s progress as the years go by. At the Grand Council Annual Assembly this year, they talked about it and it was easier for people to talk about it.

Do you find people talk about it more easily when you don’t have the consultants or social workers around?

Yes, exactly. When they talked about this at the assembly, to my surprise one of the constables spoke up, James Blacksmith. He told the people to make their children aware about sexual abuse. You know if someone touches you in certain parts that you’re not comfortable with, then tell someone. Talk about it. I found this to be very good.

What about the rising statistics of early teen pregnancies in Cree communities?

That’s another touchy subject, I would say. If you want to talk to parents about birth control, most parents don’t want to hear about it. I know for a fact they were starting to discuss it in the schools, but it has to come from the parents for the children to understand it. If the mother or parents want her to go on birth control, they should. But I think there is a lack of information for the parents on birth control. We know about condoms, but they might not know the other methods. I also think some parents just don’t want to know about it. Some people say it’s just natural that a women gets pregnant. But you can prevent pregnancy, but again people are shy about that. Alcohol is also involved in some of this, too.

Will the Cree Native Women’s Association be starting some programs on the issues you’ve raised?

We are going to have a General Assembly in April that will be like a workshop. People have talked about including family violence and sexual abuse. We will be involved and have people at the provincial level who have experience on this. They can talk and give information.

Is this one of your priorities this year?

Well, not at the regional level. The regional level, for me, would be to set up associations in all the communities. This is a problem because we don’t have the money to travel to talk to the other communities on how to set up a Women’s Association. We do the best we can, and from there the local women set up their by-laws and get whatever support they can get their hands on. Then, they make up their own local priorities. It is one of our priorities to set up an association in each community.

Not all Cree communities have a Women’s Association?

No, not all of them. But women are interested in setting them up. There’s Waswanipi, Mistissini, Chisasibi and I’m not sure if Nemaska has finished setting up theirs yet. Unfortunately, we don’t have the money to travel and help them. A few years back, the Grand Council gave us a bit of funding. Not that much, but we will submit something to them to make sure we are in this year’s budget.

We have a General Assembly each year and we include all the communities, even the ones that aren’t set up yet. That’s when we give them information and try to help them.

The youth have taken a position against further hydro-development in the Cree Territory. Have the Cree women done the same?

We touched on this at one time but don’t really have a position there. We wanted to find out what went on with the Great Whale Project and invited Chief Matthew Mukash to talk, but he couldn’t make it. Last fall, we expected an update on what was happening from him. Right now, we don’t have the full picture.

Do you find it’s a problem getting information of this sort from the various people dealing with them?

No, it’s not that we don’t get enough information. I work at the band office and it’s easy for me to get the information. It’s just that the women are not really preoccupied with it. There’s not a day when I don’t hear about it but we didn’t take a position on it. Some people say it’s bad for the environment. I think we all know that.

Do you have any other comments for our readers?

I’d like to see more women’s shelters because the women who have problems in their community have to leave. This happened in Waswanipi. It doesn’t help them or the kids when they must go to Chibougamau or Val d’Or. I’d like to see one in every community. It doesn’t matter how big it is, even a few rooms.