International Women’s Day is an event that brings to light many important issues concerning First Nations women. This year’s focus was on eliminating poverty in First Nations communities.

“For us, March 8 is every day,” said Michèle Audette, president of the Quebec Native Women Inc. (QNW). “The QNW celebrates, works and denounces injustices seven days a week.”

The QNW was founded in 1974, working to promote First Nations women’s rights such as non-violence, justice, health, equality and to better their living environments. They promote self-government and empowerment in First Nations communities in Quebec and rural Aboriginal areas.

This year, the QNW is associating itself with Amnesty International to present a video clip about violence against Aboriginal women which will be available online. “We are proud to associate ourselves with the French Amnesty International,” said Audette.

The QNW has recently been active denouncing the Conservative government’s inaction regarding the rights of Aboriginal women and children.

After the recent meeting of the Crown and the First Nations, the QNW issued a press release in reaction to the fact that the question of citizenship and membership of Aboriginal women was not mentioned by the government. “I’m not sure if it was worthwhile to be disappointed. We’re not surprised anymore by the Conservative government. For the question of women’s rights, they were completely backwards,” said Audette.

This speaks volumes about the Conservatives’ priorities in helping Native communities. Before the meeting, the QNW had lobbied and talked to provincial Native leaders in order to have the issues raised, but the voices of Native women were not represented during the Crown meeting.

“We met with deputies and ministers to educate, sensitize and make them understand that the government’s debt-eliminating budget cuts are used for debt that we have not created,” stated Audette. “With the highest rates of sexual, physical, spiritual violence and suicide, why should we have to deal with budgets cuts when we are already under-financed by the government?”

Finding funding for social programs for Native women is difficult for Aboriginal women and Cree women specifically because the territory is so vast. That is why the QNW help the Cree Women of Eenou Itschee Association (CWEIA) by aiding them to get support from Cree entities.

The CWEIA also hold fundraisers to finance their programs, such as merchandise bingo. “It’s a good fundraiser because it allows a lot of the women to get together. There’s more of a social aspect but we use the money to implement programs,” said Carmen Faries, vice-president of the CWEIA.

One of their most recent programs is the Resista-Ball exercise program, in collaboration with Lemon Cree. Though they have had snags in the road in terms of finding a secure place to store the equipment, the CWEIA is trying to focus on promoting the program. In Wemindji, they funded Laurie-Ann Georgekish to go to Chibougamau in order to get Lemon Cree-certified by Theresa Ducharme, CEO and founder of Lemon Cree.

“International Women’s Day is a day to celebrate the accomplishments of women and to respect and appreciate all that women have done in various areas like economic prosperity and family violence as well as those who are political leaders who voice concerns for women throughout the country,” said CWEIA president Virginia Wabano.

The CWEIA is constantly working to empower women. Those who wish to start a business can consult with their Regional Economic Development Officer. “She goes and works with ladies one-on-one to submit their business plans. That’s one service we offer for economic prosperity and to combat poverty so people can be self-employed to help themselves,” said Wabano.

With the collaboration of the Justice Department of the James Bay region, they will be building two women’s shelters within the region. The CWEIA is at the planning stages for programming and blueprints for the buildings.

“We have a lot of work ahead of us but it’s worth it to help women overcome the social issues that they deal with within their relationships and to empower them to stand up against violence. We want them to be able to come back to their communities as strong healthy women and to be able to share their experiences and become role models for those who are still struggling,” said Wabano.

For Women’s Day, the CWEIA and the QNW are working to acknowledge all women and their efforts. Fighting poverty, violence and health problems are constant issues that need to be dealt with but International Women’s Day sheds some light on these matters.

“I have a dream that I’ve been cherishing for a long time: to develop an action plan to get Aboriginal women out of poverty and economic violence. We would work with women who dropped out of school because they got pregnant at a young age or because they could not afford school. We will work to reintegrate these women as well as acknowledge those who are leaders and women of change so that we can establish a mentoring program,” said Audette.