Eva Ottawa is first female Grand Chief of the Nitashkinan

by Marie_Claude Simard

Surrounded by the fall splendour of the Nitashkinan (“our nation” in the Atikamekw language) October 7, wearing a sky blue dress, Eva Ottawa became Grand Chief of the Atikamekw Nation and president of the Atikamekw Nation Council. Elected September 13 with a 75 per cent majority, Eva Ottawa is the first woman to become the leader of an entire First Nation people in the province of Quebec.

The swearing-in ceremony took place in Manawan, the community where Eva was born, 72 kilometres north of Saint-Michel-des-Saints. More than 200 people formed a human circle, within which the traditional rite took place. AFNQL Regional Chief Ghislain Picard, Manawan Chief Paul-Émile Ottawa, and Quebec’s Minister for Native Affairs Geoffrey Kelley were present. “I was touched by the beauty of the ceremony,” said Kelley.

With a law degree and a bachelor’s degree in sociology, Eva Ottawa, 37, undertakes her four-year mandate promising to “listen a lot.” The new Grand-Chief explains that women have always played an important role in the decision-making of the Atikamekw Nation and it’s only been in the last few generations that they’ve been kept aside.

The sacred chants and drums filled the air when Eva entered the circle through the Door of the East, where the fire was burning. In her traditional moccasins she walked over the cedar-covered path up to the flagpole in the centre. Filled with great emotion, the young woman was purified while listening to the very touching Atikamekw prayer: “Ô Grand Manitou, isolated in my distress, in my difficulties, I need you.”

The next morning, as though waking from a dream, Eva confided, “I felt like I did on my wedding day.”

Not everything went smoothly, though. The previous Grand-Chief, Ernest Awashish never showed up and thus, was still in the illegal possession of the Staff, the Wampum, and the Atikamekw flag. “He will have a lot of explaining to do,” declared a disappointed participant.

Another important part of the festivities was a highly symbolic excursion on Lake Metabeskega. Two rabaskas (traditional Atikamekw boats) were involved in this ritual. Grand Chief Ottawa and three members of the band council embarked in the first, while clan and territory chiefs in the other rabaska. Through a short expedition in the golden rays of the late afternoon, all expressed their common wish to work together as a team.

“My priority will be to improve the communication and deepen the solidarity within the Atikamekw Nation,” said Ottawa.

A traditional feast ended the day. A whole moose, hunted for the occasion, was served to the hundreds of guests. The yellow pikes from the lake, prepared in a delicious local recipe, were also a welcome part of the meal. The moon, called kokom (grandmother), in her wholeness, was watching over Eva, and the rest of her community.

Violet Pachanos – Blazing a political trail in a man’s world

Thirty some odd years ago, when Violet Pachanos took a job as a civil servant, little did she know that at the time that it was the beginning of her political career.

“I was ‘just’ a civil servant like everybody else,” Pachanos says. “I applied for a job within the civil service and it was National Health and Welfare, and not in the Aboriginal side of anything.”

For 20 years Pachanos lived in Ottawa without any involvement in the politics of the Cree, but when negotiations started with the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, things changed.

“I was still living out in Ottawa when the James Bay agreement was still in court for negotiation,” she recounts. “That is when I got involved in it and I eventually I went to the Grand Council to set up their offices. So I did that and eventually I resigned from the civil service and came to work for the Grand Council of the Cree.”

Later, Pachanos would become the first female Chief in Chisasibi. But she says that this was never a personal ambition: “I was asked to run for chief and I was surprised that I got elected.”

Not only did she become chief, Pachanos served for three terms, nine years in all. Then she served as Deputy Grand Chief, and the vice chair person for the Grand Council and CRA for three years before returning to Chisasibi for another term as Chief. She currently serves as Deputy Chief in Chisasibi.

Despite all of her success in politics, the road was not always easy. Pachanos did face opposition from the community upon becoming the first elected female Cree Chief.

“Even as chief they [men in the community] used to say, ‘Well, that’s not for a woman.’”

Despite what the public might have thought about her being both a woman and a leader, Pachanos never let that get in the way of getting the job done. “That didn’t bother me. I never used the fact that I was a woman. I just wanted to do things and get them done. I have always said, ‘Whatever a man can do, he can be a boss and do things and a woman can do the same things.’”

When asked whether her political tenure was out of popularity, she responded, “I don’t know about popularity but people seem to think I manage to get things done.”

Amazingly, Pachanos comes across as uniquely humble. When asked what she likes best about her job she speaks enthusiastically of how much she enjoys the challenges. “Especially in the communities when you plan for something and you see it happening and people are happy with it, it’s an accomplishment.”

Annie Iserhoff

After many years as a minister in Nemaska, Annie Iserhoff is packing up to go back home to Mistissini. She says it’s a decision that has nothing to do with a lack of love but a need to care for ailing family members. “My husband has his parents but I don’t. We want to go back while they are still there and we want to help them in any way that we can. My mother-in-law is 83.”

After preaching in Mistissini through the 1970s and 80s, Iseroff arrived in Nemaska seven years ago to work as a minister. She feels that this has been her life’s calling, one that came in a rather dramatic fashion many years before. As a child in the 1960s Iserhoff had the typical grade school experience of being asked what she wanted to be when she grew up.

“I was thinking what I would be and I saw this picture of a woman, carrying water on her head in a jar. It almost looked like a picture from the Bible and when it came to me the teacher asked me what I would like to be and I said ‘I want to serve the Lord,’ He said, ‘What do you mean?’ I said ‘Well, I want a ministry in the church, I want to wash the floor and do what I have to do and work getting water,’ because back in those days nobody had running water. And I said that I would go fetch water from the lake for him and that was the picture that I saw in my head,”

Iserhoff laughed jovially as she explained what precisely that mental image meant to her, “I had a vision, I think I was about 10 or 11 at that time and that is the only way I could describe it.”

Many years later it all made sense. “I came to see what it was as I ministered from the pulpit. I was carrying the water, the living water for the people to receive and I was ministering to them, to their needs.”

Iserhoff has dedicated many years of her life to her ministry and the women’s groups she participated in. At one point she ran the Women’s Ministry. In response to what she thought about Women’s History Month Iserhoff said, “Well I feel very honoured and it’s about time they recognize women and what they do, especially the Aboriginal women.”

She says that for the most part the women in her community are all very concerned about their families and about the growing drug problem. Her message to these women is quite simple: “Be strong, because the Bible says to be strong in the Lord in the power of His might. That would be for the women no matter what they face, no matter what they are going through, that they should be strong. And maintain their ground where God has placed them whether they are a pastor or a mother or a grandmother, just to pour out to your community and those around us.”

When asked if she thought her mission was over, Iserhoff said certainly no, she always obliges when asked to do a sermon or a special service. “I will always be grateful to this community for their love, that they have recognized my work.”

Mary Two-Axe Earley – Epic battle for Native wome’s justice

She may have come into politics late in life but had it not been for Mary Two-Axe Earley, it is hard to say where Canada’s Aboriginal women would be in terms of having full rights under Canada’s Indian Act. Two-Axe Earley was a crusader, a feminist, a mother, a wife and a woman whose courage, tenacity and personal sense of justice changed the lives of literally thousands of women and children for generations to come.

She was born on October 4, 1911, at Kahnawake. At the age of 18, Earley moved to Brooklyn, New York, a common practice for many Mohawks who found well-paying jobs in construction. A few years later, Mary met Edward Earley, an Irish-American electrical engineer who she married.

Her marriage to a non-Indian at that time meant the end of her Indian Status and for any children she would have under provisions of the Indian Act passed in 1876. This meant that she no longer had the right to live on the reserve from which she came, she could not own land there or have a vote or any kind of stake in the reserve’s politics – or even be buried there. The law had been enacted during the Victorian era, a time where women were viewed as possessions of their husbands and could not therefore be land owners. However, madly in love, this was of little concern for Mary Two-Axe at the time she married.

It was not until 1966 when a friend of Mary’s died in her arms one morning that her 20-year battle for status rights began. Two-Axe Early was 55 at the time and still living in Brooklyn. Her friend, also a Mohawk, had lost her status by marrying a Mohawk from another community and had been ordered to sell her house and leave the reserve. Though her friend may have died of heart failure, Mary was convinced that it was her friend’s situation with her status that had broken her heart and that had contributed to her death.

Early began her campaign for equal rights for First Nation’s Women in 1967 by founding a provincial organization known as Equal Rights for Indian Women. She wrote letters, made speeches and tried to appeal to various governmental task forces and ministers with various submissions. Still, she did not have much support from her male counterparts in the band councils who believed that granting equal rights to women would result in assimilation thus undermining Aboriginal authority. They also argued that granting new status to women and children who had been excluded would be far too expensive.

When the Royal Commission on the Status of Women was formed in 1967, Two-Axe Early was urged by women’s rights advocate Thérèse Casgrain to submit a Parliamentary brief concerning the loss of status for aboriginal women. The brief led to a deputation before the Commission to protest what should be their birthright.

Two-Axe Early lost her husband in 1969 and out of loneliness returned to Kahnawake to live in a family home she had inherited from her grandmother. She did not legally have the right to live there at the time, and it was made very clear to her that she was indeed unwelcome. Indeed, in 1975 she was evicted under the provisions of the Indian Act.

Prior to that, in 1970, the Status of Women had began advocating on her behalf, arguing that the Indian Act was indeed discriminatory towards women and that new legislation should be enacted to repeal the sections of the act that discriminated against them. Still the law did not change until much later.

At the time of her eviction from her family’s Kahnawake home in 1975, Mary had been attending the International Women’s Year conference in Mexico. The timing could not have been more ideal as she was able to use the conference as a platform for her cause and an international media frenzy ensued. As a result, the eviction was overturned.

Giving steam to Two-Axe’s campaign, in 1981 the UN Human Rights Committee ruled that Canada had broken the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This came about as another Native, Sandra Lovelace, a Maliseet from the Tobique Reserve in New Brunswick, had appealed to United Nations Human Rights Committee because her rights too had been revoked when she and her children tried to return to her reserve in 1977 after marrying a non-native. Canada had at the time responded to the UN that while they desired to change the law, they could not as it was the responsibility of the First Nation’s communities and they themselves could not come to an agreement.

In 1983, impressed by her drive and commitment to the rights of First Nation women, Quebec Premier René Lévesque gave Two-Axe Early his support. Refused by ministers at a constitutional conference where she had requested to speak on behalf of her campaign, Lévesque offered up his own seat to Mary so that she could make her plea for the rights and freedom of her sisters.

Finally, on June 28, 1985, after almost 20 years of fighting, it happened, the Canadian Parliament passed Bill C-31 and full rights were restored to women who had married non-natives and to the generations of children produced by those marriages. The Indian Act was amended as it was brought into accord with the equality provisions of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the discrimination under the act was finally over, for good. At the age of 73, Mary Two-Axe Early became the first woman to regain her Indian Status.

In the years that followed, Mary continued her advocacy as some bands tried fighting the new clauses in the Indian Act by not reinstating women who had married non-natives. At 83 she served as a witness for the Native Council of Canada, when three bands from Northern Alberta tried to deny the rights of these women.

Two-Axe Early testified as to the plight of women who had been expelled from reserves, their hardships and what they faced. She brought up how in Kahnawake’s, Protestants and Catholics have their own cemeteries and there was a separate cemetery for dogs, but if you had married a non-native, you could not be buried there. With that testimony the courts determined that it was up to the government and not the bands that would have the last say when it came to being a member of a band.

Mary Two-Axe Earley finally died on August 21, 1996, of respiratory failure. She was laid to rest exactly where she had fought to be, in Kahnawake cemetery. Before the time of her death she received many awards from the Governor General’s Award in Commemoration of the Persons Case, an award reserved for outstanding Canadian women, the Order of Quebec and a National Aboriginal Achievement Award. York University in Toronto also granted her an honorary Doctorate of Laws degree.

Still sorrowfully missed, Mary Two-Axe Early was a revolutionary and an outstanding individual.

Edith Cloutier

As a fifteen-year-old, Edith Cloutier started out as the Val D’Or Friendship Centre’s dishwasher, by twenty-three she was its executive director and now seventeen years later the centre has undergone its own rags to riches story under her watchful eye.

“I have been involved in the Friendship Center Movement since I was a young girl I guess, so the friendship center has always been part of my life,” she says nostalgically. Cloutier is the product of an Algonquin, Abenaki mother and French, Quebecois father though she says, “I have been all my life following more of my mother’s path.”

She later attended UQAT, the Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue and obtained a bachelors degree in accounting which led to her taking over the Centre’s direction at the young age of 23, she explains, “when I graduated the executive directors position had been open for more that a year. It was because the Friendship Center board at the time really wanted to have an Aboriginal person to take over the center because we weren’t that many first nation’s graduates with a background in management.” Reluctant about her age and the position she took on the center anyway which at the time was in a small building on 6th street and employed thirteen people. Says Cloutier, “now today, we are running a day care center, programs from early childhood, right up to elders. With the day care center, we now have up to 90 people working at the Friendship Center and 70% of our staff are now First Nation’s.”

She laughs and says, “but hey its not like I did this all by myself. I have been in partnership with the right people and making the people really believe that we can do something for urban aboriginal people in Val D’Or, not just those moving to the city but for all of those who come through Val D’Or.”

Since 1974 the Friendship Centre in Val D’Or has been providing a hostel service to a great deal of the Cree community who are either traveling through Val D’Or, or who have come to the city center for health services and for pregnant women who come to give birth at the hospital near by. Cloutier describes it as “a home away from home.”

The Val D’Or Friendship Centre is one of 119 centres across the country. Though very few of them probably function the way that Val D’Or’s does, says Cloutier, “I think that (Friendship Centers) we all share the same mission, which is to improve the quality of life for Aboriginal people living or passing through urban areas. We also keep alive our culture and our traditions and language. And we also work very hard to maintain positive relations between the native and non-native communities in Val D’Or.”

What really separates this friendship from the others is its financial autonomy and its focus on socioeconomic development. According to her, “the day we decided that we were not going to depend on government funding anymore, we closed our books last March with a total revenue of $3 000 000.00.” Says Cloutier, “we chose about maybe ten years ago that we were going to stop looking at getting all of these grants and contributions to help us reach that mission because we said there is no way to develop and move on, if we always ask around for grants.”

So the center focussed on developing every aspect of its business that it could with reinvestment in mind, generating services to generate new jobs with the profits coming back for more social and community development.

The Friendship Center did this via opening up cafeteria seven days a week and the hostel service to natives and non-natives thus creating a meeting place for the whole area population that can be rented out for various purposes. The cafeteria now also provides a catering service for events at the center. They also have an arts and crafts shop and a daycare service that they opened up as a separate corporation so that provincial funding for daycare can be poured back into the Friendship Center as an alternative source of revenue. Always thinking ahead, while the daycare was being built, the center ran training programs for daycare educators so that when the center opened, First Nation educators would be able to work in the facility. Says Cloutier, “So that’s why in Val D’Or its all in the perspective of having a social entrepreneur-ship vision of how we meet a social and community development mission.”

With so much success under her belt with Val D’Or Cloutier was inspired to become the president for the provincial association of friendship centers, called the Regroupement Centre d’Amitié autochtone du Quebec. She describes it as being a link, “advocating on the behalf of aboriginal people in our area, in the province of Quebec by having representation at the assembly of First Nation of Quebec-Labrador forum and to raise that issue and reality that urban aboriginals go through.”

Though reserve issues can be dramatically different from urban issues, Cloutier says that urban aboriginals are often “ the forgotten ones of our people.” And while she recognizes that Chiefs and reserves already have their own problems, more and more natives are moving to city centers.

A big problem for Friendship Centers is that, says Cloutier, “the realities in the urban areas are not well known at this point in Quebec, compared to out west. And I think that we have to, it has to become a common priority for leadership, all of the First Nation’s leadership in Quebec, not just AFNQL, but the Grand Council of the Crees, the Inuit, and the Makivik. Cloutier wants to see the aboriginals of cities recognized as a responsibility of the Grand Council and also see their issues addressed. She cites Montreal as a major problem area in terms of the Friendship Centres, “there is a major organizational problem there, I am very concerned about that. Not just because its people without good intentions or anything like that, that are taking over, we have to analyze the problem but the bottom of it is that we are not supported, we are left out on our own.” As far as she is concerned, “Friendship Centers that provide services to Cree people should be supported by the grand council.”

For Cloutier, her life with the Friendship Centre has been nothing but rewarding and her work ultimately makes her happy, “its not a job … It’s a life.” At the same time she also sees it as her fate, as though she truly right where she is supposed to be in life, “Its (the Friendship Centre) been part of me and I guess the path, that was my path.”

Dr. Emily Faries – Education is the key to self government

Dr. Emily Faries, Ph.D, was the first Aboriginal woman from the James Bay area to earn a doctorate and is largely responsible for the history textbook that is now being used at the Cree School Board. She is a major reason that the children of the North have a textbook that tells the truth about their own people.

Emily was born and raised in the Moose Cree First Nation. But her father came from Fort Albany and her mother from the Waskaganish region and she is a beneficiary of the James Bay Agreement. “We do have strong connections with Northern Quebec Crees,” she says.

When the government relocated First Nation people to the reserves, her parents settled in Moose Factory and joined the Moose Cree First Nation. Being on a reserve gave Emily the advantage of not having to go to a residential school; instead she attended the federal day school. Even still, she says, “the curriculum was the same as what was being taught in the residential school, we did not learn about our own culture, nor our history, nor our language.”

As far as Faries is concerned, her education did not begin with any kind of governmental institution but rather with her family. “My first teachers were my parents, my aunts and uncles, my grandparents and I firmly believe that those first teachers, the natural teachers were the ones that laid out the foundation as to what my life was to become,” she says.

“My connection to the land in essence is my connection to the creator,” she adds, explaining how her foundation in spiritual values helped to have a very positive impact on her view of life and helped prepare her to deal with life’s problems.

Her mother was responsible in the family for keeping traditions alive but it was her father, a WWII veteran, who “knew that education was so important he really pushed education with all of us and there were 10 children in our family.” Having travelled the world as a soldier, her father believed that education was at the core of social change and was the best means of helping the Aboriginal people.

After obtaining her first Bachelor of Arts degree in sociology, Emily went into an education program at Laurentian University in Sudbury. With her second degree in hand, she returned to her community where she was one of the first Native teachers.

Faries spent almost a decade teaching there before becoming principal. A few years later, she returned to school herself to obtain a Master’s degree in education from the University of Toronto.

Then she worked as an education consultant to First Nation people, including helping the Assembly of First Nations on their National Education Study. It was at that point that she decided to pursue her Ph.D. as she had developed an interest in research. She went back to the University of Toronto and in 1991 Dr. Emily Faries became the first Aboriginal woman from the James Bay area to earn a doctorate.

“I have been blessed with many opportunities,” she observes. “I should say no matter what I was doing I always sought guidance from the Creator in whatever I was doing.”

At a time when the Aboriginal people are working towards self-determination and self-governance, Faries feels fortunate that she can contribute through her work: “Education is key to reaching the ultimate goal of becoming self governing.”

Faries also worked with the Cree School Board back in the early 1990s. “I wrote a paper for them on Cree as a Language of Instruction, about its advantages to Cree children being taught their own languages first in the early grades with a gradual introduction to a second in the early grades. I prepared the paper for the General Assembly of the Crees.”

That was not her last stint at the board however, says Faries. “I wrote a history textbook from the Native perspective that is used in the Cree School Board’s history program. I would say it’s the real history because we talk about the historical journey of the First Nations people and how various elements impacted the people.”

What perhaps differs from the standard textbook used by the rest of the province is that in her book, A History of Quebec and Canada, a Native Perspective, the history of the Crees and Quebec’s European settlers is actually told. The book looks at the impact of the fur trade, colonization, the residential school system, the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement and the hydro-electric development.

Unfortunately, the book isn’t used outside the Cree school system. “I think that there is a dire need of awareness among the Canadian population on what I would call the real history of what happened to First Nations People upon contact with Europeans,” Faries says. “A lot of people don’t know that, even Native people don’t know that.”

Faries also believes that Canadians as a whole need to be educated on the historical journey of First Nations people. “If they understood or knew the historical journey then they would understand why we are in a situation where why we are making land claims and why are we fighting for Aboriginal rights.”

Dr. Faries says her people are in mourning, trying to heal themselves. “We are grieving for all of the losses so there is loss of identity, loss of culture, loss of language, loss of our traditional land.Healing and empowerment and education play a big role because as individuals, as we gain higher education we are able to work for our people and that is part of our healing and empowerment. We are taking our power back!

“What we are moving towards really is self-determination and to have our own governing systems. It’s really simple, we are just going back. We are in the process of regaining control in our lives and we know that it’s never going to be exactly the way it was before but we can bring back the values and the structures that work for us to our own institutions or systems. Education is the key to our success!