Did you know that October is Women’s History Month? Did you know that the 2006 edition was dedicated to the achievements of Canada’s First Nation women? Well, don’t feel bad if you didn’t, because while the federal government decreed this month be dedicated to women’s history back in 1992 through Status of Women Canada, it has never been adequately publicized.
This should not come as a big surprise; women have traditionally been dropped from the history books in just about every culture. Though they bore the children, cooked, cleaned, set up camp, washed, rinsed and repeated, and even though their many contributions have been just as important as those of men, their history has often played second fiddle. Now, through this month-long celebration, the whole country has the opportunity to look at what women have contributed to our communities and Canada’s history.
At a time when the government is cutting back on programs for both women’s groups and aboriginals, there has never been a more important time to honour the achievements of women and First Nations women in particular. In this light, the Nation is spotlighting a group of exceptional women who have not only inspired their communities but have given from their hearts for the good of their people. From those who walked with God to spread his teachings to those who fought to get their rights back to those who dabbled in political waters and became the first women in politics for their communities, the Nation salutes you! Over the next two editions we will be highlighting the accomplishments of some well-known and lesser-known ladies who have contributed from their hearts and souls to make the North stronger.
The instruction of Cree language in schools has come a long way but it would never, ever be where it is now without the contributions of interpreter and Cree language promoter Annie Whiskeychan.
Annie was born in Lake Grasset or Apishigameesh, just west of Matagami, in 1937 to Malcolm and Hilda Diamond. The oldest daughter of eight children, she fondly remembers her early childhood days of spending time with her family on their hunting territory.
She was sent to Bishop Horden Memorial Residential School in Moose Factory, where she attended school for four years until she contracted tuberculosis and spent the following two years in hospital. It was during her time in Moose Factory that she taught herself Cree so that she could correspond with her grandmother, a move that at the time was at the time considered remarkable as usage of all native languages in residential school was strongly – and often violently – discouraged.
It was these formative years that shaped Whiskeychan and laid the groundwork for her adult life as a language activist. She was not, however, immune to the homesickness, loneliness and alienation derived from being away from her family and siblings, something she nonetheless never complained of.
Once out of Moose Factory, Annie returned to her homeland and reconnected with her culture and kin. She learned the skills needed to live off of the land and eventually married Jimmy Whiskeychan in 1956. Together they had 10 children and as a family spent much of their time in the bush, only returning to Waskaganish when they could afford it, usually around the holiday season.
By the 1960s, Whiskeychan was applying her finely tuned language skills for the benefit of her community – translating, interpreting and writing correspondence for the chiefs of Waskaganish, particularly when visits from Indian Affairs would occur. She used her knowledge of English and Cree to translate the documents between the band and the government so that she could keep the community and its elders abreast of goings on.
In 1972 Annie graduated from l’Université du Québec à Chicoutimi with a certificate in an Education program and found herself working for the Cree Way Project, an initiative to develop curriculum materials for Cree schools set up by John Murdoch and Annie’s sister Gerti. This was the first major step for Cree language and the introduction of Cree culture in the school systems, where sadly it had never been seen before.
Whiskeychan spent the following five years teaching under the department of Indian Affairs and one more year after the Cree School Board was set up before becoming an education consultant.
It was in these following years that Annie developed her literary legacy and created Cree readers for kindergarten, Grade 1 and 2 that are still being used by the board today. Without the readers that Whiskeychan developed, Cree language instruction and literacy would not nearly be where it is today.
She also developed various readers on Cree culture and worked extensively with linguists to develop the Cree lexicon of the Eastern James Bay dialects. Among the various works she translated from Cree to English, and vice versa, was the first piece of local aboriginal government legislation that was passed by Parliament in 1984.
Whiskeychan spent much of her life devoted to the instruction of Cree language and to Christianity. She has frequently credited much of her accomplishments to her ability to find strength in God and much has since been written about her finding her faith in the bush back in 1963.
Whiskeychan was honored by the Cree School Board in 1996 for her tremendous contributions to the instruction and revival of the Cree Language. In the annual report that year, she was asked to comment about the development of Cree curriculum. She spoke about the wonderful changes she had seen since Cree language had been introduced. Her mission was accomplished; children’s lives were enriched via learning what perhaps was most essential to them culturally: their own language. Beyond that, teachers had support in Cree language instruction by having appropriate materials for the kids. The language and culture that she had devoted much of herself to would now prosper for generations to come and as a result both teachers and students were happier as a result.
Annie Whiskeychan worked on curriculum development up until the time of her death on May 27, 1997. In the wake of her passing, the Annie Whiskeychan Foundation was formed in 1998 by the Cree School Board to continue her work and honour what she gave from her heart and soul to her community.
Whapmagoostui’s Elizabeth Dick has been working since she was a 15-year-old girl, the last 21 years for the band council. Married for 32 years and a mother of four, she is an Elder now, and her wisdom speaks volumes.
For the last decade Mrs. Dick has been working with her fellow Elders both regionally and locally to bring people together for various festivals. “We are trying to revive our culture in our community in working to help people go back and revive traditions that were lost from the community.”
Dedicating herself to unifying her community and those communities around it, she has worked tirelessly, though she says her efforts were truly a labour of love. In particular, she has focussed on bringing together youth and elders to share culture and traditions.
“I was always concentrated on making people happy, to get them come together as a big family and be very close to one another, also to bring all the young people too,” she said.
When asked why she has put the community before herself she responded with glee, “Because I really believe in my people! They have the talents and the wisdom. I find our community a very loving place.”
What does Women’s History Month mean to Mrs. Dick? In her case it’s all about how women heal their communities, not just physically but spiritually.
“It’s the women who will bring healing to their communities, but our own Native women have to heal too,” she observed. “So when the woman heals, the Nation heals also in a community. The women have the wisdom and knowledge and the love for their community and it’s their love, their unconditional love that will heal a community.”
Call her the accidental deputy Chief of Mistissini. Kathleen Wootton insists she loves her job, but early on a political career in Eeyou Istchee was far from an obvious career choice.
For as much as the residential school system set her up for academic success it deprived of her of her own culture. She did not catch up in that respect until years later. With her teaching degree in hand, Wootton headed out to British Columbia where she taught adults, a great deal of them Aboriginals. From her students, Wootton learned about her own culture.
“I was learning as much from them about native culture as they were learning from me,” she acknowledged. “It wasn’t your typical student-teacher relationship, it was like a partnership.”
Years later she returned to her native Quebec and hit the books again, garnering a Master’s degree in educational leadership from McGill University. It was upon graduating that she was lobbied to run for deputy chief.
“I believe in second chances,” Wootton said. “I think there are different stages of your life where you go through different things. I don’t think you just live one life.”
Her first attempt at politics a few years earlier did not pan out. “People seemed to think [at the time] that I should run for chairman of the school board or this or that but for me it was not really something that I had (in mind) and I see it as fate in a way.”
Wootton is the first female deputy chief in Mistissini and has perhaps paved the way for other women to come. “As far as leadership roles are concerned, in Cree society the Cree women are only just starting to make inroads,” she noted.
As deputy chief, her goals have been to empower her people to do more for themselves and to take a role in policy making. “Aboriginal organizations should be looking at how we can start to develop programs and services for ourselves, believing in our own people, that they can create programs and services instead of looking to the government all the time to create programs for us.”
A truly inspirational woman, Kathleen Wootton has devoted much of her life to her people and having won her seat again by acclamation recently, she has much more to give.
When a mysterious disease claimed the life of her granddaughter, Annie Bearskin wasn’t sure what to do.
“I had a granddaughter who was born in May of 1998, she was ten pounds when she was born and she was okay up until December,” explains Bearskin. “Everything was normal for a baby [her age] and then she developed a cold and after that it was just one thing then another that would lead to infection. If it wasn’t a cold it was an ear infection and so on, it just wouldn’t go away. The more infections she would have, the sicker she became and weaker until she started losing a lot of things that she had already learned to do. I guess she regressed. She died in the month of March.”
Her daughter was devastated, but at the same time still had the desire to have more children. The one thing Bearskin knew for certain was that she wanted answers, “We didn’t really know what was causing it and that is why we decided to find out more. So that is when the parents got together and started asking questions.”
She and others who had lost children in similar ways got in touch with Dr. Harris and Dr. Black, who narrowed the cause of death down to a genetic disorder. “They got in touch with researchers and they discovered a disease, Cree Leukoencephalopathy,” said Bearskin. “They discovered that it was genetic, and then they found the gene. Both parents have to carry the gene for the child to be born with this disease.”
Since that time a genetic test has been developed. A Cree couple considering having children can now be tested to find out whether they are at risk of having a child with the disease, much to the delight of Bearskin and her family. “I didn’t expect to get results as fast as we did. I am really, really happy about that.”
Had it not been for the perseverance of Bearskin and the parents of other children who had suffered such grim fates, the disease could have easily have gone undiagnosed indefinitely. Bearskin is still modest about what had transpired, however. “I don’t want to take credit for starting the organization, we started together with the parents and if it had not been for their help it would not be there. But I did ask questions when my granddaughter passed away.”
Bearskin and the other grieving parents organized The Eeyou Awaash Foundation and are creating a website so that others can get information. Years later, both of Bearskin’s daughters have successfully had children who have not presented symptoms of the disease. But she recommends people remain vigilant.
“Now that we have the testing I would recommend that people get in touch with the health care workers in their communities. That is the best way to go.”
For more information about Cree Leukoencephalopathy or the Eeyou Awaash Foundation, contact Annie Bearskin at (819) 855-9005 or check out: www.eeyouawaash.com/
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.”
Bella Nancy Mianscum
Though Bella Nancy Mianscum has had a number of different careers, perhaps what is most notable about her is what she has done for the longevity of the Cree language.
For the last three years Mianscum has worked as a principal at the Waapihtiiwewan Elementary School; prior to that she was a Cree language teacher for 12 years.
“Teaching the kids to preserve our Cree language was very important to me,” Mianscum said. “We are going to lose our language if we don’t teach our kids how important it is to learn our language.”
Mianscum, however, did not always speak fluent Cree herself. “I attended a residential school, but when I came back after going to high school and university I realized that I could not read it and I spoke only a little bit of my language. I realized that if I got married and had kids, I wanted my kids to learn our language.”
She then took it upon herself to learn her own language with the help of her mother. Fortunately, she also got some professional training. “They were giving out a Cree language literacy program (in our area) and I jumped to it. It really helped me to be motivated and to make a commitment to learn my language.”
This, however, was only a beginning for Mianscum. Having already worked as a Sunday school teacher for many years, teaching Cree became a natural move. She studied at McGill University and earned a certificate as a Cree language teacher.
For Mianscum, speaking Cree is part of understanding one’s own culture and identity, especially for the youth. “This is the only resource that they can hold on to,” she said. “This is their identity; they have their own language, they have their own culture.”
She also believes that it is best for children if they start learning Cree language at home from their mothers. “I truly, really believe that it’s the mother that has to motivate the children to preserve our Cree language and not only our Cree language but our Cree culture. So it’s so important that our Cree language is taught at home and mostly it’s always the mother, she is the main care taker with her children and it’s the mother that’s always there for their children and teaching them. Cree is so important. It has to start at home.”
Mianscum was also been the director for the Cree Nation Women for many years and has been very involved with the Women’s Ministry at her church. She can not stress the importance of learning the Cree language enough and believes that it’s not just a responsibility of mothers and teachers but just about everybody in the community.
YWCA Canada recently released a national study calling for violence against women to be considered a national priority. It occurs among all ages, races, and religions, and to people of all educational and income levels.
Consider this: in Canada, the painful truth is that a woman is harmed, maimed, or injured every minute of every day. That woman is someone’s mother, daughter, lover, wife, friend, relative or co-worker.
The tragic recent deaths of Ontario residents Francine Mailly and her three children, and Wendy LaFleche and her two children – both at the hands of their husbands – left many neighbours and friends bewildered as to how something like this could have happened.
Unfortunately, these events are chilling reminders of how violence in relationships can lead to serious injury, suicide and homicide. Part of the problem is that violence against women “within a relationship” is still not considered as serious a crime as is assault by a stranger. And yet, it happens more frequently: 69 per cent of women who have been sexually assaulted are assaulted by men they know. The bottom line: there is no excuse for abuse.
If you suspect a neighbour or friend is being abused, here is some advice from GTA-based Ernestine’s Women’s Shelter on what you can do.
Gather all the information you can about local programs and services in your area that assist abused women and their children. These programs offer women safety, as well as provide advocacy and support.
In Quebec you can call the Native womens shelter of Montreal at 1-866-403-4688. In Ontario the Assaulted Women’s helpline is 1-416-863-0511. Both places will talk with you about your concerns and services they offer. Your local health clinic offers services in your community.
Lend a Sympathetic, Non-judgmental Ear
Lending a non-judgmental ear is crucial in breaking the isolation associated with abuse. Letting your friend know you care and will not judge anything she shares with you may be the best help you can offer. Without forcing the issue, let her know you are willing to listen when she is ready to confide in you. Never underestimate her fear of potential danger and remember to focus on your friend’s right to make her own choices. Tell her you are there when she needs you, and provide whatever help you can: transportation, child care, taking care of a pet, etc. Make sure you access community supports and have information available for your friend if she needs it.
Direct your Friend to Community Services
Once your friend asks for your help, share the information you’ve collected. Encourage her to contact a violence-against-women hotline or women’s shelter. Let her know that she is not alone and that caring people are available to help. Reassure her that any information she shares with these services will be kept strictly confidential.
Focus on your Friend’s Strengths
Many abuse victims live with emotional as well as physical abuse. Without any positive reinforcement from outside their home, she may begin to believe that she is deserving of the treatment she is getting. Give your friend the emotional support she needs to believe she is a good person. Remind her that violence can happen to anyone and it is not her fault. Violence is always unacceptable. Emphasize that she deserves a life free from violence.
Help Develop a Safety Plan
Help your friend think through the action steps she will take to protect herself and her children should the abuser return while she is in the process of fleeing. Suggest she contact the Woman Abuse Hotline of a women’s shelter to develop a safety plan for escape. Suggest she gather as many personal documents such as birth certificates, social insurance cards, immigration papers etc. It is also important to suggest that she take or make a copy of her deed, rental agreement or lease.
When to Intervene
Call 9-1-1 immediately if there is an immediate danger to a person, or if you have a reasonable suspicion that a violent incident is occurring. It cannot be overemphasized that domestic violence is a crime that can result in serious injury and even death.