International Women’s Month: Aboriginal Women Who Have Made A Difference


International Women’s Day message: “Celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. Yet let us be aware progress has slowed in many places across the world, so urgent action is needed to accelerate gender parity. Leaders across the world are pledging to take action as champions of gender parity.”

Indigenous women who have made a difference don’t always get the accolades that would have been given to their male counterparts. Yet in the last year, Native women have stepped up and have been recognized for their achievements. In 2015, the Liberal Party of Canada with Justin Trudeau leading the charge sent ex-Prime Minister Stephen Harper to an early retirement. Trudeau, in forming his cabinet, selected former Regional Chief of the BC Assembly of First Nations Jody Wilson-Raybould. She is a lawyer by profession and worked as provincial prosecutor for three years before working for the BC Treaty Commission and was soon promoted to commissioner. Jody was councillor for the We Wai Kai Nation and helped develop a financial administration law that became a framework for establishing budgets and controlling expenditures. In 2009, Jody was elected as regional chief of the BC Assembly of First Nations, which she won on the first ballot.

Jody Wilson-Raybould

Jody Wilson-Raybould

Jody Wilson-Raybould has only started her term as Justice Minister, but already the inquiry into Missing and Murdered women as been initiated, and there seems to be a much better understanding between the Liberal Party and First Nations leaders and organizations, including the AFN. She brings extensive experience in law, public service, and First Nations governance to the cabinet. Her message has always been “societies that govern well simply do better economically, socially, and politically than those that do not. Good governance increases society’s chance of meeting the needs of its peoples and developing sustainable long term economic development, and First Nations are no different.”

Another political victory for Native women: Melanie Mark is the first woman from a First Nation to be elected to the BC Legislature. She is of Nisga’a, Gitxsan, Cree, and Ojibway heritage. Melanie admitted she knew little of her history until she worked as interpreter for Bill Reid’s art displayed at the Vancouver airport.” I was inspired by Bill Reid’s work not because I had any artistic ability but because I was curious about the Native culture that was unknown to me.”

Melanie Mark new

Melanie Mark

Melanie Mark had a very difficult childhood, her father died of a heroin overdose and her mother was described as an “alcoholic and fanatical woman.” She grew up in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, and was subject to abuse and humiliation, surrounded by drug and alcohol addiction, and was often in charge of her siblings. “I hope the public doesn’t take the first two decades of my life as the defining piece. It’s a part of what shaped me. It’s a part of what gives me my empathy,” she told the media, “When people phone you and say, ‘This is what I am faced with,’ I can understand what they’re talking about.”

As former president of the Urban Native Youth Association, Melanie Mark attended the Native Education Centre and Douglas College for a degree in Criminology. She spent eight years with the UNYA. “I saw enough inaction and status quo and stand-pat budgets and a lack of commitment.” Having suffered abuse herself, she was committed to helping Native youth who had been abused. “Knowledge is power, and the trials and tribulations in my life have increased my knowledge as an Aboriginal woman to want to partake in creating a better system of accountability for the protection of our young people.”

Alanis Obomsawin

Alanis Obomsawin

Alanis Obomsawin has directed more than 40 films. Her films have always dealt with Aboriginal people and issues. Her first movie Christmas at Moose Factory was shown in 1971. Alanis is 83 years old now, and her most recent film Trick or Treaty deals with the James Bay treaty signed in 1905. “This film is so badly needed, I think because people are very ignorant in terms of knowing what a treaty is, especially Canadians in general. If you say treaty, ‘Oh it’s an old thing; it’s not important.’ Well they are going to find out differently because all the treaties that were made have had terrible consequences to our people and to the country, and people should know that. These things should be taught in school.”

Trick or Treaty was the first Indigenous movie shown at the Toronto International Film Festival’s Masters Program. Jesse Wente director of of film programmes for the festival was very respectful of Obomsawin’s work, “Alanis is certainly one of Canada’s great documentary filmmakers, but in a larger context, she is really the grandmother of Indigenous cinema all over the world.”

Crystal Shawanda

Crystal Shawanda

Crystal Shawanda was born on Manitoulin island in Ontario. She grew up with a dream that she would someday be a successful singer. That dream motivated her to go to Nashville to further her career. As a result at the 10th Annual Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards, Shawanda won Best Female Artist, Best Single, Best Video, and Best Country Album of the Year. “I didn’t have any expectations, I was just more excited I was able to sing.” The fact that Buffy Sainte-Marie was given a lifetime award the same night was icing on the cake. “Buffy Sainte-Marie was a huge mentor for me, musically and style wise.” Crystal has also appeared on the Grand Old Opry and has given many of her awards to Native schools where they could be displayed and inspire other Aboriginal youth to aim for greatness.

Ashley Callingbull Burnham is the first Canadian and first First Nations woman to win Mrs Universe.

Ashley Callingbull Burnham

Ashley Callingbull-Burnham from the Enoch Cree Nation in Alberta was crowned Mrs. Universe in the summer of 2015. Ashley grew up in a poor family until she was five years old. She has said that it took years to forget the trauma she endured as a child, but she moved on and now uses her visibility as Mrs. Universe to bring awareness to Aboriginal issues. Ashley was also named Canadian Dignity Role Model and was very critical of the way the Harper government responded to the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada. “It’s dangerous to be a First Nations woman in this country because were not as important as other women in this country.”