Year of the Woman: FND Celebrates Women of Change

By: Niimi Fontaine

In honour of Women’s Day, March 8th 2017, the First Nations Drum celebrates Native women who have made a difference. With the current political climate and recent Women’s March protest where an estimated 3 million people took part worldwide, some are calling this the ‘Year of The Woman.’ First Nations women have often been underrepresented and not received the credit they deserve, however, this is beginning to change and we hope to see more sisters young and old finding their voice and becoming a catalyst for positive change.

Waneek Horn-Miller

Waneek Horn-Miller, 2009. Photo Cred: Jeff De Booy/Winnipeg Free Press


Waneek Horn-Miller has recently been hired as the Director of Community Engagement for the National Inquiry into the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Horn-Miller, a former MVP for the gold medal winning Canadian women’s water polo team, says her new title is more than just a job – it’s a mission.

A Mohawk from Kahnawake, Que., Horn-Miller is a former Olympian, a media personality and a health advocate. Her hiring as director of community engagement was announced at the inquiry’s first news conference on Feb. 7. “I was really, really humbled and honoured to be asked, because this [inquiry] is a historic event,” Horn-Miller told the CBC. “Never in our history have we ever just solely focused on the safety of Indigenous women and girls.”

At the 1999 Pan Am Games Waneek was voted MVP and as a co-captain proudly led her team at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. She went on to help Canada win a bronze medal at the 2001 FINA World Championships. Waneek was also present at the Oka Crisis in the occupational camp as a 14 year old. On the last day of the standoff as the occupiers were walking out there was a physical altercation between soldiers and Mohawk militants and Waneek was injured by a soldier’s bayonet as she carried her sister, and nearly lost her life.

As director of community engagement, Horn-Miller will oversee a team of regional community liaisons. The team will be in charge of connecting the commission with Indigenous organizations, the public, and most importantly, victims’ families across the country. “We’re supporting the families that have already identified themselves on what to expect from the hearings,” Horn-Miller told CBC. “But it’s also getting the word out there to people who don’t necessarily think that they have anything to contribute.”

Although she said it’s not entirely in her job description, Horn-MIller said she also plans to work with the commission’s communications staff to let the Canadian public know about the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. ”It’s the reality in our communities…there’s a lot of women I know who have been the victim of violence, or know someone who has been impacted by violence,” she said. ”But I want the public to know that this issue is not just an Indigenous issue, it’s a Canadian issue.”

Buffy Sainte-Marie

Buffy Sainte-Marie. Photo Cred: Matt Barnes Courtesy of the Artist


This year Buffy Sainte-Marie will be the award recipient of the 2017 Allan Waters Humanitarian Award. Sainte-Marie exemplifies the essence of humanitarianism through her dedication to protecting indigenous communities and indigenous intellectual property. Given out annually at the JUNO Awards, the Allan Waters Humanitarian Award celebrates and recognizes the philanthropic efforts made by Canadian musicians that have created a positive impact on the social welfare of society as whole.

Sainte-Marie was born on the Piapot Plains Cree First Nation Reserve in the Qu’Appelle Valley in Saskatchewan and grew up in Massachusetts. With a musical career spanning more than 50 years, Sainte-Marie is celebrated for her thought provoking lyrics and her passion for supporting Aboriginal people. Her singing and writing repertoire also includes subjects of love, war, religion, and mysticism. In 1997 she founded the Cradleboard Teaching Project, an educational curriculum devoted to better understanding Native Americans. She has won recognition and many awards and honours for both her music and her work in education and social activism.

The first First Nations artist who has been awarded an Academy Award (Best Original Song for “Up Where We Belong,”) Sainte-Marie is also the recipient of four JUNO Awards, a Golden Globe, the Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards, a BAFTA Award, multiple Queen’s Jubilee Medals and Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards. She carries the Order of Canada and has been inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame and Canada’s Walk of Fame.

Sainte-Marie’s most recent album Power in the Blood (2015) won 2016 JUNO Awards for Aboriginal Album of the Year sponsored by Aboriginal Peoples Television Network and Contemporary Roots Album of the Year, as well as the Polaris Music Prize.

Shannen Koostachin

Shannen Koostachin, 14. Photo Cred: Toronto Star


Shannen Koostachin, a young activist from Attawapiskat First Nation, Ont., was named one of Canada’s top 150 Canadians. She was a passionate advocate who took her message to Parliament Hill in 2009, to demand the federal government provide better, safer schools for students living on reserves. She spoke openly about deplorable conditions she and other aboriginal students had to deal with in their schools on First Nation reserves.

Sadly, the 15-year old passed away in a car accident in June 2010.

Koostachin’s advocacy for better and safer education for aboriginal students was turned into a campaign by her family and friends, known as Shannen’s Dream. That legacy is what earned Koostachin a spot on the list of top 150 Canadians. The list — which also includes names like Terry Fox and Emily Carr — is to help celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday this year.

Shannen’s Dream lives on through the First Nations Child and Caring Society, based in Ottawa. Executive director Cindy Blackstock says Koostachin was first confronted with a poor educational environment when she started kindergarten. At that time, the official school in Attawapiskat was closed down because the ground underneath it was contaminated. Students instead had their classes in portables trailers supplied by the federal government. “It was only supposed to be temporary, but by the time Shannen was in Grade 8 these portables had deteriorated so severely that there was ice build up, there was ruins, there was black mould,” says Blackstock. “There was a fire in this girl.” Blackstock recalls of Koostachin. “She just thought this was absolutely not fair.” Koostachin asked other Indigenous children to write letters to the government demanding change and demanding equal opportunity for all students. Blackstock remembers when Koostachin met with the Minister of Indian Affairs in 2009 to demand a better school for her community. When that politician responded with an unsatisfactory response, Koostachin told him she would never give up, because every child deserved better education.

As for the large 150th birthday celebration and being named as a great Canadian, Blackstock says she feels Koostachin would by disappointed that millions of dollars were being spent on a birthday party, when so many Indigenous students are still fighting for proper schools and struggling for basic needs. Koostachin didn’t advocate for recognition or awards, Blackstock says she did it to help other students. Blackstock says she feels Indigenous students across Canada are asking for one thing this year as the nation celebrates 150 years. “They want Shannen’s Dream to come true.”

Melanie Mark

Melanie Mark becomes first Aboriginal woman elected to B.C. legislature. Photo Credit: Facebook


Melanie Mark is the first woman from a First Nation to be elected to the BC Legislature. She

is of Nisga’a, Gltxsan. Cree, and Ojibway heritage. Melanie admitted she knew little of her history until she worked as an 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 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 downtown Vancouver’s 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 of me. It’s part of what gives me 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 a 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 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.