Time for a Change – First Nation Women Taking Leading Roles in Indigenous Affairs and Canadian National Politics

Indigenous Woman making History this month:
Mary Simon for her appointment to Governor General of Canada | Photo courtesy Aljazeera

Chief RoseAnne Archibald, elected Chief of the Assembly of First Nations | Photo courtesy CTV

Grand Chief Kahsennenhawe Sky Deer elected Chief of the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake | Photo courtesy APTN

Though Women’s History Month is not until October, three First Nation women made history on three different political fronts in July.

On July 3, Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer became the first female and the first LGBTQ2S+ Grand Chief of the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake. On July 6, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau named Mary Simon as Canada’s Governor General. Two days later, on July 8, RoseAnne Archibald was elected as Grand Chief for the Assembly of First Nations (AFN).

Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer

For the 12 years prior to her election to a four-year term as Grand Chief of the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK), Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer, 41, served as a council chief on the Kahnawake Band Council.

Describing the experience as “overwhelming,” Sky-Deer says her priorities are developing an economic strategy that honours treaties to share land and resources and to focus on healing.

“That is what is owed to us,” said Sky-Deer, about her plans for an economic strategy that includes building affordable housing and attracting well-paying jobs to the MCK community of about 8,000 people located outside Montreal.

Sky-Deer said that the trauma, sadness, and grieving over the discovery of unmarked graves at former residential schools are to be addressed by empowering people through community-oriented actions to enhance language and strengthen cultural identity.

“We could start to do activities in our culture, spiritually, ceremonially, to lift the spirits of our people in our minds so that we can be ready for the work in the challenges ahead,” she said.

Many of today’s social challenges are a direct result of the tragedy of the residential-school system, and Sky-Deer, who believes the greatest way to honour the memory of Indigenous children who died there is to build a better today for Indigenous peoples in Canada.

Married with five step-children and two grandchildren, Sky-Deer said her identity as a member of the LGBTQ2S+ and being elected as Grand Chief is a “sign of the times.”

“We need to own who we are. I want to be a positive influence and role model, an inspiration to youth who feel that they are different. I want them to know that they are worthy, can achieve dreams, goals. And that LGBTQ2S+ is not a barrier. The Creator put us here with gifts.”

Sky-Deer continued, “It’s about looking at the person and character, the strengths, the abilities, and what they can do for the community. Does it really matter who they are attracted to or in a relationship with at the end of the day? Live and let live, and let people be who they are.”

Grand Chief, Sky-Deer does not intend to rule from the top but instead receive community input through think tanks staffed by common members of her band. “I think hearing from the people directly, empowering them to be a part of the solution, can help,” she said. “My people want to see more engagement, empowerment, ability to be part of the decision-making. All of these things are elements of our traditional way of governance.”

Sky-Deer won the post of Grand Chief with 573 votes. In second place was another female, Gina Deer, with 368 votes, MCK had been without a Grand Chief since Joseph Tokwiro Norton passed away last summer.

A Florida, USA, resident for eight years in the early 2000s, Sky-Dear played quarterback as a professional football player for the Daytona Beach Barracudas of the Women’s Professional Football League.

While in the States, she earned a Bachelor degree in psychology from the University of Central Florida in Orlando.

“There’s a new age upon us. I feel there’s a turning point in the history of humanity,” she said. “Women in leadership are actually becoming a norm across North America, what we call Turtle Island. It’s just part of the evolution.”

Mary Simon

In another first, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau named Inuk leader Mary Simon as Canada’s first Indigenous Governor General. Simon, who is from Nunavik, in northern Quebec, is Canada’s 30th Governor General,

Her new role is not the first first for Simon, who previously served as the first Inuk to be a Canadian ambassador when she represented Canada as its ambassador of circumpolar affairs and ambassador to Denmark.

The governor general position is also known as the Viceregal representative of the Monarch – the Queen of Great Britain’s representative in Canada.

Under law, the governor general is the second-highest ranking federal position in Canada, outranking the prime minister. Second-in-command after the Queen, Simon is the Queen’s representative in Canada.

“I believe we can build the hopeful future in a way that is respectful of what has happened in the past. If we embrace our common humanity and shared responsibility for one another, Canada’s greatest days are yet to come,” Simon said.

The power to dissolve Parliament and draw up the writs for a general election, on the advice of the prime minister, is now in Simon’s hands. She is also now the top commander of the Canadian Armed Forces.

“Today after 154 years, our country takes a historic step,” said Mr. Trudeau while announcing the appointment at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec. “I cannot think of a better person to meet the moment.”

Simon, a product of a federal government day school, wants to facilitate a better relationship between Canadians and Indigenous people and promised to play a significant role in getting Canadians to acknowledge their nation’s sins in its historical mistreatment and abuse of First Nations people.

“I can confidently say that my appointment is a historic and inspirational moment for Canada and an important step forward,” said Simon at the press conference announcing her appointment. “We need to stop to fully recognize and memorialize and come to terms with the atrocities of our collective past that we are learning more about each day,”

Born in Nunavik in northern Quebec to an Inuk mother and a non-Indigenous father, Simon reminded the nation that she has deep Indigenous roots when she told how she spent a lot of time as a child living a traditional Inuk lifestyle that included camping, living on the land, hunting, fishing, and gathering food.

“[I will] be a bridge between the different lived realities that together make up the tapestry of Canada,” said Simon.

After her job as a CBC broadcaster in the 1970s, Simon went on to hold many leadership positions in Indigenous organizations.

In 1975, Simon played a role in brokering a landmark land claim settlement between the Cree and Inuit community with the Quebec government, and also served as president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, an organization championing Inuit rights.

In 1982, she participated in the negotiations that led to the change in the Canadian Constitution that formally enshrined Aboriginal and treaty rights in the supreme law of Canada.

As Ambassador to Circumpolar Affairs In 1994, Simon defended Canadian interests in its Arctic territory, which at the time was called home by over 200,000 inhabitants, half of that population being Indigenous.

“I can confidently say that my appointment is a historic and inspirational moment for Canada and an important step forward on the long path towards reconciliation,” said Simon.

RoseAnne Archibald

RoseAnne Archibald has a remarkable history of breaking through the proverbial glass ceiling. A trailblazer, RoseAnne was the first Indigenous woman to serve as Chief for the Taykwa Tagamou Nation, Deputy Grand Chief for Nishnawbe-Aski Nation, Grand Chief for Mushkegowuk Council, and Ontario Regional Chief.

Now she has become the first woman to be elected as National Chief for the Assembly of First Nations (AFN). She defeated Muskowekwan First Nation Chief Reginald Bellerose with 50.5 percent of the vote in the fifth round of voting.

“The AFN has made her-story today,” said RoseAnne after her historic win.

Her main priorities in her new role will be fighting systemic racism, supporting the national action plan on missing and murdered Indigenous women, and addressing unmarked burial sites at former residential schools by working with the federal government to implement the 94 calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“With the recent discovery and recovery of our little ones across this country, we are all awake — and what people need to understand and what people need to come to terms with is how settler Canadians have benefited from these colonial practices and how we, as Indigenous people, have been the target of genocide,” she said. “We are going to stare this straight in the face and kick colonial policies to the curb. Change is happening.”

Prioritizing the effects of climate change on Indigenous communities and working with governments and regional chiefs on a post-pandemic recovery plan for First Nations are two additional issues RoseAnne plans to focus on.

During her campaign, she promised to promote a national agenda to make economic self-sufficiency for First Nations a reality and instituting a new AFN 2SLGBTQQIA+ Council.

“While there are things and differences that divide us, there is much that we share,” she said. “We all want our children to grow up proud and surrounded by love, culture, ceremony, and language, and safe and vibrant communities. We want a Mother Earth for them that is not threatened by wildfires and climate change…. We want to be good ancestors and leave a strong legacy for the seven generations ahead.”

RoseAnne is from the Taykwa Tagamou Nation in Northeastern Ontario, and has been participating in First Nations politics for 31 years. Elected to represent her home nation at 23 years old, she was also the youngest deputy Grand Chief for Nishnawbe-Aski Nation in Ontario.

“This is a critical time for Canada and we need our women to represent us in a traditional matriarchal manner to address the many injustices,” Archibald wrote in a Facebook post.

AFN represents 900,000 members across 634 First Nations. Its mission is to coordinate action between First Nations for their collective benefit.