Politics Social Policy

Politics is women’s work: Indigenous women should be leading the North

This past month, Northerners voiced a resounding message of change in Northwest Territories politics, voting in new a majority of new MLAs. Key to the current territorial government is its distinct character of a consensus-style, non-partisan structure. Once governed exclusively by non-Indigenous bureaucrats in faraway Ottawa, the NWT now has a wide array of individuals—both Indigenous and non-Indigenous—who come from all Northern regions.

But, as recent elections have demonstrated, the glaring absence of women continues. In the 2011 NWT election, 19 per cent of candidates (nine of 47) were women. This past month, this number fell to just under 17 per cent. Of the candidates, 10 of 60 were women, and only two of those 10 were elected to represent the ridings of Yellowknife Centre and Range Lake.

The stark absence of women in the Legislature—and in the future Cabinet—demonstrates that the territorial government is not fully representative of Northern demographics, thereby allowing us to question that value of a so-called ‘consensus’ government. Those issues aside, it is timely to consider how and why women, particularly Indigenous women, remain outside the political sphere.

Encouraging Indigenous women to enter territorial politics is an enormous task. Some argue that the lack of engagement in territorial politics stems from certain Indigenous communities or groups rejecting the territorial government as a ‘legitimate’ governing body; this rhetoric has, historically, been harnessed by the Dene Nation. Although questions about which entities legitimately govern could be a factor for women in deciding whether or not to run, it is by no means the deciding factor.

As recently evidenced in Laura Busch’s Edge analysis, Sahtu candidate Yvonne Doolittle claimed that both age and gender influenced her success in the territorial election, noting that Euro-Canadian expectations of women remaining in the home—namely as mothers—has penetrated Indigenous communities in pervasive ways. Certainly, in my own experience as a Gwich’in academic and a cis-woman, the familiar message of what constitutes ‘proper’ and ‘appropriate’ gendered roles is never far below the surface. This should come as a surprise to no one. Although this belief persists in the North, my doctoral research has revealed that gender and gendered roles were much more fluid before the introduction of Christianity and Western ways of living.

One of the beautiful aspects about Northern Indigenous people is our regional diversity. Although we are neighbours, our histories are sometimes vastly different. Historically, for the Gwich’in, the role of women in social, political, and economic spheres should not be underestimated. If readers are familiar with the Committee of Original People’s Entitlement recording project, known locally as the COPE Stories, there are many accounts revealing that women held power and special medicine, that intimate relationships and marriages were fluid and sometimes included partnerships of several men and women, and that women could become hunters, warriors, and political leaders in their own right. Although gender roles and relations changed throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, it was not uncommon to see women—even during the 1950s and 1960s—managing their own traplines and fish camps, independently raising families after the loss of a partner, and entering political spheres on their own terms. Perhaps the best example of this, to my knowledge, comes from the many conversations I have had with Gwich’in elder Mary Kendi from Aklavik.

If we consider the broad changes of the 19th and 20th centuries, we will agree that Indigenous peoples across Canada struggled, generally, in response to the emergence and development of the Canadian nation-state. This project of settler colonialism was—at the very basic level—premised on the displacement of Indigenous peoples from their traditional lands and accomplished through the use of racialized rhetoric and the legal categorization of Indigenous people, namely under the Indian Act of 1876. The goal was to dismantle Indigenous societies and political frameworks through the implementation of massive policies of assimilation. The first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, declared that it was the nation’s duty to “do away with the tribal system and assimilate the Indian peoples.” He also went on to say that Canada was to become a white man’s country. Race and patriarchy were essential here; not only was Canada to become a white country, but also a man’s country.

The Indian Act legally controlled the identities of Indigenous people; many of our great grandmothers, grandmothers, and mothers married non-Indigenous men, thereby losing their Indian Status to become, technically, members of white Euro-Canadian society (the same was not true for Indigenous men who married white women). Some of this has been rectified through Bills C-31 and C-3, but systemic gender discrimination continues. For those who did not lose Indian Act Status, they sometimes did so through Enfranchisement, a project that was immensely popular among Indian Agents in the NWT during the 1950s. Residential schools brought other changes; children were no longer immersed in important coming-of-age ceremonies and failed to learn the important roles that both men and women held in our Indigenous societies. The introduction of capitalism and wage labour further influenced our people and, through the re-working of extended networks of kin into ‘Canadian’ nuclear families, women’s economic roles were diminished and undervalued. Research has recently uncovered programs of forced sterilization for Indigenous women—and a few men—demonstrating the unmitigated control that the state has expressed over sexualized Indigenous bodies.

For Indigenous feminism, the central pursuit is decolonization by challenging the legitimacy of the Canadian state.

All of this leads us to several important questions, the first being why Indigenous women’s experiences are particularly critical to the future of the North, when the Indian Act racialized both Indigenous men and women? Indigenous women’s issues are often labeled as issues around marital property, violence, family, health, culture, and poverty. Indeed, statistics support this, especially in the North, where violence against women is nine times the national rate and was the highest in Canada in 2013. Indeed, our incumbent Premier Bob McLeod was not particularly vocal for a national inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women until 2014’s Meeting of Canada’s Premiers. Further, Dene National Chief and Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief Bill Erasmus’ distasteful comments earlier this year—which can only be equated to victim blaming—lead us to question the commitment of our politicians, leaders, and advocates to women’s rights and roles in these conversations.

Women’s experiences are also linked to other questions about colonization, Indigenous legal orders, law, self-government, and Indigenous rights. The stark reality is that forms of gendered oppression and abuse come from within our own communities and from our own people. Indigenous women have had to confront both state violence, namely through the Indian Act, and that of male dominated Indigenous communities and organizations. For Indigenous feminism, the central pursuit is decolonization by challenging the legitimacy of the Canadian state. But an important part of this project is also seeking reparation for interpersonal gendered and state violence. In May 2014, Northern Public Affairs’ NWT correspondent Stephanie Irlbacher-Fox questioned our understanding of patriarchy, the culture of misogyny, and the prevalence of male privilege among NWT MLAs. Her conclusion, that women in Northern politics are rarely taken seriously and are subject to more scrutiny than their male counterparts, stands.

So where does all of this leave us when talking about women in Northern politics? Electing two women in the recent election is obviously a far, far comparison to the gender parity of the newly-formed federal cabinet. But there are also many signs of optimism. Dene Nahjo’s recent Indigenous leadership pilot program in Yellowknife demonstrates that there is much excitement for the future of territorial politics. With the majority of attendees being women and discussions centered around gender and politics, there is little doubt that both women and Indigenous people will be better represented, politically, in future elections. The energy, tenacity, and engagement demonstrated by Indigenous women, such as Nigit’stil Norbert, Judy Tutcho, and Yvonne Doolittle in the last election affords Northerners much hope for the future.

Encouraging women leaders to emerge might mean that it is high time for men to step aside, making room for women to gain experience and expertise from within the system and represent their communities locally, territorially, and even federally.

Despite these recent accomplishments, work remains. Settler colonial political frameworks tend to be unsympathetic to Indigenous activism, but change from within is still possible. Northerners need to be asking our elected representatives—not only at the territorial level—how they will encourage Indigenous women to become more involved in politics. Making the commitment to prioritize and uphold women’s voices and concerns through community work, the allocation of funds, and the support of existing advocacy organizations should be paramount.

Leaders at the community level must also shoulder some of this responsibility, not through rhetoric, but action. Men—both Indigenous and non-Indigenous—have long been at the helm of Northern politics. Encouraging women leaders to emerge might mean that it is high time for men to step aside, making room for women to gain experience and expertise from within the system and represent their communities locally, territorially, and even federally.

Finally, there is an immense amount of research being undertaken at the community level around Indigenous language revival, the learning of Traditional Knowledge (TK), and land-based practices. Our contemporary notion of ‘women’s work’ has been inherently influenced by Euro-Canadian, Christian understandings of gender roles. I suggest that if we, as Northerners, commit to learning and understanding our diverse histories, we will discover that Indigenous women belong in politics. If we are committed to embracing TK—as we so frequently claim—then let us use it wisely. Let us uphold pre-colonial, pre-settler epistemologies that support the expression of all gendered roles and truly reform Northern politics, for the better.◉

Photo credit: istockphoto/IPGGutenbergUKLtd

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