As indigenous women leaders from across the circumpolar North prepare to gather in Yellowknife this fall to share their knowledge, experiences, support and solutions with one another, men from throughout Denendeh are taking some time to reflect on their own roles in women’s struggle for equality.
Men within Dene Nahjo, the organization behind the upcoming Indigenous Circumpolar Women’s Gathering set for Nov. 12-15, are lending their support to the women-led initiative that is striving to pave the way for Northern mothers, sisters and daughters to take the lead on important issues affecting their communities.
Though differing in their insights, each offers a strong message of support for women leaders and a call for action to fight inequalities, to protect women’s rights and increase respect for the roles, both modern and traditional, that indigenous women take on in their families and communities.
Our communities, today
Indigenous communities throughout the North, like many across the world, continue to deal with the colonial legacy of patriarchal oppression in all of its forms. What has resulted in many cases is an unbalanced playing field where women’s efforts to have a say in their people’s future have been ignored or even crushed by men. Instead, their fundamental work at the community level has been relegated to the back seat, despite its importance.
‘‘The reality is that right now, in a lot of our communities, women are the leaders in a lot of really substantial areas. You look around and you see men being elected to political leadership positions, but it’s an incredibly impoverished notion of leadership. Often they do more harm than good,’’ said Daniel T’Seleie, a K’asho Got’ine law student from Radili Ko (Fort Good Hope).
‘‘People doing the work that actually matters, that actually makes a difference, almost 100 per cent of the time that’s women.’’
Amos Scott (Tlicho Dene) and Deneze Nakehk’o (Dehcho Dene), both journalists in the North, have observed similar scenarios. Women typically take on a lot of behind the scenes work, they say, while men take on the titled roles of chief, MLA, executive director, president or premier. Though the women’s efforts are important, they are often less recognized – if at all – for their contributions.
‘‘We don’t honour women for everything they do, and their strong connections,’’ Nakehk’o said. ‘‘I think in our society, the resource extraction economy is kind of how society views Mother Earth, and I think that’s how some men view ladies out there.’’
‘‘Traveling throughout the North, I noticed it was women who were quietly leading their communities,’’ Scott said. ‘‘And I think the role now is really to support giving them voice and the space to be the upfront leaders.’’
Why support women’s voices?
Stephen Kakfwi (K’asho Got’ine) recalls a time during the 1970s when the Dene Nation began to break trail politically in the Northwest Territories. Though the male leaders involved were deeply dedicated to their political cause, the majority were struggling as individuals with addiction issues and trauma carried forth from their time in residential school.
For years, the issue was ignored. Eventually, it was the women who pushed the issue of alcohol abuse to the fore, taking the mic at meetings, demanding sobriety and accountability from their leadership, and directing the men on a path to healing.
‘‘Amazingly, the Dene leadership sobered up in about three or four years,’’ Kakfwi said. ‘’Who started that was the women.’’
Like they did back in the Dene Nation’s early years, Scott said women continue to be vital changemakers by bringing different perspectives to the table. Along with new ideas, having meaningful involvement by women in all sectors of society is also crucial for solving contemporary global issues, T’Seleie added.
‘‘Patriarchy is a structural cause of climate change, and that goes for a lot of the other issues we’re dealing with as well, like intergenerational trauma from residential schools and lack of education. We can’t begin to solve these problems if we let patriarchy continue,’’ he said.
What men can do
For Kakfwi, the importance of women’s rights stretches far beyond the political arena and into the very fabric of society.
‘‘If we don’t (respect women), then it leads to the breakup of our families, our culture and our society – our way of life,’’ he said. ‘‘Our traditional role as men has been to be the protector and provider. When we don’t do that, when we’re just hunters who come home and beat our women and neglect our children, everything falls apart…Men have to heal and recognize what needs to be done.’’
Kakfwi has held numerous positions of power, including premier of the Northwest Territories and president of the Dene Nation. But he said that never stopped him from taking on the role of stay at home dad, changing diapers and feeding babies, despite ridicule and disapproval from other males in his life. He had been supportive of his wife, Marie Wilson, throughout her own highly successful career.
‘‘I’m the husband of the commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission; that’s how I describe myself,’’ he said. ‘‘I’ve done everything I can in the last two or three years to support her.’’
Scott agreed that support for women needs to start at home, where giving women the time to work on activities that are important to them means sharing duties around the house, being humble and putting ego aside.
For Nakehk’o, the answer is simple: ‘‘Listening,’’ he said. ‘‘Just being able to listen. That’s basically it. It’s a pretty simple thing, but when you ask someone to listen, there’s a whole lot of other things that come into play. I think it’s about time we listen to the ladies out there.’’
Outside of the home, T’Seleie said it’s time for men to call each other out on misogynist behaviour that sabotages women’s efforts, to ensure there are safe spaces for women to take the lead without being abused or taken advantage of.
‘‘It’s not just what we can do; it’s what we can stop doing,’’ he said. ‘‘Instead of holding women back, start encouraging them.’’
That comes back to men doing the work to heal themselves, said Nakehk’o.
‘‘If you want to change the world…you have to make sure everything’s alright with you. That’s where it starts.’’
Leading change, together
Scott wants to see the conference open up a conversation that allows the concept of women leadership to eventually become part of the norm. With elections upcoming at the municipal, territorial and federal levels, he added that it would be positive to see more women candidates helping ‘‘to change the political dynamic at all levels.’’
Though empowering more indigenous women to enter the world of political leadership is a worthy cause in some cases, T’Seleie said the deeper and more important struggle is against the roots of patriarchy, in all of its manifestations.
‘‘A specific initiative at getting women into official political positions or jobs is a band-aid solution to a broader systemic problem. Attacking the roots of that problem is the real issue that needs to be dealt with in the long term,’’ he said.
He hopes the upcoming gathering allows women a safe space to discuss shared experiences, including those of gendered violence, and that the attendees will find ways men can support their initiatives.
‘‘Like any other struggle for justice, there need to be others standing with them and following their lead,’’ he said. ‘‘In this case, that’s our role: following the lead of women.’’
Photo credit: Kali Spitzer – Tania Rose