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Female chiefs needed

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The first thing you notice when you meet Chief Francine Meeches is that she is interested in making her community better -- now. She knows first-hand the positive impact development and partnerships can have on Swan Lake First Nation and she is in aggressive pursuit.

Visit their community website and the first thing you'll see are job postings. The chief's hard work and discipline have not only helped her community earn accolades from across Canada, but Swan Lake recently beat out Lethbridge and London, Ont., for the top public service award by the Institute of Public Administration of Canada and Deloitte.

Is it because Meeches leads differently as one of handful of female chiefs in Manitoba? "Yes, women definitely lead differently than men," she said, "in part, because I think we have a lot more compassion and willingness to help others learn."

This emphasis on education in the Idle No More movement is an example of the influence of women especially since the focus began changing to confrontation as more men joined.

It raises the question -- would the election of more female chiefs help First Nations communities better explain the concerns of their people and, ultimately, solve more problems?

To help answer the question, it's important to take a look back at the negative effects the Indian Act had on First Nations women.

The truth is it wasn't that long ago women were excluded from all leadership positions, which stands in stark contrast to the historic role they played as both ceremonial and political leaders in many First Nations communities.

Shockingly, prior to 1985 when the act was amended to bring it into accord with equality provisions of the Charter, First Nations women who married non-First Nations men, not only lost their status but ceased to be band members.

This all but excluded them from ever re-integrating into their home communities and, worse, resulted in many family and community separations -- some of which have never been healed.

The long-term impact of these policies is felt to this day, where out of the 64 First Nations communities in Manitoba, the number of women in leadership positions has never topped seven. Chief Tammy Cook-Searson from Lac La Ronge Indian Band in Saskatchewan is another modern day example of the new role women are taking, or re-taking. She leads a community that has developed a home ownership model that is being studied and copied by First Nations across Canada. She is also tackling unemployment rates by aggressively increasing partnerships with private businesses.

Not surprisingly, both female chiefs point to the importance of role modelling as a way to the future for First Nations girls and young women.

"When I first started visiting classrooms, you could see the girls sit up just a bit straighter," said Chief Cook-Searson. "Teachers reported afterward that the female students felt proud and empowered and could see the possibility that, one day, they might be able to be a chief, too."

Chief Meeches agrees that it is important to let both boys and girls see, at a young age, that there is nothing wrong with being a female leader.

"If we create a mentality where our children are not picking one gender over another," she said, "they will be much more likely, as adults, to select a chief based on the quality of the person and not their gender."

Today, in First Nations communities across Canada, there are countless strong young women who are fully able to play a leadership role in their communities. They just need to be encouraged and told that leadership is an option for them, which is why female chiefs are important role models.

Once empowered, the possibilities are endless for our female leaders to embrace development and create progressive policies for the future while maintaining a strong connection to the historic and cultural roots of the past.

It's time these doors were fully opened to the potential benefit of all communities seeking the improvements that so many are desperately in need of. The election of more female chiefs may just be an important part of the solution.

James Wilson is commissioner of the Treaty

Relations Commission of Manitoba, a neutral body mandated to encourage discussion, facilitate public understanding, and enhance mutual respect between all peoples in Manitoba.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 3, 2013 A15

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