Time for Gender Balance in Native Leadership, Say Indigenous Women

Published in Indian Country Today Media Network | July 21, 2012 | Circulation: 300,000 unique monthly visitors / 22,500 (magazine)

Pam Palmater came in second in the race for Assembly of First Nations National Chief, with 141 chiefs’ votes as opposed to incumbent Shawn A-in-chut Atleo’s 341. Photo by David P. Ball

With much attention to women candidates’ historic showing in the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) elections on July 18—four of eight hopefuls were female—many expressed hope for restoring a gender balance lost since First Contact.

The president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) said that the AFN has made major strides in working with her organization but still has a way to go toward gender equality.

“I don’t think the AFN is ready right now to have a woman as its leader,” Jeannette Corbiere Lavell told ICTMN. “But I can see it next election, because I saw so much support and a lot of emphasis that it’s time we promoted women into leadership positions. This is our tradition—we were always there as decision makers; our elders have always said that. One is not more important than the other.”

Some suggested that the mainstream media disrupted the race by distorting or minimizing women’s voices in the recent election, which saw National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo winning a second term.

“The media have not done a good job of treating us fairly,” candidate Pam Palmater, runner-up to Atleo on the final ballot, told Indian Country Today Media Network. “They belittled the women’s side of it. They barely even mentioned the other women; they were almost nonexistent. There still is an issue—a gender issue—because the majority of leaders are male…. The media plays that up, saying, ‘It’s so male-dominated there’s no chance for women.’ ”

But Palmater added that women are better represented among First Nations chiefs and councilors than as Canadian Members of Parliament.

For fellow lawyer and candidate Joan Jack, who raised sexism allegations before a televised debate on the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN), the issue is not exclusive to aboriginal communities—nor should it reflect on all aboriginal men.

“I don’t think our men are like that really,” Jack told ICTMN after the election. “The National Chief himself, his instantaneous response was that there’s no place for [sexism].”

She said that the very fact that a full half of leadership candidates were women is a hopeful sign for gender equality.

“We’re raising the next generation of men who see women as leaders,” Jack said. “It would be inaccurate to say there is no sexism in Indian country; we’ve been colonized by a sexist colonizer.”

Before the elections, a firestorm erupted over Jack’s Facebook comment: “Should I be aggravated when my some of my fellow male colleagues … make sexist jokes as we prep for the APTN debate? I think so!”

Although she would not reveal who made the alleged comments, APTN reported that one male candidate remarked on the height of Palmater’s high-heel shoes, and another said, “It was a good thing this wasn’t a beauty pageant.”

“I didn’t perceive that as being sexist because of the context,” Lavell said. “But perhaps in a different situation, it could be construed that way [as sexist] by women who were there.”

She said women truly shone this AFN election.

“The women candidates were amazing,” she said. “They were so well-spoken. I think the women did outshine some of other male candidates.”

Palmater said she decided to focus her campaign on Indigenous nations’ sovereignty more broadly.

“I made a conscious choice not to make the campaign about gender,” she said. “In none of my forums did I say, ‘You should vote for me because I’m a woman.’ I tried to stay focused on the cause. There were a few chiefs who told me directly, ‘We will never vote for a woman.’ They were honest and forthright about it…. But the majority were focused on the issues at hand.”

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