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Indigenous Women Take the Lead in Idle No More

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Politics and Democracy page and our Canada News page.

Late last year, amid the the rallies, dances, blockades, and furious tweeting that accompanied the burgeoning Idle No More movement, a young native woman was kidnapped by two Caucasian men in Thunder Bay, Ontario. It was two days after Christmas. They drove her out to a remote wooded area where they raped and strangled her. According to one report, the men told her that they'd done this before, and intended to do it again. They allegedly said, "You Indians deserve to lose your treaty rights."

The story was not widely reported in the press, maybe because the woman, publicly known as "Angela Smith," is indigenous, or maybe because violence against indigenous women happens so frequently that it's rarely considered news.

Which is what makes the very fact of Idle No More's female leadership so significant. Across Canada, indigenous women are continuing a tradition of leadership that existed before colonization, and in spite of a political system which, over the last 150 years, has made every attempt to prevent them from having power. While the stated goal of Idle No More is "education and the revitalization of indigenous peoples through awareness and empowerment," according to a press release issued by the group on January 10, the rights of indigenous women appear to be an inherent part of that revitalization.

The movement-which has swept North America and inspired solidarity actions all over the world-was initiated by four women: Jessica Gordon, Sylvia McAdams, Sheelah McLean, and Nina Wilson. It gained early momentum around the hunger strike maintained by another woman, Chief of the Attawapiskat, Theresa Spence.

"It's not coincidental that women are initiating this movement," says Kiera-Dawn Kolson, 26, a Dene activist from Northwest Territories who has spoken at and helped organize Idle No More events since the movement began. She's Greenpeace's Arctic Campaigner, a motivational speaker, facilitator, singer/songwriter, and performer.

On a recent day of action, Kolson watched excitedly from her hometown of Yellowknife as image after image of rallies streamed in from all over Canada. She noticed a pattern: From Ontario to Nunavut, from Saskatchewan to the Yukon, the images showed young women in the roles of organizers and spokespeople.

She's energized, but not surprised. "So many of our communities were and are still matriarchal societies," she says. In many communities across the country, it was-and, in some hopeful instances, still is-the grandmothers who called the shots. And while each society is different, they all shared the same fate under Canada's Indian Act, an all-encompassing piece of legislation that had devastating ramifications for women; created by white men with Victorian values, the Act explicitly excluded women from most forms of power and even made their identity as "Indians" contingent on their husbands.


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