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Memorable Indigenous women in Canadian history

Photos of Kenojuak Ashevak; Mary Two-Axe Earley; Angela Sidney; Mikak; Nora Bernard; Jean Cuthand Goodwill

It is long past time to address the gaps and inconsistencies in our Canadian history books, particularly the textbooks used in Ontario schools. Canada is a relatively young country, when compared to most European countries from which many original settlers emigrated. Our history texts are rife with examples of how Canada was settled and “won” from the First Peoples. What of the history of the Indigenous peoples of Canada; the First Nations, Métis and Inuit (FNMI)? Until the past decade, the shameful and often genocidal policies of our governments were ignored largely in a historical context. As FNMI activists continue to advocate for compensation for the victims of the residential school system, to address land claims and treaty violations, encourage the cleaning and protection of the environment, and to call for action regarding the many missing/murdered Indigenous women, among other issues, it is also important to focus on several historically significant Indigenous sisters. The history of Canada does not begin in the 1600s; it is important to honour, acknowledge, and recognize the contribution of FNMI women in activism, preservation of cultures, teaching, and mentorship of the next generation.

In a 2016 article, “New Journeys—6 Incredible Indigenous Women Every Canadian Should Know,” the following women are mentioned: Kenojuak Ashevak (1927–2013), Mary Two-Axe Earley (1911–1996), Angela Sidney (1902–1991), Nora Bernard (1935-2007), Mikak (1740–1795) and Jean Cuthand Goodwill (1928–1997).

Kenojuak Ashevak was born on Baffin Island and was one of the first Inuit who learned to draw, and later became a significant artist. She not only used a variety of media to draw and paint, but also created soapstone carvings and stone cut prints. Her work has appeared on Canadian stamps and coins and several of her prints, Enchanted Owl and Rabbit Eating Seaweed are recognizable as iconic Inuit art. In 1974, she was elected a member of the Royal Academy of Arts, was appointed a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1982, received honourary doctorates from Queen’s University and the University of Toronto, and in 2001 was inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame.

Mary Two-AXE Earley was a Mohawk woman, born on the Kahnawake reserve in Quebec. When she married a non-Indigenous man, she lost her Indian status; she could no longer live on her home reserve or participate in her community. Mary began to advocate for changes to the Indian Act and in 1968, began the Equal Rights for Indian Women Association. Bill C-31 was passed in Parliament in 1985; this amended the discriminatory and sexist part of the Act, restoring status to thousands of First Nations women who had married non-Indigenous men. Mary was the first woman who had her status restored in a ceremony with David Crombie, then the Minister for Indian Affairs and Northern Development.

Angela Sidney was a Tagish woman who spent much of her time collecting the stories of her people. This helped to preserve dances, stories and language; she taught these stories and traditions to children. She worked with linguists and anthropologists to preserve the language, recorded oral history and helped create books that contained songs, stories and Tagish place names. In 1986, Angela became the first Yukon woman to receive the Order of Canada for her work helping to preserve the Tagish language and culture.

Mikak is one of the earliest Inuit to be mentioned historically, and was instrumental in creating friendly relations between Europeans and the Inuit. She was taken prisoner by an English naval officer, Francis Lucas, transported to Europe, and later returned to Labrador. She appears to have learned some English, been very charming and even impressed British royalty. Upon her return, she helped missionaries set up the first mission in Labrador.

Nora Bernard is a Mi’kmaq activist who campaigned for compensation for the survivors of residential schools. Bernard spent five years in the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School and brought a lawsuit against the government. She often defended her siblings and other children while a school resident, and was beaten for her efforts. She began a class action suit in 1995 for the survivors of her school, which thousands joined from other groups and associations across the country. Tragically, her grandson killed her in 2007, just before the government sent out compensation cheques to thousands of survivors.

Jean Cuthand Goodwill was a Cree woman from the Little Pine First Nation in Saskatchewan. She was the first Indigenous person to become a registered nurse in her province and one of the first Indigenous persons in Canada to become a registered nurse. Jean’s focus was helping people in need. She worked in rural Saskatchewan and Bermuda. Upon her return to Canada, she helped found the Aboriginal Nurses Association of Canada and was President from 1983 to 1990. She worked with the Minister of National Health and Welfare as an advisor, worked with the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, taught at the University of Regina, served as a Canadian Public Health Association board member and was President of the Canadian Society for Circumpolar Health.

The previously mentioned individuals were only a small example of Indigenous women who have made a difference. There are many others such as Nahnebahwequay, Shaaw Tláa, Charlotte Edith Anderson Monture, Dr. Elsie Charles Basque, Ruth Smith, Pauline Johnson, Sharon and Shirley Firth, Dr. Lillian Dyck, Bertha Skye, Sheila Watt-Cloutier, Tanya Tagaq, Marlene Poitras, and “Water Walker,” Josephine Mandamin.

Traditionally, Indigenous women held important places in many of their respective tribes, such as medicine women, spiritual leaders, nurturers of young, educators, and the holders and keepers of cultural knowledge. European incursions into North America and the resultant disease, sometimes enslavement of the First Peoples, genocidal policies, the decimation of cultural knowledge and language, and the denigration of women, in general, and Indigenous women, in particular, have all taken a toll on Indigenous cultures and languages. There is a need to continue to redress these wrongs.

If you would like more information about Indigenous women and other women of note in Canadian history, the following articles might be of interest:

Women in Canadian History: A Timeline

Timeline—Status of Canadian Women

Josephine Mandamin, water activist who walked 17,000 km around the Great Lakes, dies at 77

About Karen Kading
Karen Kading is a member of the Teacher Bargaining Unit in District 11, Thames Valley, and a member of the Provincial Status of Women Committee.

4 Comments on Memorable Indigenous women in Canadian history

  1. Margaret Bentley // November 5, 2020 at 4:22 pm // Reply

    A just tribute to the lives of such well deserving women.

  2. Vanessa Vila // November 5, 2020 at 8:33 pm // Reply

    Thank you for sharing!

  3. Donna Blanco // November 6, 2020 at 7:55 am // Reply

    Thank-you for this! db

  4. Thank-you for this important posting. db

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