By Rebecca Chartrand
At the age of 88, Elder Mae Louise is still fighting to restore the balance of power once held by Indigenous women. More than half the age of Manitoba, she is not only a significant matriarch in this province but one of the most beautiful women I have met. Mae Louise has witnessed the brutalities lodged against Indigenous women over decades, and has dedicated her life to healing and empowering Indigenous women.
Her resilience and strength are in her bloodline, passed down through the generations to her daughter Jamie Goulet. Together they are a vibrant mother-daughter team who has helped thousands of women and girls deal with multi-generational trauma for over two decades. They are the co-founders of the Clan Mother Healing Village and Knowledge Centre which seeks to provide mid- to long-term support and educational opportunities to victims of multi-generational sexual violence and human trafficking. Their formula for change is simple: “You heal a mother, you heal a generation of children.”
They are working to “re-establish the long-lasting Indigenous matrilineal models of governance and healing that, although have been oppressed, have not been lost,” says Goulet. Their unique land-based healing model will use Indigenous healing methodologies, community living, and community healing to support at-risk women. They hope to be less independent of government funding and therefore look to social enterprise models to develop programs, products and services that would be revenue-generating for the Healing Village and for the women.
“There has always been something missing in these Western systems for us and that is the leadership of and support for Indigenous women,” says Elder Mae Louise. Reclaiming Power and Place: The Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls reveals a deliberate gender-based genocide against Indigenous women with roots in Canada’s historical and political beginnings.
Statistically, Manitoba has failed Indigenous women and children. We have the highest number of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in this country, in addition to having the highest number of children in care. “It is time, we must show them (government and Western institutions) the way, they must follow our lead,” says Elder Mae Louise, “because their way has stripped us of our power and has been the root of this destruction.”
Historically, European men held power over women, which was not the case in North America/Turtle Island. Indigenous women were central leaders within our Nations and major decision-makers in our families and communities. Nothing happened without the consent and approval of the women, says Writer/Storyteller Duncan Mercredi. “When we started to ignore our women, that is when everything went to sh–,” he says, speaking up at the Grandmothers Rise Gathering held February 24, 2020, at the North End Women’s Resource Centre in Winnipeg.
European imperialism set in motion intentional efforts to undermine the power and influence of Indigenous women. “Our women want to do well and be well, but we must work that much harder to reclaim our sense of place, our belonging, reverence and leadership within our own communities,” says Goulet. “We must also work that much harder to protect our young women and each other from these ongoing attacks. The fact remains that when our women suffer, we all suffer, especially the children.”
Upon personal reflection, I realize how difficult this writing process has been for me. It brought many unresolved feelings to the surface about my own brushes against these issues. Growing up in Winnipeg’s North End with a high population of Indigenous Peoples made me a prime target for potential exploitation. I recall walking to school daily over a mile stretch between Mountain Avenue and Flora Avenue, and many times over those four years a car would pull up, sometimes asking for directions: “I’m lost, if you could only show me the way for a couple bucks.”
By the age of 15, I had my own stalker. A white male in a dark blue vehicle driving around watching me from a distance. Was he really watching me, I wondered? After leaving a party at a downtown location, there he was again. Making my way home, we ended up walking through the Greygoose bus station… and there he was again. He opened his long jacket to reveal himself. Shocked and scared, I ran into the women’s washroom to hide from him. I peeked out of the washroom and there he was sitting on a chair nearby. I stayed in that washroom until morning and walked over the Slaw Rebchuck bridge to my home in the North End. Not long after, my good friend Glenda Morrisseau went missing, and two weeks later, was found murdered. She was last seen walking over that same bridge.
If my parents knew any of what I had dodged, they would have grounded me forever, but they didn’t have to because I grounded myself. I fell into a depression, started going to ceremony and put myself on a path to address some of these issues, like co-founding a play with Red Roots Theatre called Those Damn Squaws which would highlight the racism and exploitation Indigenous women were experiencing. At the time, I didn’t recognize these experiences as attempts of sexual exploitation, stalking or the beginnings of what could have been human trafficking, or worse. For some, this is simply how it begins or ends.
Personally, I hate having to tell my daughter and nieces to be cautious out there because of the simple fact they are Indigenous females. This impacts their well-being and their ability to feel at ease in their own skins within their own homelands, and we should be mad as hell about this. This violence doesn’t just happen on our streets. It continues in our schools, on social media, in the workplace and at corporate levels. In 2013, Cindy Blackstock revealed surveillance, privacy and safety issues for activists and changemakers working within systems. Yes, there are consequences for changemakers, but hope is not lost because we are strengthening and can now celebrate the efforts of our changemakers, like Cindy Blackstock and Elder Mae Louise and Jamie Goulet. Despite efforts to undermine the strength, resilience and leadership of Indigenous women, we are still standing strong, and we continue to have strong Indigenous grandmothers showing us the way.
Speaking about these truths will continue to illuminate the challenges we face. We must believe we can create change within Western systems and within community. It starts by telling our truth, sharing our stories and charting our own paths, as is the case with the Clan Mothers Healing Village. But we cannot do it alone. We need our allies and the rest of Canada at our side. Under the banner of Truth and Reconciliation, getting behind this vision is one tangible way to impact change.
In closing a big thank you to all our sisters, mothers, aunties and daughters, and Elders like Elder Mae Louise Campbell and Jamie Goulet. Your efforts create space to heal, be nurtured, and grow from a place of care, strength, and dignity. Collectively our strength and numbers are growing, and we can now stop to notice and celebrate each other as we share in the work of revitalization. I look forward to contributing to and through an empowered Indigenous Canada and look forward to celebrating other Indigenous women locally and across Canada. This article honours your work and we are grateful for all that you do to restore wellness and the empowerment of Indigenous women.
Rebecca Chartrand, Anishinaabe, is the President and CEO of Indigenous Strategy Alliance. She is a purpose-driven and recognized educational leader with 25 years of experience advancing Indigenous achievement through education, arts, advocacy and public service.