Photo Credit: Cory Aronec Photography Ltd.

“Truth and Reconciliation requires strong Indigenous female leadership. There is no reconciliation without Indigenous women leading the path forward,” says Rebecca Chartrand, Executive Director, Indigenous Strategy at Red River College.

“One thing I always tell my 16-year-old daughter is I’ll know when we’ve reached reconciliation when I never have to say she was the first; when I don’t have to say I’m the first and that other people and leaders have paved the way,” adds Maria Morrison, Director of Indigenous Student Support & Community Relations at Red River College (RRC).

Morrison, who is Anishinaabe from Big Grassy River First Nation, is just one of a growing number of Indigenous women in leadership at RRC. Five of the seven leadership positions within the School of Indigenous Education are held by Indigenous women. Two Indigenous women also account for 11 percent of executive positions, one as an Executive Director and one on the Board of Governors.

But Indigenous women leading at this level hasn’t always been the case, and it’s certainly not the norm across the country for one of the most vulnerable populations in Canada.

According to Statistics Canada, Indigenous women and girls make up four percent of the total Canadian female population, represent 10 percent of missing women and, on average, 16 percent of female homicide cases, a number that fluctuates and was as high as 21 percent in 2014.

Despite these numbers and the pain they represent across the country, more Indigenous women are seeking higher education than ever before. In 2006, 47 percent of Indigenous women between 25 and 54 had completed post-secondary school, up from 41 percent in 2001, according to the Government of Canada.

Indigenous women as leaders is not a new concept. This movement has been a long time in the making.

“Indigenous women before European contact, especially grandmothers, were the main power, knowledge keepers and the teachers. Everything the people needed came from the grandmothers,” says Mae Louise Campbell, and Ojibway Métis Elder-in-Residence at the College.

“Most tribes were matriarchal societies and that’s exciting to even say. It was women who were given the gift by the creator to bring new life into the world, so that also put her in a place of great respect from our men and there were no questions, the grandmothers ruled.”

Ashley Richard, a member of RRC’s Board of Governors and Program Coordinator with Taking it Global, echoes that sentiment with her own upbringing. The 28-year-old credits her grandmother for creating that spark within her to voice her opinions and to keep striving for success.

“Growing up, I always had my grandmother to look up to and that’s what really set a path for me. I’ve never been afraid. I know what my abilities are and I know what I’m worth and that’s kind of opened the doors to possibilities,” says Richard. “It’s exciting to think of what women are watching us now and whose pathway we might influence.”

Richard, a proud Indigenous woman of Ojibway and Métis heritage on her father’s side and Filipino heritage on her mother’s side, says the space taken up by Indigenous women has not been intentional, but rather shows how qualified these women are. “I feel like the College didn’t go out to recruit Indigenous women, the look for the people who are the best for the role, so that has happened naturally. It shows the skills and leadership that these women have already.”

Morrison adds, “I think a lot of work has been done here historically to not only have Indigenous staff but to have women in leadership, because when I started I know I’m not the first and I know I don’t be the last.”

At the helm of the Indigenous initiates at the College is Chartrand, a member of the Anishinaabe, Inning and Métis Nations.

“The College is focused on Indigenous Achievement, which means we are focused on creating opportunities for Indigenous students and staff,” says Chartrand. “I’m excited to see women growing into leadership roles across the board, and it just happens to be Indigenous women reasserting their voice and presence in the spaces that they live and work.

“Indigenous women are considered the most vulnerable sector of our society. We have been marginalized in our own homelands but that is changing. We are returning to roles as leaders, our confidence is growing, our collective presence is growing and our voice is taking up space in places we haven’t seen before. Society is finally believing in the abilities of Indigenous women, and that will lead to better outcomes for all Canadians.”

Ida Bear, a Cree language instructor at the College for 22 years, agrees that the root of Indigenous women’s strength comes from knowing who you are and having your culture support what you do.

“I think we have to infuse culture and spirituality in our leadership so that we have strong women in leadership; women that can stand against anything, that are not intimidated, not afraid, that are fearless, almost like warriors – cultural warriors,” says Bear.

Elder Campbell notes: “There’s a prophecy, until our women are healed and take their rightful place back in the communities, nothing is going to change, and I really believe that with all my heart.”