By Rebecca Chartrand

In the realm of Indigenous leadership, two remarkable individuals, Phil Fontaine and Bernadette Smith, have made significant strides in championing justice, reconciliation and empowerment for Indigenous communities in Canada. Their distinct journeys, separated by a generation, converge on a shared vision of positive change and inclusivity.

Leadership has the power to shape societies and drive positive change. It can be defined as the ability to guide and influence others toward a common goal or vision. It involves taking charge, making decisions and inspiring others to take action. Leadership is important to define, acknowledge and support because it plays a crucial role in driving positive change, fostering growth and development, and achieving collective goals.

When it comes to Indigenous leadership in Canada, it is essential to understand the unique challenges and experiences that Indigenous Peoples have faced since colonization. Indigenous leadership should be recognized and supported because they offer perspectives, values and insights that are deeply rooted in historical challenges that continue to be guided by a unique set of principles and values that prioritize the interests of the community over individual gain. This approach emphasizes the importance of leaving behind a legacy that benefits everyone, rather than seeking immediate self-gratification.

In the realm of leadership, there are those whose impact transcends boundaries and leaves an indelible mark on society. Fontaine stands as a shining example of such a leader. His unwavering commitment to Indigenous rights and reconciliation has transformed the landscape of Canada, inspiring generations to strive for justice and equality.

Phil Fontaine

Let us delve into the remarkable highlights of Fontaine’s career, celebrating his leadership and the positive change he has brought forth.

1. An unprecedented settlement
Fontaine’s pivotal role in negotiating the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement stands as a testament to his determination and resilience. Through his efforts, an apology from the Canadian Government and a comprehensive compensation package was secured for survivors of residential schools. This historic settlement marked a profound step toward healing and reconciliation between the Government and Indigenous Peoples.

2. A champion of Indigenous rights
Throughout his career, Fontaine has been an unwavering advocate for Indigenous rights. His tireless work in promoting self-governance, land claims and recognition of treaty rights has elevated the voices and concerns of Indigenous communities. Fontaine’s actions have not only raised awareness about the challenges faced by Indigenous Peoples but paved the way for significant advancements in Indigenous rights across Canada.

3. Leadership that transcends boundaries
As a former three-term National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations from 1997 to 2009, Fontaine exemplified visionary leadership. His unwavering commitment to addressing issues such as poverty, education, health, and the preservation of Indigenous languages and cultures has brought about positive change in First Nations communities. Fontaine’s leadership has inspired unity, resilience and a shared vision for a brighter future.

4. A global advocate
Fontaine’s impact extends far beyond Canadian borders. His work has gained international recognition, earning him invitations to speak at prestigious international forums, including the United Nations. At these gatherings, Fontaine advocated for the rights of Indigenous Peoples on a global scale, fostering understanding and collaboration among nations.

5. Honoured for excellence
In recognition of his outstanding contributions to Indigenous rights and reconciliation, Fontaine was appointed as an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2008. This esteemed honour reflects the significant impact he has made and his dedication to improving the lives of Indigenous Peoples. Fontaine’s recognition serves as a beacon of hope, inspiring future leaders to follow in his footsteps. Let us delve into the remarkable highlights of Fontaine’s career, celebrating his leadership and the positive change he has brought forth.

Phil Fontaine’s journey is one that inspires, uplifts and celebrates the power of leadership. Through his pivotal role in the residential school settlement, tireless advocacy for Indigenous rights, exemplary leadership in the Assembly of First Nations, international recognition and prestigious appointment as an Officer of the Order of Canada, Fontaine has left an indelible legacy. His unwavering commitment to justice, reconciliation and the wellbeing of Indigenous Peoples has shaped a brighter and more inclusive future for Canada. Fontaine’s leadership serves as a reminder of the transformative power of dedicated and compassionate leadership.

Leadership has the power to ignite a spark within individuals, encouraging them to step outside their comfort zones and make a difference in their communities. Fast forward a generation after Fontaine and you come face-to-face with Bernadette Smith, a female Indigenous leader who serves as a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) representing the Point Douglas constituency in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Her journey as an MLA began with her election to the Manitoba Legislative Assembly in 2017.

Bernadette Smith

Smith is widely recognized for her advocacy and dedication in addressing the painful issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG), as well as her commitment to social justice. As a strong voice for the affected families, she tirelessly works to raise awareness, seek justice and support healing processes.

From an early age, Smith understood the importance of leading by example and living her best life. Despite not always having support or positive role models, she remained steadfast in her determination to be a beacon of light for others. Her unwavering commitment to being a good leader and role model has driven her to overcome personal obstacles and create a positive impact on the lives of those around her.

Growing up with a single mother in poverty, she faced the harsh realities of life head-on. At just 16, she became a mother, adding another layer of responsibility to her already demanding circumstances; however, Smith refused to let these challenges define her future, recognizing that she had the power to shape her destiny.

Along her journey, Smith was fortunate to find individuals who believed in her and championed her potential. Their unwavering belief served as a guiding light during her darkest moments, reminding her that she had the strength to conquer any obstacle. With their support, Smith’s spirit remained unbroken, fueling her determination to become a role model for others facing similar struggles.

Despite dropping out of school and enduring domestic violence, she found the strength to rebuild her life. At 23 she made the courageous decision to return to school and earned her high school diploma. This marked the beginning of a remarkable journey of self-discovery and empowerment.

Today she actively engages in community-building initiatives with organizations that tackle social issues—wholeheartedly supporting and encouraging the community’s healing journey. Notably, Smith is one of the founders of Drag the Red, a community-led initiative in Winnipeg, Manitoba, aimed at searching the Red River for evidence related to missing persons, particularly Indigenous women. The initiative brings together volunteers who conduct searches along the riverbanks, using various methods to assist in locating any potential evidence. Its primary focus is to raise awareness, support the families affected by MMIWG, and contribute to the healing and justice-seeking process.

Drag the Red was formed after the murder of Tina Fontaine (a 15-year-old from Sagkeeng First Nation in Manitoba) whose body was discovered in the Red River in Winnipeg, Manitoba, on August 17, 2014. She had been reported missing a week earlier. Fontaine’s tragic death gained significant attention and sparked widespread outrage and calls for justice, as it brought attention to the systemic issues and violence faced by Indigenous women and girls in Canada.

Many Indigenous Peoples were fed up with delays in response to MMIWG, and it was Smith who led the charge to continue searching for Indigenous Peoples in Winnipeg’s Red River, hence the establishment of Drag the Red.

Today, Smith’s work extends beyond MMIWG. She actively tackles other pressing matters through her involvement in various legislative issues, such as affordable housing, mental health support and education. Her advocacy is centered around marginalized communities, championing policies and initiatives that strive for a more equitable society.

Both Fontaine and Smith have played pivotal roles in advocating for Indigenous rights and reconciliation, working toward long-term solutions, seeing beyond immediate challenges and bringing about meaningful change.

By celebrating both of these leaders, we acknowledge the unique qualities they bring to Indigenous leadership and the significant impacts they have made in their respective roles. Their visionary thinking, commitment to justice, resilience and dedication to community empowerment are characteristics that deserve recognition and celebration. Together, they represent the strength, resilience and determination of Indigenous leaders who continue to shape a brighter future for all.