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Indigenous Women: Keepers of the Past, Leaders into the Future

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Friday, June 2, 2017

Guest blog by Caleb Snider, Congress 2017 blogger

The Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences brings together leading thinkers, academics, researchers, policy-makers and innovators to explore some of the world’s most challenging issues. Congress celebrates the vitality and quality of Canadian research contributions, and helps train the next generation of Canadian ideas leadership. This year’s theme “The Next 150, on Indigenous Lands" celebrates the history, legacy and achievements of the peoples and territories that make us who we are, and anticipates the boundless opportunities of the future. Organized by the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, this year’s Congress is being hosted by Ryerson University in Toronto from May 27-June 2. Follow this series of Big Picture at #congressh blogs.

The audience of Tuesday’s Big Thinking event entitled “Present and Powerful Indigenous Women” was the loudest and most enthusiastic of any I have experienced so far at Congress. The three members of the panel—Tracey Lindberg, Maatalii Aneraq Okalik, and Maria Cambell—were all greeted with raucous applause and cries of joy when they took the stage.

Okalik, an Inuit activist and administrator and student at Carleton University, spoke first, outlining the plight of her people as a result of disruptive and violent Canadian government policy that sought to eradicate their entire way of life. She spoke about the enormous changes that the Inuit have faced over the last three generations, the epidemics of poverty, suicide, and disease that have ravaged their communities as the result of their gross inequities, and the strength of the women in those communities who have historically held — and continue to hold — their communities together. She let the audience know what it is that Inuit youth and the Inuit community seek more than anything: protections for Inuit language, Inuit culture, and the resources to stem the tide of suicide sweeping their communities.

Lindberg, a specialist and teacher in Indigenous law, spoke on the role of women as repositories for culture in Indigenous communities. She said that Indigenous women do more than pass their laws and customs on to the next generation: that they are also the enforcers of that law, and that we have for too long ignored their agency and self-determination. Indigenous women have powerful voices, ones that all Canadians need to heed, that remind us that we have an obligation to take care of each other and our environment.

Campbell, an elder and author whose contributions have spanned multiple generations, said that she has been asked the same questions for the last 58 years and continues having to give the same answers. She spoke about land, about broken treaties and agreements, about the disenfranchisement of Indigenous, Métis, and Inuit peoples, and about the need to redress injustices that have remained unanswered for decades, no less centuries. She also spoke of the role of Indigenous women as leaders in the movement to heal the damage we have done and continue to do to our environment. Campbell pointed out that Canadians today enjoy good lives today thanks to the work and sacrifices of Indigenous women: the punishing injustices of the past and present and the heavy load of rebuilding and healing that Indigenous women seem predetermined to bear into the future.

All three panelists spoke eloquently, with passion and real conviction, and successfully argued that it is women who are leading the way to changing the world.

Present and Powerful Indigenous Women featured Tracey Lindberg (award-winning academic writer and teacher Indigenous studies and Indigenous law at the University of Ottawa, and the first Indigenous woman to earn a PhD in law from a Canadian university), Maatalii Aneraq Okalik (President of the National Inuit Youth Council, a Director of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and Inuit Circumpolar Council-Canada’s Board of Directors, and member of the Nunavut Sivuniksavut Board of Directors, the National Committee on Inuit Education, and the Atausiq Inuktut Titirausiq Task Force), and Maria Campbell (award-winning Métis playwright and author of seven books, including the ground-breaking 1973 novel Halfbreed that initiated a rebirth of Aboriginal literature in Canada, and Elder in Residence at the Centre for World Indigenous Knowledge and Research, Athabasca University), and was hosted by the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences as part of the Big Thinking series at Congress 2017.

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