Let’s hear it for the girls

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Attracting women from all 10 Cree communities as well as Senneterre, Chibougamau, Ottawa and Montreal, the Cree Women of Eeyou Istchee Association (CWEIA) congregated in numbers for their third annual general meeting (AGM) and first-ever gala September 18-19 in Val-d’Or.

While there have been many incarnations of the CWEIA over the last 20 years, the group has only had been officially in the books since the winter of 2009. In that short time, the CWEIA has not only quadrupled its membership but has since incorporated itself through the help of the Grand Council, developed a successful lobby strategy for women’s issues and even developed a means for its membership to get fit of body, mind and spirit.

With everything from midwifery and the Cree justice system, to Cree social policy, health and fitness, and incorporating past traditions into the future fabric of Eeyou Istchee on the slate for discussion, for two days, almost 100 Cree women discussed, debated and resolved their desires for Cree girls, women, mothers and grandmothers.

“I think the AGM went fairly well. It could have been better, but we didn’t get a chance to complete the entire agenda,” said Holly Danyluk, CWEIA’s Regional Coordinator.

Danyluk was of course saying this humbly, considering the difficulty in bringing together an association that covers so many communities and has so many issues unique to each of the communities.

“We wanted to propose and pass some of the resolutions, but that was taken care of by a suggestion the delegation made to get the Board of Directors to pass the bylaws,” Danyluk added.

Charlotte Ottereyes, CWEIA’s Economic Development Coordinator, was beaming with pride over how far the organization has come considering that just a few years ago the AGM had 20 members and a $5000 budget.

“We traveled for two years on our own money and we made a lot of sacrifices. I have a daughter and I left her to go out and negotiate funding for the Cree women. She is now six but at the time she was three.

“Though it was a sacrifice, I wanted to be part of something. It is an achievement and this will be a story for me to tell my daughter about the Cree women,” said Ottereyes.

Recognizing how quickly the organization has grown and how it is taking on new character everyday, Ottereyes said the CWEIA is so positive because it is like having a lot of new sisters, moms and grandmothers.

Ottereyes’ role at the event and throughout the year is particularly important as it is to champion women to get out of their homes and into the world of business as entrepreneurs. Having worked in economic development for 12 years through the Waswanipi Development Corporation and the Eeyou Economic Groups, she feels confident coaching Cree women to take the big step forward and develop the businesses of their dreams.

Ottereyes encouraged those interested in business to follow their dreams and spread the word around Eeyou Istchee for other interested women to get involved.

“I have a couple of files back home (Waswanipi) and now I am going to other communities where I have a lot of women who want to start up businesses. I do workshops to give them an idea as to what an entrepreneur is so that they can define it for themselves,” said Ottereyes.

According to Ottereyes, the CWEIA has been negotiating with various governmental bodies to have the means to provide loans for these women to start up businesses through their organization, a feat that will no doubt advance Cree women.

The Full Mind, Body and Spirit Approach

Just outside of the Forestel Hotel’s main hall where the meeting was taking place, Theresa Ducharme had her own corner with a series of Pilates balls and resistance bands to promote the Resist-A-Ball program, an exercise project that the CWEIA is looking to offer in every community. Since part of the CWEIA’s mandate is to promote physical health and wellbeing for Cree women, the corner filled with giant colourful bouncing balls was essential to the event.

As the CWEIA started up a pilot project in Mistissini and Chisasibi over the summer to offer Ducharme’s self-designed exercise program, Ducharme was there to talk about the early results and promote the project in other communities.

“The Resist-A-Ball program has been going amazingly well in the communities. The balls are almost like rock stars in the north because they have caught on and we already have one woman who has lost 40 pounds just by working on the balls,” said Ducharme.

During the two-day event, many CWEIA members found themselves sitting on the resistance balls and bouncing around while chatting with Ducharme about the program or talking amongst themselves.

Ducharme, who is a certified personal trainer, explained that this particular exercise program is ideal for Cree women because the workout can be done by anyone in any weight category and is so versatile.

“I teach Pilates and yoga, and we do weight training with the resistance bands which is called resist-a-band training. I have a choreography background and so what I do is dancing with the resistance balls. Instead of dancing with the stars, we are dancing with the balls,” said Ducharme.

Both days of the AGM featured a “health break” that consisted of a brief workout with Ducharme that nearly everyone participated in, while smiling and dancing to the beat.

Ducharme’s program not only consists of exercises that Cree women can do in groups or practice on their own at home with their own equipment, it also incorporates a nutritionist to educate the participants about portion control and proper nutrition. Addressing the spirit’s needs, Ducharme said her workouts end with a meditation and a cleansing of energy.

In the coming months Ducharme will visit various Cree communities and eventually select a trainer for each community. She will teach the trainer the program so that every Cree woman will have an opportunity to get in shape, relieve some stress and become healthier using a medicine-wheel approach that incorporates the physical, the mental, the emotional and the spiritual aspects of the individual.

In time, Ducharme said her program will hopefully have an impact in reducing the high rates of diabetes and heart disease amongst Cree women, giving them further empowerment.

Leadership, Governance and Social Policy

With so many issues on the agenda, many participants admitted it was a struggle for the CWEIA to be able to give every presenter adequate time to introduce their issue and have it discussed amongst the membership.

Among the presenters were the Cree Health Board’s Mandy Gull on the Cree Social Wellness Program, Stacy Bear on the Cree Nation’s Governance Group, Donald Nicholls on the Cree Justice Department, and Sam Gull on the CWEIA’s midwifery file.

“There was a lot of history in my presentation, information on where we are taking the Cree Governance Group file, what we want from the people and the process that is needed to achieve our goals,” explained Bear.

“It was about getting the voice of the people to produce a constitution. We want the people’s input and we will be modeling our constitution after that,” she added.

It was important for Bear to be at the CWEIA event because it gave her the opportunity to hear from women on governance. Though the Cree Governance Group will be meeting every demographic of the Cree Nation, Bear said the voices of the women are essential to the process in drawing up a constitution because “they are the backbone of just about everything.”

During Mandy Gull’s presentation on the Cree Social Wellness Policy, a new concept emerging from the CHB that will be incorporated into all Cree entities, many of the delegates had to opportunity to speak about what they think is missing from Cree society today.

Elder Nellie House brought up how the underlying issues left over from the residential school system that many have chosen to not address are at the heart of so many social wellness issues in Eeyou Istchee.

“That is the root problem and we’ve only just touched the surface of an iceberg.

If we accepted and acknowledged this and addressed it years ago, today the problems would not be escalating. This is the aftermath of an issue that we are not discussing,” she said.

Lisa Bobbish from Chisasibi spoke about the relationships between male and female teenagers in terms of the issue of teenage pregnancy, how sexuality is addressed within Cree society and how this impacts so many girls who seem to be raising babies as single parents. She wondered if a return to the traditional celebration of a girl’s reaching puberty by getting her first period could be brought back more prominently to the Cree nation and more education about the traditional roles of men and women for the youth would help Cree society.

CWEIA president Doris A. Bobbish expressed her opinion to the Nation on this matter, stating that the CWEIA was looking to champion the reemergence of some traditional Cree practices and celebrations to form a stronger Cree nation.

“It is our vision to look at the traditional way of life and bring back these aspects of living, particularly with learning and getting to know yourself.

“The young lady spoke today about womanhood. I went through that with my mother. I had to be separated from where we were living in the household,” said Bobbish.

She recounted how she was not only separated from the men in her family during her first menstruation and used a separate set of utensils like her ancestors had. At the end of her menstruation, her family celebrated her womanhood with a feast.

While Bobbish said she resented being isolated during the process as a young girl, she repeated this practice with her own daughter, who had a similar reaction. In the end, it was her own father who told her how proud he was to see this traditional Cree pratctice reemerge. In the long run, Bobbish believes that if this practice is consistent throughout the Cree nation, it will serve to give Cree girls more self-esteem and cultural pride, something the CWEIA is mandated to promote.

Bobbish expressed her excitement over being able to hold both the AGM and a gala geared at celebrating Cree women and their accomplishments.

A Gala of Recognition and Celebration

At the gala, one of Canada’s best-known female Aboriginal leaders and activists, former Native Woman’s Association of Canada (NWAC) President, Beverley Jacobs delivered the keynote address.

“I know that some of the things that we have to talk about as women in our communities hurt because of the impacts of colonization and what that has done.

“We have come to these meetings in order to deal with them and in order to deal with them we have to talk about them and we have to feel them and that is a big part of acting on the change that needs to happen,” Jacobs told the crowd of over 150, which included several men.

Jacobs went on to address the assaults on “Mother Earth” and the impact that this has on women as well as how Aboriginal languages are part of what ties a woman to the earth.

“That is one of the appreciations that I have – despite everything that has happened to our people, our language is still alive. Our languages connect us to the land because each of our words that describe who we are is a connection to the land,” said Jacobs.

She went on to speak about healing for women, leaving victimization behind and joining in on the revolution that is happening with Canada’s Aboriginal women when it comes to reclaiming land, territories, resources, nationhood and a woman’s role and responsibility with her family.

After the speech, Jacobs expressed her jubilance for the gala particularly as it was so devoid of negativity, something Jacobs is all to accustom to, having fought for missing and murdered Aboriginal women for so many years.

“It’s been really good being here tonight. This is something I have always liked, coming into a group of strong women. It has been really fun and everybody is in a good space. Usually it is so serious because some of the issues are so serious,” said Jacobs.

Sweetgrass Aboriginal Bistro co-owner Phoebe Sutherland took the stage and discussed her accomplishments running Ottawa’s first Aboriginal eatery over the past seven years.

“I am actually one of the few of my generation who was actually born on the land, not in hospital so I am as Cree as they get!” exclaimed Sutherland.

Inspiring others to follow their heart’s passions, Sutherland described her long and arduous journey to opening her restaurant while being one of the very few women in the industry.

“The reason why I chose to follow this profession was because years ago when I was still in high school, I would sit around with my father at the dinner table and say what if one day we would open up an Aboriginal restaurant in our nation’s capital to showcase our food, arts, culture, crafts and even our music? I told him that I was going to do it and follow that dream,” said Sutherland.

Later, famed Cree songstress Melisa Pash took the stage and put on a rocking show.

Exuberant over the opportunity to perform for an almost all-female audience, Pash stated, “I am honoured to have made it so far in my career so quickly but I guess what I want to do is inspire the women individually to follow their passions. The secret is to follow what you enjoy and to do what you like and the doors will open up ahead of you. If I can just get one person here tonight to follow her passion, I will have achieved my goal.”

One of the evening’s most memorable performers was Moose Factory’s Kevin Schofield, a honky-tonk country singer who rocked the house and had the women howling with excitement.

“It is amazing to see so many fine-looking, beautiful Cree women sitting in the same room. I have never seen this before. I am 42 so I remember what it was like when I was a kid. To see that they are all divas now, shining like stars in a fancy place is amazing. When I was young, you never could have gotten 200 of our people into a classy joint like this,” said Schofield.

While the evening also featured various other performers, including Dallas Arcand’s mesmerizing world-class hoop-dance performance and female singers from the Cree nation, none could beat Jeremy Polson’s Tina Turner drag act that managed to get various board of directors and delegates dancing as his back up.

Issues of Justice and Midwives

On the second day of the AGM, the tone returned to seriousness as the women got back to work, listening to presentations, commenting and preparing resolutions.

Cree Justice Director Donald Nicholls made a presentation concerning the upcoming 2010 Eeyou Istchee Family Violence Symposium Partnership Program slated for November 16-18, that the CWEIA is putting on with the Justice Department.

“The family violence symposium is supposed to deal with family violence, violence against children as well as Elders. This is why we wanted to the school board in there because if there is violence in the community it spills over into the school environment.

“We want our children to be in a safe environment. We realize there are indicators where there is violence, so we need to have a support group that can go in and say listen, there are services here that can help. You don’t have to live in that situation and we want to make sure of that,” said Nicholls.

During his presentation Nicholls encouraged everyone to take part in an anonymous survey that is being used to compile information on violence within the Cree nation for the upcoming event. Those who participate can register for a chance to win an iPad. The survey can be found at www.surveymonkey.com/s/TGPHN35

Sam Gull was also on hand to make a presentation about maternal heath in the Cree Nation and the ever-pressing issue to bring midwives back into Eeyou Istchee.

Bobbish told the Nation a coordinator had been hired at the CHB to work on the issue and that the CWEIA was very much in support of this.

“We really want to rush on it because we would like to bring home our babies. It is hard for families to have to leave the community to have their babies and it is frustrating for the young mother because she has to go alone in the beginning, there is nobody there,” said Bobbish.

According to Gull, a consultant at the CHB, a proposal had been made in the past to bring births back to the communities but it did not pass because it would require transitioning Quebec healthcare services too quickly from the Chibougamau hospital where 50% of Cree births happen.

Gull said what is currently being mulled over at the CHB is the idea of either importing certified midwives from the south into the communities or working with the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières (UQTR) to develop a culturally inclusive, English degree program for the Crees who could then delivered in the communities.

Gull said these options are still being discussed and more information on  midwifery will be available when the CHB meets in October.

The CWEIA AGM and gala will be remembered not just for what was learned or resolved at the event nor for just those celebrated or honoured as it was a unique occasion where so many had the opportunity to share, laugh, bounce, dance and revel in all that is wonderful about being a Cree woman. There is no doubt that this group is indeed paving the way for the Cree girls who will after them while taking the knowledge of those who came before them in their hearts.

CWEIA Award Nominees and Winners 
Youth Contribution Nominees
1. Marissa Georgekish
2. Jamie Gull
Youth Contribution Award Winner
Jamie Gull
Elder Contribution Nominees
1.    Minnie Awashish
2.    Annie Saganash
3.    Nancy Sheshamush
4.    Annie Moore
Elder Contribution Award Winner
Annie Moore
Women In Public Service Nominees
1.    Leeanne Pepabano
2.    Roselynn Rabbitskin
3.    Flossie Wynne
4.    Diane Reid
Women In Public Service Award Winner
Leeanne Pepabano
Women In Education Nominees
1.    Frances Mark
2.    Maggie George
3.    Gerti Murdoch
Women In Education Award Winner
Gerti Murdoch
Women In Health Promotion AND Fitness Nominees
1.    Karen Masty
2.    Shirley Blackned
3.    Dr. Darlene Kitty
Women In Health Promotion and Fitness Award Winner
Dr Darlene Kitty
Women In Arts AND Culture Nominees
1.    Wemindji Traditonal Skills Group
2.    Jean Masty
Women In Arts and Culture Award Winner
Jean Masty
Women In Politics Nominees
1.    Nancy Danyluk
2.    Victoria George
Women In Politics Award Winner
Victoria George
Women In Business And Entrepreneurship Nominees
1.    Jean Masty
2.    Donna and Candace Danyluk
Women In Business and Entrepreneurship Award Winner
Donna and Candance Danyluk

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