Rural and Indigenous Women’s Leadership
by Jolene Andrew, Gitksan-Witsuwit’en
An excerpt on essay report after attending CSW2018
published May 30, 2018

On the first day at the Commission on the Status of Women 62 (CSW62), March 11 – Consultation Day, we were welcomed by commission Chair, Honourable Jackie Weatherspoon who said, “When did women ever have it easy?”  She posed it as a question.  I know in my heart, Women have never had it easy.  My greatest influences and protectors, my Witsuwit’en Women Leaders, in our language Tsa’kiyze – ‘matriarchs’, have always been hard workers.  I know it because it is in my fingertips, it is in my blood and I can feel it in my spirit.  I see it on my aunties faces, I see it in my moms’ eyes, though she has barely been able to work for most of her life due to social and physical disabilities, I see the fierce strength and sadly the ‘fight’ that she has had to endure to survive.  I give thanks to my ancestors everyday I am alive for what the creator blessed us with; teachings.  The teachings that guide us in our work are the teachings that give us strength to carry on.  Teachings give us the resilience to face our world and our relations with the knowledge to provide and the understanding that it is imperative to ensure the following generations will have a future.  Our dilemma and the question I asked myself all week at the CSW62 is, “How do we bring two narratives together, the one of old, the time of our ancient world, and now in this contemporary world?”

What I see happening in community, much like what is happening with the internet, is people and organizations developing faster than we are able to define what is the best approach to developing a reconciliation strategy.  There are no clear rules or policies to guide productive and safe development at the micro and macro levels.  In Canada there is a large reconciliation movement and effort.  Many people doing many different things, all relevant in different ways, and to different groups; one group seeking to learn, others seeking to heal, or a combination of both.  I get confused worrying, “What if it is not being done it right?”  In the past there has been many approaches implemented in the community sector and service systems that we now know to be harmful, particularly to indigenous people.  Now we are in a race to undo or unlearn or decolonize.  ‘If we knew then, what we did now, how would we have done things different?’ – might be a good starting place.  But it’s not that easy.  One theme at CSW62 that I heard from many women was that we are having the same conversations about the status of women.  “What has changed?” Each panel session we attended, there were so many women, aged, and still ‘fighting’, and still passing on the torch – in hope, there was no end to seeing the young hearts and minds of young women (and young men), who are there to take up the torch and begin their journey to dedicating their lives towards change.  In the same thread, mentorship was also a re-occurring theme. When I feel unsure if how things are being approached, what I do know, is that I can always return to the teachings I’ve received from my elders.  Including teachings that I have received from adopted elders and spiritual teachers and advisors that recognize my concern, recognize my questions, and find a way to encourage me to find my own answers.   To really seek understanding and allow the creators work to come through, people are opening their hearts and minds up to those teachings once again, and our world will be stronger than ever.

My approach to community development is organic.  The values that guide me are deeply intertwined and I cannot speak to one without connecting it to another.  I have my foundational values that guide me and inform the principles of my work.  This is what I focussed on in my presentation with the Indigenous women’s panel at CSW62 – Rural and Indigenous Women’s Leadership in Community Development.  Beginning with equality, is humility.  When we acknowledge someone for their knowledge, either lived or traditional (or scholarly) we are honouring them.  I was proud to witness the territorial acknowledgement at the first parallel session and panel I attended at the CSW62 (mind you not at the Opening Welcome and Consultation day).  Acknowledgement in this sense is becoming a common practice taking root to respect the historical context that applies to where people are standing and invite people to be reminded the costs and sacrifices that have taken place to afford the many  comforts available.  Culturally to myself it goes deeper.  Witsuwit’en (and most Indigenous communities I have visited in Canada) have this practice.  This protocol is done out of respect, whether you are in Coast Salish territory and are arriving by canoe and you need to ask permission to come ashore by identifying where you come from, or whether you are in Northern British Columbia visiting a neighbouring tribe on some business and you bring gifts and introduce your lineage.  This protocol is to strengthen relationships.  Where I come from we name our grandparents, our clan, our house we are from and who our parents are.  This is intertwined with witnessing history, our oral-history, so people know who you are, what their relationship is to you, this is where alliances, partnerships and trust can be built, and protected.  This was key to preventing social dis-taste or even war.  There is one thing we all know in community development and that is how important our relationships are to community and to community stakeholders.   Naturally I translated this understanding from having our protocols ingrained in me in our feast hall, or balhats (most people call a potlatch – and ‘potluck’ completely different phenomenon adopted by mainstream society to share the workload of providing all the food and to practice wealth distribution! – Generosity!)  One way to honour our relationships is to take the time to meet face to face.  This was a message I heard repeatedly growing up.  If you want to learn, go to your elders, visit and spend time.  As we know, rural and urban indigenous, women hardly have time, especially for the transfer and strengthening of culturally continuity.  Cultural continuity is the one question everyone is asking.  How can we support the return of culture and language to indigenous communities?  It takes times and investment.  Acknowledging the power within community and respecting the innate teachings and passing the torch to the community is one way to ensure community control, continued participation and contribution, but it’s also a nice way to get out of the way and let the natural leaders take charge.  Natural leaders are those in communities that are well known and trusted.  Find those natural leaders and invest in them, they will lead and mentor the next generation.  I would like to acknowledge the approach that the Coady International Institute intensely impressed on me: communities have what they need.  Leaders need to seek and find the right people and sometimes get out of the way!  Investing in community capacity to lead, and of course mapping out a resilient community strategy.  Individuals need to be given the opportunity and with the opportunity, it’s also needed to be given a lot of time to develop their skills and abilities, pilot projects, or one or two year projects are not enough time to really development an effective program that becomes ingrained in the community and becomes sustained by it’s own success.  Apply humility and respect and the work will get done together, no one is left to fail.

So when you look at the 3 values intertwined; humility, acknowledgement, and respect.  These values begin in the direction of heart, some say ‘inward’, or ‘within’.  Once we are ok with ourselves, we can have a way to guide our relationship with each person we have a relationship.  It takes time to practice these values – and it does take practice!  The next value moves in a different direction, and one of the most important teachings I have ever received, that direction is outward, and the value is gratitude.  As we rise with the sun and give gratitude for each day, we also need to show gratitude in our community and organizations by offering gratitude.  In the corporate world it might look like an annual ‘thank you’ card.  At the grassroots level, and in the context of applying indigenous approaches to community development, it begins with demonstrating gratitude to our community, and in this case, to our women and girls.  How are we honouring them?  How are we showing them that they matter, AND that they matter most?  Coupled with practicing gratitude is ‘offering’.  Across Turtle Island there are different forms of ‘offering’.  Offering is giving before taking.  Giving more than you receive.  One of the most valuable assets we learn about in community development is not the ‘offering’ of any kind of gift, we know the one thing that community members give is their time.  A way to give back a woman’s time, whether she is young and needing more experience, or a mom transitioning back to the work force.  Women’s unpaid contribution to the household and community often goes unrecognized, was another theme at CSW62.  If we are not offering fair acknowledgement for women’s contribution and efforts, they are not being shown that they are valued.  Value needs to be built into the fields of work where women have been traditionally the main drivers and workforce ie. Caregivers of children and elders.  Costs for training and daycare, which are likely the largest barriers to women working should be the top priority for communities, and in my arguments need to be training for viable work that perpetuates the sustainability sector – agriculture and land use (areas of our economy that Indigenous peoples and women have long since been left out of the conversation.)  Additionally giving extra time for mentorship and succession planning (also a community method used in traditional times called ‘grooming’ in potential leadership) for encouraging and empowering development, as opposed to perpetuating the competitive nature some non-profit, corporate, and a autocratic and politically toxic and disrespectful function of the band systems in Canada.  Many nations are moving to return to their hereditary systems because strengthened social function and meaningful community development can combat lateral violence in the sometimes corrupt governance systems that eventually seep into community and even divide communities.  Aside from promoting the practice of gratitude in community programming to align with what families are practicing at home, conducting organizational values from a place of gratitude is a great principle to foster generosity.

When I think of my teachings growing up, generosity was and is central to the way business is done in our balhats.  When we think of generosity we think, ‘Giving without expecting anything in return’.  In our customs when we receive help through the proper protocol and social structure that our laws determine, and we are taught and required to pay back ten-fold.  One of my favourite models of leadership and youth engagement comes from Reclaiming Youth at Risk. One of the authors, indigenous to Canada, Dr. Martin Brokenleg, says, “If it doesn’t hurt to give it away, it’s not being generous.” (or something like that!)  The ‘Circle of Courage’ is one of the first models that I could really apply to my young and budding ‘practice’ as a community organizer, program developer, and youth engagement planning tool.  It is relevant and true and made sense to me, it gave me the language I needed to pass on values that were very real and applicable, and I delivered them effectively because I understood them, they already existed in the foundation of my beliefs.  Generosity being one of the four pillars in the Circle of Courage model, I would like to challenge people practicing generosity as a foundation values/principle of their organizational to really be creative, collaborative and innovative about how generosity is demonstrated.  We (and I think in most indigenous cultures) practiced ways to distribute wealth.  If we want equity for woman we CAN decolonize and look at different ways to embrace traditional approaches to wealth distribution.  How do we design systems so women will be the ones that benefit the most?  Models in community development that were present at the Indigenous women’s panels as part of the CSW62 were mirco-loan examples and social enterprise models that we know can REALLY benefit communities, with the right training, BUT as with all ‘projects’ and community initiatives funding models need to be sustainable until they are self-sufficient. Multi-year funding has always been a recommendation to funders in order for communities to be able to work out their unique challenges and deliver on their desired outcomes.  Work designed to suit sustainability and build women up in their capacity to participate in the economy and build healthier stronger families is to ensure there is adequate infrastructure.  Pipelines and hydro dams and corporate projects that pluck community members out to work in camps takes away from community life.  Green economy, education, culture, arts, tourism, agriculture and the care economy are more valuable than economic growth for long term community health impacts and planning.

Self-determination, self-defining, and self-sufficiency is a deeply ingrained NEED for each nation and their members. Reciprocity is the next intertwined value that I apply in my community work to address women’s needs.  Intertwined with generosity, respect and gratitude, reciprocity helps us define a practice of receiving as well as giving.  All women, especially indigenous woman, have difficulty receiving support. Receiving support graciously is difficult, when everyday household, community and professional development, so heavily depends on women’s abilities and capacities to keep providing. To lead without feeling dependent or receiving ‘help’ without feeling unworthy, or receiving without feeling like receiving a ‘handout’, like all values, needs practice.  Reciprocity strengthens our sense of purpose.  Having a purpose, for indigenous communities has been destroyed through colonialism.  Interference of our traditional economy and learned dependency on an economy that isn’t our own has lead to severe poverty and ultimately gaps in education and health.  Canadian laws and policies divided us from our own forms of governance that included a traditional economy that hundreds of thousands, even millions of indigenous people were able to subsist on.  Our self governance guided our social structure, that demanded a strong relationship to the land, and an innate responsibility to the land.  Community development is always seeking innovative solutions.  We can decolonize by shifting our thinking and educating ourselves about what our traditional economy was and embrace the values that drove that economy.  There I believe we can find a way to self-sufficiency and working towards subsistence, to be able to provide for our families and be in harmony with the environment, which requires the harmony of the environment and consuming – this is where I struggle with the Sustainable Development Goals.  We need to sustain the environment and focus on de-growth!  It is an oxymoron to presume there is such a thing as sustainability and economic growth!  Even with the new currency of our information and technological age that allows for more intelligent ways of generating an income, it is in Canada’s interest to invest in these sectors so that they are accessible for rural Indigenous communities.   For women to fully benefit financially, and equally, from all the privilege that most Canadians are afforded, will require investment into an economy that can provide meaningful work that is aligned with our values – land based approaches can nurture this need.  I witnessed sisters from all over the world struggling to be acknowledged for women’s’ contributions in agriculture, medicine and the care economy.  I abhor the heavy pressure put on small communities in Canada to accept economic development opportunities that go against our values and respect for the land.  Resource extraction and the energy sector are so destructive and harm women on multiple levels.  In the remote regions of Northern B.C. there has been no infrastructure development that supports growth and diversity of jobs.  The Hazelton’s, once busy and vibrant small towns, are on the verge of seeming ghostly.  Indigenous families are in such poverty, with children and elders to feed, HAVE to take camp jobs for corporations who give nothing back to the community.  The camp jobs require our women and men to leave the communities for weeks at a time with atrocious work conditions.  Rumours of women serving sex favours for tips where most of the population at the camps are men are common.  What’s worse, when families do return home to pay bills, I would like to see the stats on how much PROFIT BC Hydro makes off indigenous communities, whom I attribute to keeping families very poor.  I hear leaders (even Indigenous leaders) speak again and again that rural communities NEED jobs and they sign on with pipeline projects, but serving these corporate greed economy does more damage than good.  Indigenous people are innovative and hardworking, our knowledge and technology needs to be recognized for past contributions to the ‘success’ of Canada.  The suffering and oppression of Indigenous people has lead to the most harm done to any group in Canada, to Indigenous women, see the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women National Inquiry.  I used to be jealous of kids that would know their family tree all the way back to ‘the old country’ and claimed ‘My family have been here for 3, 4, 5… generations’, I knew the value of family and I have a relationship with my ancestors, it wasn’t until my favourite history prof, Coll Thrush said, “Try 400 generations.”  It was the strength, intelligence and humility of my ancestors that endured the oppression, violence and murder, so we could stand here today and say, “That was not right. And what’s happening right now is still not acceptable.” In our parallel session we were able to take a moment to acknowledge the land defenders from all over the world, that put their lives on the line to protect our great mother.  We are on the cusp of returning to sustainable ways.  At this moment in time it seems more ‘trendy’ than necessary, to be sustainable.  Though we are seeing more and more people are adopting indigenous ways of living, or it might seem trendy to have ‘environmentally friendly’ solutions.  Well I challenge the Canadian government and the green economy to look to the real experts!  It might be hard for Canada to ‘suck-in’ it’s ego, and just sit and LISTEN, and by listen I mean it the way my Aunties would say it to me, translated: “DO WHAT I SAY!” How harmful could NOT destroying the earth be?  Back to my point, ‘Dear Canada, there has been so much taking and little reciprocation.  Give us credit for historical contributions to this country and join the circle.  Have faith that indigenous people know what they are talking about.’’ This act of humility takes courage.

I strive towards seeing indigenous people being the experts in traditional plant and food knowledge.  Though it is trendy and many people are embracing ‘foraging’ wild food, our indigenous families NEED to be the benefactors of this work and they need to be paid.  We don’t have enough people practicing and learning.  We need methods to transfer this knowledge.  This needs to begin with our women, they will be the ones passing it on to their children.  That knowledge needs to be respected, it means supporting and strengthening indigenous approaches in an authentic way and ensure that people understand that appropriation of indigenous knowledge and technology (and art) is not ok.  This shift is happening in the academic world, the ‘experts’ cannot be brought in to a community to ‘help’.  This work lies within us and our community, in our hearts and our memory.  In the city of Vancouver where I work I see more Indigneous knowledge teachers being respected and acknowledged, and in our society we need to pay those teachers and elders.  Though some traditionalists frown at people being paid for cultural work, it is a reality that we need to be paying our elders and teachers.  They are the experts.  I have the privilege of working with Cease Wysse, Indigenous Plant Diva, Squamish and Stolo teacher, who is taking time to train women in our community, who too are being honoured for their time.  Though at the moment the stipend is small, we are building our resource of cultural facilitators that can build their capacity to start keeping up with the demand of knowledge being sought by the school system to incorporate indigenous gardens in Vancouver.  Through our project, Resurfacing History: Land and Lives in Mount Pleasant where I practice community development, we are engaging with the land, we are engaging with the city in their land use policies and laws and how they infringe on Aboriginal rights.  Further we are training ourselves to understand and respect the Coastal Nations, Musqueam, Squamish and Tseil Waututh peoples’, intergovernmental goals which requires a deep knowledge of the history of land and the impacts of historical events that have brought the relationships to be where they are now, even stretching the memory and history before the time of the ice age – that’s how inter-connected our understanding must be.  Like with all knowledge it takes time for it to become a part of the fabric of the community.  Just like the time it takes to understand the workings of one small plant, it’s cycles and what it offers, it takes time to really know a plant and have a relationship with it that can only then be taught, and with each plant, micro-system, and surrounding life impacted in the lives around it, each plant can have infinite teachings that become deeper and deeper with understanding.  Witnessing, is taking the time to try and understand how we are all connected.  Taking the time to witness and learn is when interconnectedness becomes real.  That’s when we begin to witness the unity – two more values that can be applied to community work; witnessing and unity.  Taking time to invest in education and creating a shared narrative can bring people together.  Finally in our education system forcing this understanding to take place, British Columbia is requiring the implementation of a new curriculum that supports this.

Witnessing plays a major role in my own Witsuwit’en house protocols.  It binds us to our laws.  Everyone that witnessed work taking place, has a responsibility to carry it forward.  In community development we practice community engagement and participatory decision making because leaders need to be accountable to the community they are serving, and most importantly leaders need to demonstrate that they are listening.  Implementation was a word that was repeated at CSW62. Words are empty without actions.  It gives me hope that there are so many people moving with the intention to analyze, engage and question the policies in place to move towards better lived outcomes for women and indigenous people in Canada.

Acknowledgement of a past that includes a true history.

Humility to act alongside the very nation you act for.

Respect for the land, knowledge and sacrifice Indigenous people made for Canada.

Gratitude for the air, earth, wind and fire, and all that has come before us so we could be here today.

Generosity is demonstrating that Indigenous women and girls are valued.

Reciprocity creates open communication and opportunities for growth and development.

Courageous action means doing what’s right and not what’s easy.

To witness is to listen, open our hearts to learning and holding up the work so it can be carried forward.

I am Jolene Andrew, daughter of Alfred Mitchell of Haagwilget, and Elizabeth Michell of Witset, I am Luskilyu, I belong to the House of Many Eyes, and I am always witnessing, doing my best to act with courage, give what I can, take criticism to correct my path, live in harmony with the land and acknowledge that I am only one part of a collective.  I embrace this collective history, and I grieve, but know that I grieve collectively, with my ancestors and my community.  I also celebrate collectively and with my urban and rural community that we are here and we will continue to make corrections, learn and work hard together so the next generation will be resilient to the challenges and even stronger in their ambitions.



Reconciliation, decolonization and organizations
by Jolene Andrew
Published February 6, 2018

I was recently interviewed by a SFU policy student that has been looking for recommendation for the best practices for organizations that are seeking consultation to form the best strategy to promote cultural humility in their offices. Well I have some feedback on the Reconciliation movement. I feel like there is a bit of a cart before the horse ‘thing’ happening.

I love history. It was my favourite subject and i have always excelled in this area of study and I prefer history books to fiction, preferred even before biography’s or ‘true stories’. History roots me. I am always seeking to understand what happened. Have since I was a young girl, asking, “why are my people being treated so badly.” And bit by bit I learned the horrible truth. Well, I was among the many whom for resilient and proud reasons, refused to see my people, as anything less than beautiful.

I am Wit’suwit’in. Though I am not a ‘traditionalist’ (a term which can be disputed like so many other terms used in this debate) I have always embraced my culture and beliefs, and am ever building on my cultural and spiritual foundation. We are all well aware of the unjust history, and if you are not aware of this history then you stand among (the also very many) who either don’t care and/or don’t know where to start. My advice?

  1. Reconciliation needs to come from the very top. Leadership is important to demonstrate proper conduct and expected behaviours when receiving and appreciation the Indigenous community as a stakeholder in their work.
  2. Seek an indigenous person to do this work to provide authentic consultation with your organization. The last thing we need is more people becoming experts, no matter how academically trained they are, to come in and ‘educate’ or provide skills building opportunities to employees that are meaningful. I know that there a lot of allies out there, they show up, they participate and they are genuine, so they won’t be offended by this recommendation.
  3. Most importantly, please ensure that there is meaningful learning that is taking place to help the development of the cultural understanding and Indigenous perspectives that can promote acceptance and community building with one another. It is not good enough to ‘educate’ 50-60 people in the very traumatizing history and experiences of the millions of Indigenous people. It is also very dangerous, from a cultural perspective, to expose such harms and hurt with out a way to address it and heal from it after. I have seen indigenous people triggered and non-indigenous people very hurt from this approach. What Indigenous people need the most is to be appreciated for their deep knowledge, technology, and leadership and community approaches. We don’t need to be pitied. We’re pretty awesome.
  4. Do make a strategy, whether it is an umbrella goal, or specific to department, there is a way to do it. Starting within and spiraling out.

We are doing the right thing, but before we perpetuate harm, lets remind the Canadian public that the comforts and profits that built this country were extracted from the land and resources. We are the most marginalized people, so as we slowly catch up to the huge demand of skilled individuals to take on this work, please consider these recommendations. The development of tools and resources for this work is growing faster than industries capacity to decide what is the best approach. Being creative and innovative are great challenges for this work. We are trying to marry new technology with old ideas, I’m pretty sure I can speak for all natives when I say, “Who knew sustainability would become a trend?” I know when I was young I never thought I’d see this shift.