To revitalize traditional legal and governance structures in many Indigenous communities, restoring women's central role in their communities is crucial.
Before contact with the Europeans, various governance models supported balanced societies. In many cases, social structures relied on the strength of female leadership. Some cultures, particularly those with more sedentary lifestyles, had developed matrilineal models centred on the transmission of the clan through the mother and the organization of the family nucleus around her.
Other Indigenous communities emphasized the complementary nature of gender roles and the collaborative nature of relationships between men and women. Such was the case in most Algonquian nations, where women played central and essential roles in organizing and maintaining group cohesion through territorial mobility. Women's leadership manifested in travel planning, family organization and participation in political decision-making. Oral histories abound with examples of women's role in territory-related knowledge and their knowledge of sacred and traditional medicines.
Some creation stories tell us that the action and breath of a woman is what created the Earth we walk on.
However, the first European settlers who sought to profit from the riches of traditional territories were blind to the social organization of Indigenous Peoples centred around the complementary nature of masculine and feminine forces. We see this, for example, in the writings of early explorers, missionaries and travellers, for whom the role of women was minimal and objectified if not outright ignored.
Later on, government authorities adopted formal measures to undermine Indigenous femininity. For decades, women were denied the right to vote and lead their communities. Through the Indian Act, Canada sought to control with whom they could marry and have children. Finally, with the imposition of mandatory enrollment in Indigenous Residential Schools, mothers, aunts, sisters, and grandmothers no longer had children with whom to play these roles.
This erasure of women's significance, combined with assimilation policies aimed directly at them, has contributed to the drastic disruption of Indigenous communities. Worse still, colonial policies and the imposition of Western belief and value systems have contributed to conditions conducive to developing a stereotyped image and the trivialization of violence against Indigenous women and girls. The impact of this deplorable situation is reflected not only in the statistics on domestic violence and the all-too-frequent cases of disappearance and feminicide but also in the over-representation of Indigenous women in the prison system.
Little by little, as minds gradually decolonize, women find their place again. Mothers become clan mothers again, aunties resume their protective role, and grandmothers can rock their grandchildren again and watch them grow.
Inspiring women are increasingly taking up executive or political leadership roles, reclaiming stolen power.
Since the 1970s, many Indigenous women have protested, marched, taken their cases to court and shattered glass ceilings. They lead the way in healing initiatives, bridging the gap between a wounded past and a decolonized future.
Through their actions, our nations are finally taking root again, renewing their nourishment from the abundance of our territories and enduring traditions.