IWD 2017: ‘Indigenous girls need to know they are respected, valued'

On International Women’s Day, the interim president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, Francyne Joe, talks indigenous activism and recounts her own path to leadership.

By: /
March 8, 2017
Girls walk on a street in the Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario, Canada, April 14, 2016. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

When Francyne Joe was appointed interim president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) last September, she packed up two suitcases and headed to Ottawa within a week, even making time for a meeting with the Ontario branch of the organization en route. 

Moving across the country from Kamloops, B.C., where she was president of the province’s NWAC branch, she left behind an already impressive legacy of work with indigenous communities, and promised to continue her advocacy on both the national and international stage.

“I have always tried to give back to my community,” Joe told OpenCanada recently. “Now, in my current role, my community has just gotten a lot bigger than it was before.”

Joe’s upbringing on reserve in the small town of Merritt, B.C., provided her with a strong sense of community and traditional beliefs, as well as a unique familiarity with issues facing indigenous communities in Canada. 

In an interview for International Women’s Day, Joe chats about why indigenous women are often on the frontlines of activism in Canada, how the missing and murdered indigenous women inquiry is going so far, and the role of the United Nations in the global fight for indigenous rights.

What are some of the day-to-day issues you are currently working on?

The federal government has had many questions and has asked for NWAC’s perspective: we're giving them perspectives on changes to the Indian Act and how those changes are going to affect indigenous women and their families; we're talking about changes to the Criminal Code and how that can affect violence towards indigenous women and how sentences might be carried out; we're talking about climate change, homelessness, mental health and employment issues in Canada.

When I started, we were a staff of 15, now we are currently a staff of 31. We've hired a number of policy advisors and coordinators just to get the work done to prove to the federal government that the work that we do here is truly important work — work that is not currently being done by the other [organizations]. We have a very important voice within the community of Canada.

Francyne Joe
Francyne Joe, at centre. Photo courtesy of NWAC.

Formal hearings for Canada’s inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women are scheduled for May. How is NWAC involved and are there any concerns with how that is going?

NWAC has been advocating for this inquiry since the early 2000s. The government doesn't give the association a formal role within the inquiry, but they're still talking to us as well as other [indigenous organizations] to get an idea of what we think is needed. 

Unfortunately, it doesn't seem like they are listening to us 100 percent. The communication was lacking for the longest time; we didn't have our first teleconference with the inquiry until mid-October, and since then it has been sporadic. There's nothing concrete, either, on their website or in the communications. So, we are still holding them accountable. We have our quarterly report card that evaluates how the inquiry is moving forward, but sometimes, like with our January report card, we can’t do a proper evaluation because we don’t have the information ourselves. If we don't have the information, you can understand how much more difficult it is for families who are trying to do the same thing. 

[The inquiry] doesn’t seem to be putting families first, which is the key theme that came out when Carolyn Bennett, Jody Wilson-Raybould and Patty Hajdu were doing their visits across the country for the preliminary inquiry. At every forum we wanted to see families [offered] a trauma-informed venue where it was safe. We wanted to ensure there was support for those families before, during and after. With this lack of communication, we have had families asking us, ‘What's going on, we haven't heard.’

Are there issues specifically related to indigenous women and girls that you feel are underreported or ignored?

We're not seeing in the media the positive stories that we could be telling about indigenous women in Canada: the women leaders, the women who are in government at different levels, the women entrepreneurs, the doctors and lawyers. We need to have those types of stories to really encourage young indigenous women to pursue different studies in their own communities.

Take myself, [for example]; I came from Kamloops and now I'm working in Ottawa, having meetings with different ministers, trying to advocate for indigenous women. It's a change and I never saw myself [here], but this is something I'm passionate about.

Where are the most critical gaps in terms of government support for indigenous women and girls in Canada?

We have unfortunately seen a number of young girls take their own lives because they felt like their lives meant nothing. These girls need to know they are respected, they are valued, they are our future. We need to know those supports are in their communities on a regular basis and that they are being treated equally with their Canadian counterparts. There should be no discrimination between indigenous children and non-indigenous children.

I think what happens in our communities [is that] we allow our men and boys to take a role that seems to be almost more important than our women and girls. We let them speak for us, when really we have our own voices, we have our own perspectives, and we want to speak on our own behalf.

What role have indigenous women played as activists in Canada and globally?

When you find indigenous women approaching activism, they are doing it from a personal perspective — these are issues that affect ourselves or our families or our communities — which allows us to be much more passionate about it. At the same time, we are known to be very [open], so we can develop allies that help us to incorporate a bigger voice into the message [at hand]. It also allows us to incorporate our culture and history, which is all very important to us.

First Nation girls
First Nations' children take part in a Truth and Reconciliation march in Vancouver, British Columbia September 22, 2013. REUTERS/Andy Clark

How does the fight for indigenous rights in Canada fit into the global movement for indigenous rights?

There have been similar issues happening in the United States, in Central America and South America. Just recently, delegates from the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) came to Ottawa and I had a chance to chat with them. Peru, Chile, Mexico and the U.S. want to meet together because they see Canada as doing so much work with its indigenous people, so they want to learn from us. We want to have a larger voice [that is] inclusive of all indigenous people, so the UN can understand that these issues are not just regionalized. The UN needs to step in and help us get the equity we deserve.

What have been your greatest personal achievements and the biggest challenges you’ve faced?

I've always been pleased that I've been able to do this work and retain my morals and values. I think growing up on a reserve with my grandparents really instilled [in me] that you are known to be this kind of person and that reputation follows you everywhere. I try to be as honest as possible — I don't like to hurt anyone's feelings but sometimes it's better to be honest upfront than not say something that could hurt another individual and organization. My community has been very supportive too; my chief and my neighbours from Merritt let me know if they have concerns that I should keep in mind. 

I wish I had more time to spend with mentors. There is no training to really prepare you to be a leader of a national indigenous organization like NWAC. You have to understand so much about finances, political savvy, public speaking and social media these days, as well as be prepared to face so many questions on different topics. But that's hopefully something I'm going to work on in the next couple months.

Hopefully, I get re-elected [in NWAC's presidential elections this summer] and then we can develop a program that will [arrange for] young indigenous women to come to Ottawa for a few weeks to learn about the political savvy you need to get into politics, whether that be indigenous politics, being a member of parliament, or whatever they decide to advocate for.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.