Meet seven soon-to-be powerhouses who are stepping up - and, sometimes, sticking it to the man.
By Nathan VanderKlippe
On November 14, 2008, Nunavut named Eva Aariak its premier. It was only the sixth time a Canadian province or territory had been led by a woman. But in the North, Aariak’s assumption of the highest political office was hardly unique.
After all, the second female premier in Canadian history, Nellie Cournoyea, had risen to power in the Northwest Territories exactly 17 years – to the day – before. And Aariak had walked into the premier’s job surrounded by aboriginal women who held many of her territory’s other most powerful posts. Women, at the time, sat as mayor of Iqaluit, territorial commissioner, languages commissioner, head of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and president of the Qikiqtani land-claims organization. The lower ranks, too, leaned heavily female. Nunavut women outnumber men two to one in the public service. Across the three territories, the unemployment rate among working-age men is 55 per cent higher than women.
As far back as 2004, twice as many NWT aboriginal women held university degrees as men. In only three of the years since Nunavut’s creation have more boys graduated high school than girls.
The landscape of the North, a place of physical hardship and harsh natural contours, has long lent itself to masculine overtones. It is, Berton and London and Mowat tell us, a savage place, its ferocity attracting centuries of explorers and goldpanners whose ranks were decidedly male.
Yet today’s North has in many ways become defined by women. They run many of the structures that bind Northerners together: health centres, daycare societies, recreation centres, justice committees. Those hamlet committees have become farm teams for bigger things. As Dene and Inuit women outpace men in the workforce, education and community engagement, they are building networks and experience. Soon, it stands to reason, they may also bring about change in the one place still dominated by men: elected politics. Just 11 of the 57 members in the territorial legislatures are women.
Aariak’s own story, with a political career rooted in local committees before election to hamlet council, provides a tidy illustration of the trajectory. “When I decided to run as an MLA, I ran because I felt I was ready, and I felt that I could make somewhat of a difference,” she says. And as she looks across the North, she says, “I know for sure that there are many, many women who are ready.”
So who are they? We spoke with seven newly minted leaders to learn more.
LIBERAL PARTY CANDIDATE
In 1915, The McKenna-McBride Royal Commission travelled to Atlin, B.C., where they heard from Taku Jack, a notable leader among the Tlingit First Nation. The commissioners held out an offer of land. Standing before them, and speaking through a translator, Taku Jack said: “You’ve no land to give me, this land all belongs to me.”
Over the decades that followed, many of those who descended from Taku Jack have carried the mantle of leadership. For Cherish Clarke, his granddaughter, growing up in the family meant “listening to conversations about band politics sitting around the kitchen table. That really inspired me.”
And yet, when she graduated university with a degree in computer-information systems, she didn’t expect to join those ranks. “I thought I’d be ‘singling and mingling’ in Calgary,” she says. But after having a child, she found herself increasingly engaged in issues facing the Yukon. She discovered that politics grabbed her, too – appealing to both her disposition and her abiding desire to prove herself. Her personality, she says, is “kind of like Obama or Mother Teresa. I like to push myself and put myself in situations that people typically think women aren’t very highly represented in.”
In 2011, Clarke ran as a Liberal in the Yukon election. She lost, but the campaign established her in territorial politics. Clarke has served as president of the territorial Liberal party, and is now co-chair of the Aboriginal Peoples’ Commission inside the federal Liberal party. She’s hopeful Justin Trudeau’s national leadership will stir new hope in the Yukon, where the local party has a checkered past. After taking power for the first time in 2000, the territorial Liberals fell from grace just two years later. Now, Clarke argues, “I really see a huge upswing back towards the Liberal party. I don’t think we’re going to just disappear into oblivion.”
In the meantime, Clarke has become an outspoken voice behind Idle No More in the Yukon. She’s fought development of the Taku watershed by a mining company, her opposition rooted in her family’s long history in the region. ”The reason why there’s no road (into the Taku) today is because my grandfather and my ancestors fought so hard,” she says. “My being politically involved has a lot to do with honouring my ancestors.”
Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory
For her master’s thesis, Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory wanted to find out how eating caribou and seal affected the well-being of children in Iqaluit. She discovered something remarkable. Children who eat country food “have a much wider perspective on the source of the food – like who the hunter was, where he hunted it from,” she says. They also gain something else: “a broader understanding of what’s happening in the community.” The meat serves as a kind of social glue.
In what Williamson Bathory calls the “post-colonial situation” in Nunavut today, her finding suggests that even seemingly simple elements of culture can offer hope. “There are things that people are doing every day to make themselves and other people around them feel better. And I truly believe it’s through making art and sharing food,” she says.
Williamson Bathory was born in Saskatoon after her Greenlandic mother came to Canada to study in English, as part of a “process of decolonization.” Her mother married a professor, and Saskatchewan proved a surprisingly culturally immersive spot for a young Inuit woman. Storytellers, musicians and carvers passed through the family home – including one of the founders of the Greenlandic theatre movement, who taught Williamson Bathory the art of Greenlandic mask dancing when she was 13.
After working for the Art Gallery of Ontario, where she helped curate the large Inuit art collection, she moved to Nunavut in 2005 to work as a policy analyst for the land-claims organization Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. She’s become a notable artist, collaborating with others in the circumpolar world on a piece of musical theatre that will be performed in Canada and Greenland this year. She has also advocated for more sustainable fishery management and marine conservation through work with Oceans North. And she’s pushed for a new performing-arts centre in Iqaluit. It’s a big dream. “We know it’s going to be very expensive,” she says. But she’s convinced art is no extravagance. Instead, she says it can bring about profound improvements in social health. “Everybody has a deep need to express themselves creatively,” she says.
NWT SUPREME COURT JUSTICE
Shannon Smallwood remembers a conversation with her mother when she was a girl. They were talking about what she might do when she grew up. “I think I said I wanted to be a flight attendant,” she says. Her mother thought she should aim higher. “She said, ‘become a doctor. Become a lawyer.’” Those were the top jobs that came to mind – although they were both, in many ways, equally unattainable. Growing up in Fort Good Hope, NWT, Smallwood didn’t know a single doctor or lawyer. She did, however, have a little girl’s way of seeing the world. “I thought, ‘lawyer sounds less messy than being a doctor. Let’s pick lawyer,’” she says.
Smallwood majored in political science, married and, after three years in Germany with her military husband, enrolled in law school. Then she joined the federal justice department in Yellowknife. After a brief stint in Ottawa, they returned North – “because I’m from here, I feel at home.” Smallwood worked as a prosecutor, building up to homicides, dangerous-offender applications and jury trials for sexual assaults.
Being from the small-town North was, at times, helpful. Working the circuit, when the entire legal system would land in a tiny community for a day, she felt better able to relate to those she met. And when, last year, she was made a justice of the NWT Supreme Court – the first person of Dene descent appointed to the position – she knew better than most the significance of what had happened. “Hopefully it gives people more confidence knowing someone from the North is on the bench,” she says. She’ll also have a unique ability to shape the North, with responsibilities that include judicial reviews of administrative decisions like environmental assessments and land claims.
Last year, Smallwood returned to Fort Good Hope to speak at the high school graduation. When she was young, the legal world had been a distant one. Now she herself was bringing the profession home. “That’s been one of the high points since I’ve been appointed,” she says.
AFN LIAISON OFFICER
When she was 17, Kluane Adamek left her Yukon home for a trip to Edmonton with a group of residential school survivors. She listened as Phil Fontaine, then national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, recounted his own story.
“It was one those ‘aha’ moments, where I realized that in many of our communities, those inter-generational effects are still there,” she says. There was another realization: She could do something to help. A high school basketball player, she began to volunteer at an after-school sports program. She ran summer camps.
She worked in the government youth directorate, travelling around the Yukon on a campaign to persuade young people to save alcohol for later in life. She majored in Canadian studies at Carleton University, expecting to return North to teach. But when her courses led her to find out more about her home band’s Kluane First Nation Final Agreement, she discovered a desire to be part of the new governance structures the agreement made possible. “I wanted to make sure our agreements are upheld,” she says.
She returned North and began to accumulate experience, coordinating an education summit for Yukon College and then managing education activities for the Council of Yukon First Nations. She helped create a mentorship program that matched middle-school-age students with youth from the upper grades. The first year it had just 12 participants at one school. It nearly tripled the second year as other schools asked to join.
Adamek began to work with young people across the North, and became the national youth representative for the Assembly of First Nations. She helped organize a week of advocacy, with aboriginal leaders marching across Canada in support of education. “Our education system, as it stands now, is not set up to allow First Nation students to obtain their full potential,” she said at the time.
Today, Adamek is an AFN liaison officer in the National Chief’s office. It’s a chance, again, to delve into the breadth of opportunity that lies in Northern final agreements. “First Nations are governments. We are. So we need to be respected in that way,” she says. She talks about the need for education, sports, better cultural instruction. She’s not certain where those impulses might lead her, just that she hopes she can play a part somehow. Occasionally, she thinks back to something her mom often says. “She’s like, ‘Kluane, just do it. Don’t talk about it. Just do it,’” she says. “So I remember that.”
Chief Math'ieya Alatini
CHIEF, KLUANE FIRST NATION
Until she started first grade, Math’ieya Alatini lived in the bush. She hunted, fished and learned to draw water through the ice. When she moved to Victoria at age 10, she was struck by how little others knew. “I remember going, ‘oh these poor kids. They’re so dumb. They could never survive a day in the bush on their own.’”
A few decades later, she still knows a thing or two about survival – and she finds it just as hard to understand those who don’t. Alatini is now chief of the Kluane First Nation, a position she has used to reinvent her hometown of Burwash Landing. In the three years since she was elected, she’s cleared the way for private home ownership on band lands, helped create community corporations and a trust to manage First Nation funds, installed a geothermal well she hopes will heat a greenhouse – and through it all, instilled a sense of urgency in the tiny hamlet tucked against the sprawling mountains of the western Yukon. “Our community members can’t keep up with all the stuff we’ve done,” she says.
It was Alatini’s mother who helped bring the first one room school to Burwash Landing – and her mother who had her reading Hardy Boys books by age five. “There was no question whether I was going on to university,” she says. She secured a bachelor of commerce degree and an unusually diverse employment history. After a job as capital-projects manager in Burwash Landing, she took work as the executive director of Aboriginal Tourism British Columbia, then landed a position with the Canadian Executive Service Organization. That led to joining the federal government in what was then Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, where she at one point oversaw $400 million in capital spending.
But home beckoned. “It’s amazing what the pull of this place does,” she says. She won election in 2010, and will run again this year. She doesn’t know what might be next. Her goal is “a self-sustaining community.” How ambitious is she? The geothermal greenhouse, she says, could grow 800 pounds of vegetables every three months. She wants to eventually harvest enough “that we can feed ourselves – and we can start feeding the Yukon as well.”
Madeleine Redfern may have been Canada’s most over qualified small-town mayor. She was among Nunavut’s first law school graduates. She clerked with the Supreme Court of Canada, the first Inuk to do so. She was executive director of the Qikiqtani Truth Commission. She possessed the qualifications to become a leader of high office.
And yet, on December 13, 2010, she was elected mayor of Iqaluit. It was partly a consolation prize: She’d failed in a 2008 attempt to enter the territorial legislature. It was also a matter of impact: Mayors have a unique ability to leverage power. Just about everything – spending on roads, big policy decisions – has an impact on urban centres. Municipal government provided another perk: the ability to point out the shortfalls of a Nunavut legislature she has accused of overseeing a “chilly banana republic.”
In Nunavut, Redfern wields unusual moral authority. Even before moving to Iqaluit prior to the creation of the territory, she’d established herself as a leader in Ottawa’s Inuit community, where she held oversight positions with the Tungasuvvingat Inuit Community Centre and the Inuit Non-Profit Housing Corporation. She ran her own small business, too.
Redfern was born in what was then Frobisher Bay. Her father was a newspaper publisher who left the North to become a stock and commodity broker. She returned North two decades after she left, in part out of a desire to have her “daughter connect with our Inuit side of the family.” After a half-term as mayor – she came to power in a by-election – she declined to run again, unhappy that her family had been subjected to what she saw as unfair criticism. She now runs a consulting firm that works for the World Wildlife Fund and is, among other things, promoting a project to lay fibre-optic cable across the Arctic.
Yet for Redfern, politics has a kind of siren’s call. She still regularly meets politicians, community leaders and groups of all stripes. She lives for “policy analysis and critiquing.” In other words, she’s unlikely to stay out of elected office for long. “I think,” she says, “politics is in my blood.”
In 1994, Priscilla Haogak’s father died. Amid the grief, her mother moved with her children to Inuvik for an education in management studies. “What she did for four years is raise her kids on her own after the loss of her husband and obtain her diploma,” says Haogak.
Years later, Haogak followed a similar path, leaving her post as mayor of Sachs Harbour, NWT, to move to Inuvik for school. It was one of the hardest things she ever did, a decision accompanied by tears and sleepless nights. But she wanted to realize the lofty goals set by her father, who had himself been mayor of Sachs Harbour. “Growing up, my dad was always telling me, ‘Priscilla, you’re going to be a lawyer. You’re going to be a doctor.’”
Haogak had never managed to make good on those hopes. She’d dropped out of school and then bailed on a nursing program in Yellowknife, where classes took a backseat to partying. She returned to Sachs Harbour to odd jobs, including some time spent as an aboriginal- language instructor at the local school. She felt little ambition to do much more. But then she had her first child and things began to change. She felt a growing urge to contribute, and took a seat on the hamlet council before becoming mayor.
It was a trying position. Through the daily travails, she began to reconcile herself to not being a lawyer or doctor. But she realized that, in her time at the local school, she’d fallen in love with teaching – and she came to realize that schools can be every bit as important as hospitals, courts or the mayor’s office. “I thought, teachers are actually moving people, too. And that’s what really opened my eyes.”
So she stepped down as mayor and left town for Aurora College to get an education degree. She wants to come back to teach. Eventually, she wants to be principal. Most of all, she wants others to follow the path she and her mother found. “You need an education to survive in this world,” she says. “My hope is to go back home and be an inspiration.”
Nathan VanderKlippe spent a half-decade traipsing around the North in Twin Otters, snowmobiles, icebreakers and even a fighter jet. He now lives in Calgary.