Development & Aid, Education, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, North America

Q&A: “Indigenous Women Are Growing in Numbers and Influence”

Shari Nijman interviews CHRISTA WILLIAMS, executive director of First Nations Public Service

UNITED NATIONS, Jun 4 2009 (IPS) - The Canadian province of British Columbia is home to more than 200 native communities, or First Nations, ranging from about 20 people to over 3,000. As their size and level of remoteness varies, so does their economic development.

Christa Williams Credit: Courtesy of Christa Williams

Christa Williams Credit: Courtesy of Christa Williams

Christa Williams is executive director of First Nations Public Service (FNPS), a group that aims to empower native Canadians through education and job creation.

A member of the Nlaka’pamux Nation and an expert in aboriginal education issues, Williams played a key role in negotiating an agreement among First Nations, provincial and federal representatives that recognised the right of First Nations peoples to make decisions about the education of their learners.

Williams recently spoke with IPS about gender equality in Canada and the barriers faced by native peoples around the world.

IPS: What are the main obstacles for indigenous women? Do you think the fact that they’re female plays a bigger role, or the fact that they are indigenous? CHRISTA WILLIAMS: I would think the fact that they are indigenous is the main obstacle. Because within our communities, women are well-respected. They face tonnes of social challenges, but generally women are very much respected. I think that in the world beyond our communities, as an indigenous woman you are judged first as an indigenous person and secondly as women. And all of the stereotypes around indigenous people are primarily our barrier.

There are many stereotypes about indigenous people, like our limited education. I think there is also a stereotype around not appreciating or valuing education, and that’s definitely not the case in our community. And of course, substance abuse is always a stereotype that people are having in mind when they meet indigenous people.

So people’s perceptions matter. People are making judgments based on your appearance and the colour of your skin, as opposed to judging you about the words that you speak. We found that there is incredible knowledge in our elders and in our community that other people might not listen to.

Traditionally, in our community you talk for a long time about an issue before deciding anything. And no, they don’t always get to the point. They would cut people off and I think it that it’s the clash of cultures, the idea that people like to meet more quickly and not listen to the end of the story. The barriers that exist for indigenous women are more those of race then of sex.

IPS: Is there a big difference in the position of indigenous women among countries? CW: My understanding is, how stereotypical that may be, is that there are lots of challenges, due to other histories. In Canada, we have the privilege of having women who fought really hard to make a place for us in society and so we have those opportunities created. There are women all over the world right now who are trying to create these opportunities for women in other countries. But those women have so much larger barriers.

IPS: Do you think that the position of indigenous women is likely to change in the near future? CW: I am biased, right. So I think that of course, the position of indigenous people is getting much larger. Firstly, because we are getting much more educated, and having role models that created a trail for us. This makes it a lot easier for us who come behind.

And I think that as we grow in numbers, our influence will also grow. So I don’t see it [the influence of indigenous women] diminishing at all, I see it instead almost forging a type of leadership that is different than traditional leadership to men. I think there is a place for that, and I think that it is becoming more valued.

IPS: What national initiatives are being taken to improve the position of indigenous women in politics or in business? CW: I must admit that I am very much focused on British Columbia. So, in BC there are many things being done to promote women and leadership, but I am not familiar with the national scene. But there are a lot of things that we are trying to do here in British Columbia, like capacity building strategy and providing mentorship opportunities for young women to identify them as future leaders.

IPS: What do you think that indigenous women can contribute to organisations that non-indigenous women can’t? What can we learn from female indigenous leaders? CW: I think everybody brings different values, facts and world views. And we are certainly bringing the world view of indigenous people. But it I focus on education, I get the idea that education is not just in the classroom with one teacher as a central point, but instead it’s more of an experiential process with lots of teachers.

So you are going to have elders and you are going to have peers, parents and aunties and others. And this is the sort of community our children are going to have access to on a regular basis, so that becomes just the norm.

I think that the different approach to education isn’t teacher centred but instead is almost student centred. It allows the students to develop in their own pace and in those areas in which they are most proficient or most interested. And I think bringing that different world view into any sort of education system would be helpful to students. And I think it would not benefit First Nations learners but all learners.

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