Today the world celebrates women’s achievements and points to women’s rights. But what does it mean to take an Indigenizing approach to International Women’s Day?
I’m Andrea Gunraj at the Canadian Women’s Foundation.
Welcome to Alright, Now What?, a podcast from the Canadian Women’s Foundation. We put an intersectional feminist lens on stories that make you wonder “Why is this still happening?” We explore systemic roots and strategies for change that will move us closer to the goal of gender justice.
The work of the Canadian Women’s Foundation and our partners takes place on traditional First Nations, Métis, and Inuit territories. We are grateful for the opportunity to meet and work on this land. However, we recognize that land acknowledgements are not enough. We need to pursue truth, reconciliation, decolonization, and allyship in an ongoing effort to make right with all our relations.
International Women’s Day, as we know it, grew out of early 20th century action to promote women’s rights and suffrage. It was marked in places like the United States, Germany, Austria and Russia and intertwined with protests for workers’ rights. After that moment in time, the popularity of International Women’s Day waned. The feminist activism of the 1960s and UN sponsorship of the day in 1975 revived and revitalized it as an occasion to promote women’s rights around the globe.
Every year, I find myself pensive on March 8th. I think we need to take concerted steps to remember feminist and gender justice activism as more than one single movement- as many intertwined movements across many communities. It’s easy to forget how dynamic and evolving these movements have been.
This year, I’m particularly thankful to intersectional feminist thought leaders for addressing how the diversity of our experiences both converge and diverge. In the end, they see justice for one as intrinsically tied to justice for all, and nothing less will do. The people I look up to today lead the way in First Nations, Métis, and Inuit decolonizing movements, anti-racism movements, disability justice movements, gender-based violence prevention, climate justice movements, and so much more. In this vein, I’m thrilled to interview Dr. Dawn Lavell Harvard on her take on what it means to indigenize International Women’s Day.
Pulling Together: A Guide For Curriculum Developers defines Indigenization as “A process of naturalizing Indigenous knowledge to transform spaces, places and hearts. The goal is not to replace Western knowledge with Indigenous knowledge”, it says, and “the goal is not to merge the two into one. Indigenization can be understood as weaving or braiding together two distinct knowledge systems so learners can come to understand and appreciate both”.
Dr. Harvard has worked to advance the rights of Indigenous women as President of the Ontario Native Women’s Association and President of the Native Women’s Association of Canada. She’s director for the First Peoples House of Learning at Trent University. She follows in the path of her mother, Jeanette Corbiere Lavelle, a noted advocate for Indigenous women’s rights. Dawn is a member of the Board of Directors at the Canadian Women’s Foundation.
I’m Dawn Lavell Harvard and what I shared with you is that my traditional name is Wad Mimi, which means white dove in our language and I’m from the Wikwemikong First Nation on Manitoulin Island, which is where my heart is, my home, my people, you know, since time immemorial. And I’m currently the Director of the First People’s House of Learning here at Trent University. And as I said in my introduction, I am Anishnaabe Quest. I’m a proud member of the Anishinabek Nation. Our lineage has been on Manitoulin Island for as long as I can remember.
I think back to when I was a small girl, and I was telling my daughters about this. I have 3 daughters, you know. Recently, having conversations with some friends about how society treats elders. And I had a friend who’s grandma’s like 102, 103 now and just had a family gathering, everybody is kind of like, you know, grandma, you go sit over there. And I thought, wow, when I was young, I still remember my dad would till up acres and we had this garden that was acres and acres of cabbages and beans and I remember being out in that garden as a little girl with my grandmother and my aunties and my mom and my great grandmother and that experience for me of being in that garden, working alongside all of those women, and how I think, for her there was still, that, she still had that sense of purpose, she was not shuttled off to the side. And then as an adult looking back at it now, I kind of giggled when I was telling my daughters about this cause I realized I’m pretty sure between 5 year old me and the 95 year old great grandmother, I’m pretty sure we probably didn’t do much actual work, and we were probably not much help. But we were talking about that tradition of our elders still needing to feel needed, to be not shunted off to the side that you know, there’s still such an important part, and even if her importance was simply entertaining me and making sure I didn’t tromp all the beans through the rows, having that relationship with my great grandmother in that way and you know, and that summer, I’m pretty sure I spent more time with her than I did with my mom who was busy working and all of these other things. But you know what I wouldn’t give for one more afternoon in that garden with my grandmother and my great grandmother. And for me, that’s the most important thing is that relationship with our, with the women in our lives, those strong women that I watched, you know, working. My mother, she would vacuum, she would actually lift, when I was little, she would lift the couch with one arm to vacuum under it with the other one. And I remember thinking my mother was the strongest woman in the whole world, like right up there with Hulk Hogan. And that my mother was someone who challenged the government of Canada, so, she was larger than life in my memory, in my vision and my perspective.
We went to an event a while ago and somebody said “Wow, your mother’s actually really tiny.” Because she just had such a huge presence, so much power and energy and strength, and even if anything ever went wrong, even my father would, you know, tell the principal like, “Oh no, you don’t want my wife to come down here.” Because you know, my mum just exuded so much strength and you felt safe when you were with her. And I think the reason why I joined the Canadian Women’s Foundation is growing up with those kind of strong women, powerful role models and recognizing the strength of our women and their role as protectors and providers and you know, emotional support and being those heroes, those role models to those future generations.
When you think about indigenizing the way we mark International Women’s Day, what comes up for you? What does it mean to take an Indigenizing approach to a day that too often is viewed in a generic Western lens?
Well, I think this is the thing. People often asked how I became a national leader when I was president for the Native Women’s Association of Canada. And I often joke that I think I was tricked into it. That, when I was 18, my mother called me up and she said “Come up to Sue Saint Marie. You know, your Auntie’s gonna be there and your grandma.” “Sure. Why not?” I was in Kingston. So, I got in the car and I drove up there, I thought we’re gonna go to a casino. They got a pretty good buffet. Thought it was gonna be great fun and I showed up, I walked into the hotel where my mom was, and there’s hundreds of Indigenous women. The lobby was absolutely full, I could barely find her and she starts “Over here, over here.” She had invited me to, it was the annual meeting of the Ontario Native Women’s Association. And so, as I come in, she says, “Well, registration is over there, go get your ticket.” So, I walk over there, I get my registration. I come back and she says, “Well, the elders are in this room, and your auntie and I are going to a regional meeting to talk about housing and the youth are meeting over there, so, we’ll see you later” and they split and they disappeared into this crowd of Indigenous women. And so, I sort of had no choice but to go to this youth meeting. And so, you know, I thought I was going to just go to the casino buffet and I came out of there as an alternate member on the board. And then when that youth member couldn’t fulfill, I ended up being a full member on the board and you know, it just snowballed from there.
So, it wasn’t something that I consciously decided, but it was just something that the women in my family did. You know, my mother had been involved with leadership, with politics, you know, advocating and protests right from when I was a little kid. I honestly grew up thinking that everybody’s family had, you know, when you did arts and crafts day that you made protest signs and banners and that you were making brownies and bake sales to raise money to go to Ottawa and who knew other people’s moms knitted sweaters. And our experience was: I’d go off to Ottawa and my mother would be giving us, you know, “You gotta stay clean cause we’re meeting the Prime Minister for dinner tonight.”
These kind of experiences is what I grew up following just being in my mother’s life while she was trying to make change, while she was going to the Supreme Court, trying to make those changes to get her status back, fighting against the Government of Canada. As the time came, I just sort of naturally became involved and more and more involved until I literally became president for the Native Women’s Association of Canada. And you wake up one day at the United Nations down in Manhattan and think how the heck did all of this happen? And I think that when we talk about Indigenizing International Women’s Day is about recognizing the importance of those women in our lives. Recognizing the strength of those women in our lives.
Let’s pause here. Dawn got me thinking.
I remember my mom objecting when she heard a family member saying something sexist, and my mom did it loudly so her girls and nieces would hear.
I remember one of my first bosses, a racialized woman, hiring me even though her white colleagues didn’t think I could do the job. “They didn’t give me a real reason”, she said to me. “And I thought it was bias playing out, so I hired you and I’ve loved working with you ever since.”
I remember another racialized woman boss giving me chances to lead even before I had the skills. She opened doors for me because she practices what she preaches when it comes to women’s leadership.
I even remember my grade one teacher pulling me aside when a male teacher told me I’d make a great wife someday. “You can be a wife if you want,” she told me. “But you don’t have to be. And that’s not the only thing you’ll be. You’ll be all the things you want to be. Men who talk like that don’t know anything. They don’t know how amazing you girls are.”
None of these women are on lists of notable women, but they’re notable to me. I can only be grateful and take their lessons to heart.
What can I do for someone in my life like they did for me. What can you do?
At the same time, you know, once we get to a position like mine, recognizing our role and creating space for those other young people coming up behind us, and I think that’s something that is very distinctly different when we’re talking about Indigenizing. As Indigenous women, I’ve always said that it is not my role to speak for Indigenous women that has, I’m really actually not comfortable with that because my experience as an Indigenous woman in a small town outside of Peterborough is very distinctly different than somebody who is on the downtown east side in Vancouver, or somebody who is in, you know, Hay River up in the North or Michipicoten or Halifax. You know, those experiences coast to coast to coast across our country are so diverse, urban to rural remote communities. I could never imagine to speak for all of those experiences.
So, I always saw my job as creating a space for those women to speak for themselves. And I think that’s what Indigenizing International Women’s Day is all about, is creating that space for all of those diverse Indigenous voices to come forward and tell their stories, and so often you know, they feel that “Well, what do I have to contribute? I’m not…” and I said like, just your story is so important in terms of changing that discourse, in terms of, you know, there may be some young woman from your community who hears something in what your experience and has been raised in that same way, has had those same experiences, and will be able to look at you and your simply being there, speaking is giving them hope that they can have a brighter future, especially if they’re going through struggles right now.
It’s not only the ones who are at the forefront, you know, it’s not Premier Wynne as we’re sitting there next to the National Chief and the Prime Minister. It’s also those women who are in our communities, you know, watching our children so that we can do those things or advocating against the school board. I remember my grandmother used to talk about how they had these homemakers clubs. And they were supposed to be talking about starching their collar, the men’s collars, and you know, how do you get stains out of stuff and how to make a better quiche or whatever they did. Specifically for Indigenous women, you have to teach them how to be good housewives. And she said, you know, they would get to these meetings and behind the closed doors, then they would start talking about real stuff. They would start talking about education. They would start talking about what they needed for the children in their community. Then they would come together out of that meeting and you know, they would go to the Chief and Council and they would corner that Chief you know probably his mom and his wife and his sisters would corner him. She said it was like one of those little tin soldiers in those days, that had the little wind-up key in the back, that she said, you know, they would tell them what they need. She said “We’d get them all wound up and then we’d point them towards Ottawa and off he would go.”
It was so amazing to see how those women, you know, they were doing such important work in the communities. And that’s what I see our role as leaders is to be able to, you know, make those spaces. So that those women can come forward and speak for themselves. Hopefully not only on International Women’s Day, but I think that is, you know that key moment to recognize all the work that the women do in our lives.
What actions can we all do today to contribute to the process of Indigenizing International Women’s Day? And not just today, but every day.
You know, in a very crass way. It’s funny. I remember people would say, “Make room at the table”, you know, take a step back. And in a very constructive way, one of the most important things people can do is whether you’re at your parent teacher association meeting, your local Chamber of Commerce, your Business Association, your YWCA, wherever you’re sitting-have a look around the room and ask yourself, you know, are there Indigenous women at this table? Is there a seat designated for an Indigenous woman at that table and how can we ensure that that voice comes here?
Don’t fall into this trap of, well, I’m not Indigenous, so that’s not my role to, but really actively take up that challenge of making space, of saying we want this committee to have an Indigenous voice. We have to actively state that, make a space, make a seat, and then yeah, it might require some recruiting to, you know, some encouraging people to come out and that may take them work. But simply making those spaces.
And there’s so many things in everyday ways that we can do, and it goes beyond simply, you know, watching APTN and watching Indigenous movies and educating ourselves and reading Indigenous books, of which there is an amazing amount. And if one goes to our website on the First People’s House of Learning at Trent University, we have some resource lists that people can check to see some great things that you can read, some great- start a book club, do all those kinds of things, but also you can simply Google these things now. You know, Indigenous artists. Start buying Indigenous art. If you’re having anything, look for an Indigenous caterer in your area. All of these amazing things where we can start walking the talk and putting your money where your mouth is. Working with local Indigenous businesses. If you have a business, ask yourself what your procurement policies are, what your hiring policies are, you know, how are we encouraging getting an Indigenous voice and working with Indigenous businesses?
I always say, you know, whether we’re approaching Easter or holidays or Christmas, you know, there’s so many young Indigenous entrepreneurs who are doing amazing, wonderful things or creating amazing products. You know, how do we support that? And I would rather buy something there than from Walmart and every little bit makes a huge difference when we’re doing things in that way. And we’re gonna spend the money anyway. So why not, you know, really make it count and have a much greater impact.
I went to a lecture once and I gave a lecture and they said, you know, “In lieu of an honorarium, we have donated $200 to the polio vaccine.” And then I was like, “Wait a minute. I’m sure polio is great, but how about we look at how we can have some impact of some of those donations right here in our own backyard?”
There’s all kinds of amazing- start raising some money for, you know, local Indigenous youth group that’s trying to help kids get off the street. So, like I said, we’ve actually started making some lists to make it easier for people, so that if you wanted to donate, you can find places and know that it’s something that is respected and reliable and you can feel good about that. Because we’re all especially, you know, powerful women, we’re all in that space of I would love to be able to go to my daughter’s school and spend the day doing car washes to raise money, but I don’t have that kind of time. If there is somewhere where I can, you know there’s a click that I can link and I can click and I can, you know, purchase something that then I know my funds are going to help, a local Indigenous youth group or something, why not do it? And that is something I can do in a way that, you know, a very busy lifestyle, I can’t do otherwise. It doesn’t have to be a big inconvenience. It really doesn’t take much to make a difference.
And if each person did something small, and I think that’s the biggest thing, you know, right now we’re having our elders gathering coming up at Trent University on March 10th, 11th and 12th and, people could register and just listen to one session from an elder about their life story takes an hour out of your day. Maybe, you don’t even have to leave your home, listen to that elder. Hear their story. Something like that is simple, if each person clicked on and linked and was able to listen to that- the impact we would have in terms of building relationships because that’s what reconciliation, that’s what it’s all about.
Alright, now what? Check out the resources, materials and events of the First People’s House of Learning at Trent University at trentu.ca.
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