National Indigenous Peoples Day is a chance to celebrate the accomplishments of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples. So many of their stories have been left out of history books. In an effort to honour their accomplishments, Sally Simpson has been compiling a list of Indigenous women’s “firsts” since 2011. Below are some profiled in her project.
Nahnebahwequay (Catherine Sutton)
Nahnebahwequay traveled to England and successfully petitioned Queen Victoria to intervene in a land claim dispute near Owen Sound, Ontario. The Queen granted Catherine legal ownership. The Canadian government did not honour the Queen’s decision.
Shaaw Tláa (Kate Carmack)
Shaaw Tláa was the first person in the world to discover a gold nugget, leading to the Klondike Gold Rush. She died in the influenza epidemic of 1920.
Charlotte Edith Anderson Monture
Charlotte Edith Anderson Monture was the first Indigenous woman to become a registered nurse in Canada, and the first Indigenous woman to gain the right to vote in a Canadian federal election. She was also the first Indigenous woman from Canada to serve in the United States military. She had to study in the US because most Canadian nursing programs excluded Indigenous women, and the Indian Act meant she would lose her Indian status if she attended post-secondary school.
Elsie Charles Basque
Dr. Basque was the first Mi’kmaq in Nova Scotia to earn a teaching certificate. A residential school survivor, she believed in the “healing power of education.”
Ruth Smith was an Editor of Native Voice, a newspaper that partially arose from the resentment and cynicism expressed by returning World War II Indigenous veterans. She edited a 1949 story about B.C. granting Indigenous people the right to vote.
Pauline Johnson was a poet, writer, artist and performer, and the first woman to be featured on a Canadian stamp.
Mary Two-Axe Earley
An elder and human rights activist, Mary Two-Axe Earley challenged the Royal Commission on gender discrimination and won back her Indian status. This ruling was connected to the UN holding Canada in breach of human rights in 1981, and would become Bill C-31 in 1985.
Twins Sharon and Shirley Firth were the first Canadian women to compete in four straight Olympics. In 2015, the Firth twins were inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame.
Dr. Lillian Dyck
Dr. Dyck was the first Indigenous woman to earn a Ph.D. in biological psychiatry. She was appointed to the Senate on March 24, 2005.
Bertha Skye won the Grand Gold Medal at the World Culinary Olympics in Germany in 1992. She was the only female chef in her five member team. The team was representing Native Haute Cuisine and took home the most medals (11 in total, 7 of them gold) out of the entire competition. This was also the first time a Native team participated in the competition, which consisted of 14,000 chefs from around the world.
Sheila Watt-Cloutier launched the world’s first international legal action on climate change. She claimed Inuit hunting culture may not survive the loss of sea ice and other changes projected over the coming decades. The petition alleged that greenhouse gases have violated Inuit rights as guaranteed by the 1948 American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man.
Tanya Tagaq was the first to win the Polaris Prize for the best Canadian album, Animism. The album also won a Juno in 2015. Tagaq’s style is grounded in Inuit throat singing.
In February 2018, Marlene Poitras became the first female Alberta regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations. Poitras has a background in nursing and received the Aboriginal Humanitarian Role Model Award of Alberta in 2015.
Dr. Mary Jane McCallum
Dr. Mary Jane McCallum’s impact ranges from dentistry to politics. She became the first Indigenous woman dentist in 1990 – she started as a dental assistant in 1973, then became a dental nurse in 1977 and a dental therapist in 1979. She is also a Senator, and is the first Indigenous woman chancellor of Brandon University in Manitoba. There was a span of 97 years between the first non-Indigenous woman dentist and the first Indigenous woman dentist.
Read the full list