A message from Dr. Unjali Malhotra, FNHA Office of the Chief Medical Officer; and Paula Tait (Wet'suwet'en and Gitxsan Nation), FNHA Wellness & Culture Specialist, FNHA Human Resources
At the First Nations Health Authority (FNHA), we honour and respect all women, all year long, but on this International Women's Day, we would like to take this space to celebrate First Nations women.
First Nations women have traditionally held places of honour, respect, and leadership within families and communities, serving as matriarchs, keepers and caretakers of life, knowledge, culture and language, protectors of land/water/resources, traditional healers, life-givers, nurturers, food/medicine harvesters, activists, and cycle-breakers. In 2023, we are continuing this important tradition and working to strengthen it for future generations.
We are fortunate to have some amazing First Nations women leaders and advisors at the FNHA including Dr. Nel Wieman, Acting Chief Medical Officer; and Sonia Isaac-Mann, Vice President, Community Health & Wellness, Programs & Services. They bring a wealth of knowledge and expertise to our organization as we work together to serve First Nations people in British Columbia (BC) and create a culturally safe health care system. We are grateful for their strong leadership.
There are so many other accomplished and successful Indigenous women to be inspired by, past and present. You can read about just a few of them here – and of course, you likely know many in your own community who may be unsung but are also doing wonderful and valuable things, whether it be helping others in their community, raising a family, or teaching languages or other skills.
Even so, in BC and around the world, many Indigenous women are not treated with the honour and respect they deserve. Because of colonialism, Indigenous women experience much higher rates of injustice compared to non-Indigenous women. These injustices include racism, discrimination, human rights violations, trauma and intergenerational trauma, and marginalization in the form of poverty, insecure housing or homelessness, incarceration, and barriers to education, employment, health care, and cultural support.
In BC, so many Indigenous women have been murdered or gone missing that in 2010 the province struck a Missing Women Commission of Inquiry. Its 2012 report, Forsaken, found that approximately 33 per cent of BC's murdered or missing women were Indigenous, despite making up approximately three per cent of the province's total population. An extension of this inquiry was the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Its 2019 report, Reclaiming Power and Place, found that “persistent and deliberate human and Indigenous rights violations and abuses are the root cause behind Canada's staggering rates of violence against Indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA people."
In spite of all this, many Indigenous women are not only surviving, but thriving. The FNHA's 2021 report on the health and wellness of First Nations women and girls in BC, Sacred and Strong: Upholding Our Matriarchal Roles, highlights the incredible strength and resilience of First Nations women and girls with stories of lived experiences in addition to useful information and statistics. The report aims to empower First Nations women and girls as they navigate their health and wellness journeys throughout their life spans.
The Sacred and Strong report also serves as a reminder of the urgent need for collective action to eliminate prevailing systemic barriers to enable all First Nations women and girls to be healthy and self-determining. It encourages First Nations women and girls to know that their voice matters, and that they can rise together in strength and unity and claim their space in this world. It calls on Indigenous men to protect, respect and honour Indigenous women. And it calls on all leaders to take action with respect to keeping Indigenous women safe and addressing systemic racism.
This year on International Women's Day, the FNHA is hosting an internal province-wide Zoom gathering to celebrate and honour some of the many First Nations women leaders in BC. We will hear from them, share stories, and lift each other up. (The idea to celebrate International Women's Day in this way comes from Tsawwassen First Nation, which has been celebrating this day annually for over 17 years with an event that includes pampering services, healing and sharing circles, food, and an Indigenous woman leader as a guest speaker.)