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Creating Authentic Leadership Opportunities: Reflecting on ETFO's Indigenous Women's Mentorship Program

Sabrina Sawyer with contributions from Angela Frawley, Elisa Lobo and Carolyn Proulx-Wootton

ETFO’s new Indigenous Women’s Mentorship Program is dedicated to women members who self-identify as First Nations, Métis or Inuit and are interested in leadership opportunities within our union. Leadership opportunities within ETFO include being AQ instructors, curriculum writing, presenting to ETFO programs, parliamentarian training, becoming local leaders, a chairperson, a steward or an elected member of the provincial Executive. Leadership in the broader labour movement is also an option to explore, including opportunities connected to equity, Indigenous education and human rights.

For Indigenous women, it can be challenging walking in two worlds with competing worldviews. A person can feel overwhelmed, as though they constantly have to choose or abandon one identity to explore the other. This ETFO program is organized to respect and honour the journey of an Indigenous person growing into leadership by building mainstream leadership skills, while also recognizing and incorporating their Indigenous identity. Etuaptmumk (Two-Eyed Seeing) is a Mi’kmaw word coined by Elder Albert Marshall, the designated voice on environmental issues for the Mi’kmaw Elders of Unama’ki. His work encourages and respects multiple ways of knowing in science, but the term has now been extended into many paths of learning. Two-Eyed Seeing acknowledges the strengths of both Indigenous ways of being and knowing and Eurocentric ways, simultaneously.

Colonization, the legacy of residential schools, the Indian Act and ongoing oppression have impacted and continue to impact Indigenous women accessing traditional roles of leadership. Historically and in different Nations, Indigenous women have held significant responsibilities within their communities. For example, Haudenosaunee women were responsible for the land, decisions around conflict and the nomination of Haudenosaunee Confederacy Chiefs prior to the Indian Act. The forced implementation of the elected council system was intended to disrupt this responsibility. Through determination and persistent acts of sovereignty, the roles of Clan Mothers have remained, but not without disruption. The oppression of women was an intention of the Indian Act because of the powerful roles women held, their passing on of lineage and their influence within their communities.

Leadership Review

In 2016, ETFO enlisted Dr. Angela Mashford-Pringle to conduct a literature review on Aboriginal Women and Leadership programs. Algonquin from Timiskaming First Nation, Mashford-Pringle is an Assistant Professor, Indigenous Health Lead and Associate Director at the Waakebiness-Bryce Institute for Indigenous Health at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto.

Her report assessed challenges and barriers to Indigenous women’s leadership and made recommendations for moving forward. She noted that “Indigenous leadership is collectivist, whereas mainstream leadership is more often hierarchical.” This presents a challenge for some Indigenous people engaging in Eurocentric leadership training. When sitting in community or in a circle, everyone has their roles and responsibilities, but no one is above another. Indigenous women seeking leadership may have felt they needed to choose between two worldviews, choose whose teachings to follow. One should not have to abandon their identity while walking in two worlds. This is the beauty of Two-Eyed Seeing.

The ETFO Indigenous Women’s Mentorship Program creates community and connection in the hopes of highlighting the collectivism in unionism, bridging these two paths. This program also offers opportunities to access the personal and professional development needed to support Indigenous women with their individual journeys in Indigeneity and unionism. Each woman comes to the program from her own community, bringing unique teachings, traditions and ceremonies, so a one-size-fits-all approach does not work to support the paths of many. This program allows members to access release time to do the work they need to do in community with Elders, Senators, Faith Keepers and other leaders. The goal is to scaffold opportunities and build relationships and a network of support so women can feel confident in who they are and bring their voices forward in the spaces they will begin to take up. For ETFO, that meant matching mentors with mentees and creating reciprocal, long-term relationships.

A mentor in the program, Grand Erie Teacher Local member Carolyn Proulx- Wootton recalls feeling a call to move beyond her existing understanding of what being an ally is when she joined the program. “Listening to the Indigenous women in the program talk about their experiences, the barriers they felt and feelings of isolation in their buildings or roles had a powerful impact on me,” she writes. As a result of this program, she created a stronger connection to the Indigenous Education team in her board. Engaging in conversations about collective bargaining, working conditions and election issues directly impacting Indigenous members, families and students helped to strengthen those connections. “Questions that I often reflect on now,” she writes, “include which relationships and voices are missing from the conversation or the decision-making table? And what can I do to make sure those voices or perspectives are included moving forward?”

Dr. Mashford-Pringle wrote that mentorship would be essential for encouraging Indigenous women into mainstream leadership positions and that women-only programs would create a safe-space for women to explore their potential journeys. Women, she argued, would begin to see themselves as leaders and potential role models in their communities, recognizing the gifts they already carry. Mashford-Pringle’s recommendations included flexibility and input to support what Indigenous women believe they need to move forward. ETFO responded by creating this woman-centred space, offering options for women to address their own learning needs by exploring unionism, activism and leadership throughout the organization, their intersectional identities and their Indigeneity.

Peoplehood, as discussed by Mi’kmaw poet and academic Rebecca Thomas, involves language, territory, sacred history and cycle of ceremonies, the very things attacked through colonization and the same things being protected, preserved and reclaimed by communities today. She references the flexibility of Peoplehood, being able to add to and expand on these threads without impacting the Indigeneity of the person. A person can speak English and be reclaiming their language. This does not take away from who they are as an Indigenous person. They can be engaged in ceremonial cycles and attend church on Sundays and this only adds to who they are. It does not diminish their traditional teachings. It only adds to their bundle. This flexibility of Peoplehood is needed to envision oneself in leadership in the union. Learning about and exploring possibilities and developing skills from a mainstream perspective can only add to our bundle; it does not take away from traditional teachings. It is hard to undo the colonial thinking that there is an authority somewhere grading ethnicity based on behaviours or qualifications.

Mentee Elisa Lobo, a member from the Peel Teacher Local shares that her journey began by joining a board committee.

I joined the Anti-Human Sex Trafficking Committee with the Peel District School Board. The committee was formed to develop policy and procedures around student disclosures, as well as educator, student and parent education on human sex trafficking. When I joined, there was only one other Indigenous woman on the committee and only one woman self-identifying with any lived experience. Since joining, I have invited three more voices from community, advocated for a private, confidential “Brave Space” for the voices with lived experience to put minutes forward without having to speak at large and then, during my release day provided with my mentor, JoAnne and I wrote a proposal for the board to honour the voices of lived experience with art therapy sessions following the committee meetings. The proposal was successful, and we have since had two sessions.

This has been incredibly healing work, that, at an early stage, I feared and doubted. I am so grateful to the mentorship program for bringing my mentor JoAnne to my journey and for centring my identity in the work I am called to do.

One of Dr. Mashford-Pringle’s final recommendations was that Indigenous women ETFO members “would benefit from leadership training that incorporates culture, Aboriginal worldviews and positively supports these members as assets to the collective union membership.” ETFO took this recommendation to heart. It is the force that guides this program, incorporating access to Elders, skill-building, mental wellness and a network of intersectional mentors with a variety of different roles within the organization, offering supports for learning Robert’s Rules with trained parliamentarians and potential paths in collective bargaining, as AQ instructors or writers, organizers, presenters, etc.

In her TED Talk, Rebecca Thomas references Albert Marshall, who said the foundational basis of any relationship is the “exchange of stories.” The relationship between mentee and mentor should be just that.

Mentee Angela Frawley shares her story:

In my early years with the Toronto District School Board, I often wondered about the system I was a part of as an educator. I wondered most about how I could design a space for inclusive teaching and learning while simultaneously considering the impacts on the diverse learners in my classrooms. These questions created a deep discomfort and uneasiness that underpinned much of my pedagogy. But it was under the surface, undetected and ill-defined. I would ask whoever would listen how much reframing and reconfiguring can be done within the confines of this system. Over time, as I learned more about myself, I discovered alternatives to this colonial and Eurocentric educational model, alternatives that would offer a better and safer learning experience for both myself and my students. I was never alone, as there were usually one or two colleagues who shared in this discomfort, who like me were optimistic for change.

The ETFO Indigenous Women’s Mentorship Program offered an opportunity for this optimism to be realized. Together, we engaged in meaningful discourse and held space for one another. Our journeys, while distinct and unique, were intertwined in these moments. It would be during this program that I would come to understand my personal experiences and those of my students as engaging in Etuaptmumk, or Two-Eyed Seeing. In this sense, the term is extended to those who do not identify with the colonial system, racialized students who have had to leave a part of themselves at the front entrance of the school door prior to entry. Embracing the learning of Two-Eyed Seeing creates space and empowers students to incorporate identities and to share in collective and collaborative learning with mutual respect. It does not ask that we separate ourselves from our cultures and our histories; it asks that we celebrate all of who we are.

Spending time in circle with others is a gift. In this way, we decentre ourselves to become facilitators who uplift others’ voices. Thanks to the ETFO Indigenous Women’s Mentorship Program, I was able to identify the discomfort that I had been unable to articulate for all of these years. I am grateful for the experiences provided by this amazing opportunity, and I look forward with anticipation to the next meeting where we may see each other in person.

While still in its infancy, the impact of the work happening in this program is incredibly powerful. The program facilitates reciprocal relationships, creating networks of women who support one another. Mentors are committed to supporting mentees in their exploration of leadership in unionism, but they have a learning role as well. Reconciliation is about the reparation of relationships that are broken between Indigenous Peoples and Canadians; the work of reconciliation can only be done in relationship to one another. And that is what we endeavor to do.

If you are interested in getting involved, as a mentor or mentee, contact Sabrina Sawyer:

Sabrina Sawyer is a member of the ETFO executive staff; Angela Frawley is a member of Elementary Teachers of Toronto; Elisa Lobo is a member of Peel Teacher Local and Carolyn Proulx-Wootton is a member of Grand Erie Teacher Local.