‘Lead with compassion and love’: Chief Linda Debassige on women in First Nations governance

The chief of M’Chigeeng First Nation tells TVO.org why it’s important for women to lead — and how she navigates Canadian politics
By Charnel Anderson - Published on Jul 12, 2021
In 2015, Linda Debassige was the second woman to become chief of M’Chigeeng First Nation, on Manitoulin Island. (Steve Paikin)

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Last week, RoseAnne Archibald made history as the first woman to be elected national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, a national advocacy organization representing First Nations in Canada. In 1990, at the age of 23, Archibald was the first woman to become chief of her community, Taykwa Tamagou Nation. She has also served as grand chief of Mushkegowuk Council and deputy grand chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation, and she spent three years as Ontario regional chief

“Today is a victory, and you can tell all the women in your life that the glass ceiling has been broken,” she said during her acceptance speech Thursday. “I thank all of the women who punched that ceiling before me and made a crack.”

For 87 years, the Indian Act prohibited Indigenous women from participating in First Nations governance. That changed following a 1951 amendment, which allowed First Nations women to vote in band-council elections. In 1954, Elsie Marie Knott became the first woman to be elected chief of the Mississaugas of Mud Lake Indian Band, known today as Curve Lake First Nation. 

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Since then, many Indigenous women have secured leadership roles within First Nations government and beyond. In 2015, Linda Debassige was the second woman to become chief of M’Chigeeng First Nation, on Manitoulin Island. TVO.org asks Debassige about her experience as an Indigenous leader navigating Canadian politics and her plans for the future. 

TVO.org: On July 8, Roseanne Archibald became the first woman to be elected national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. What’s your reaction that news?

Debassige: National Chief RoseAnne Archibald has made herstory! Since 1994, many strong women have put their names and their commitment forward for the role of national chief — they have trailblazed for 27 years for this very moment. Being the first female national chief in Canada inspires many young women and girls and further moves the yardstick in the inclusion of women in these spaces. It is truly a momentous time that creates a space of opportunity for the inclusion of many voices across Canada.

I have worked closely with the national chief in her previous role and have witnessed her humility, love, dedication, strong work ethic, strong advocacy, change-making, and persistence moving issues forward on behalf of Indigenous people. She leads with her heart and truly understands the challenges that lie ahead. It is truly historic and overwhelming that leaders across Canada recognize the vision of National Chief RoseAnne Archibald and support change, transparency, reconciliation, and respect. There are no words to truly describe my feelings, as I am truly ecstatic, proud, hopeful and completely supportive of the national chief’s vision in moving forward.

TVO.org: What does it mean, both practically and symbolically, to have a woman elected national chief? 

Debassige: National Chief is the champion of firsts. She is now entrusted with the immense responsibility of leading the AFN and of helping advocate at a national level. National Chief Archibald understands the importance of relationships and action. She is a tireless advocate and intelligent Indigenous woman. As a woman, she understands and has lived through many challenges that face Indigenous women and girls. She demonstrates resilience rooted in culture and love. She is a role model and trailblazer for young women and girls and will continue to inspire this change moving forward. By living through challenges that affect marginalized women, she has the tools, strategy and understanding to create change that will benefit all. She leads from a place of love and heart and will create the spaces needed to move forward. 

I am certain that we will see a very different leadership style that will impact relationships at all levels in a positive way.    

TVO.org: In a segment on The Agenda, you say that women leaders are challenged more often than men, something that likely comes from “male-dominated political culture.” You contrast with Anishinaabe culture, in which women are viewed as leaders, as life-givers, as the heart of the community. As a female chief, how do you navigate the differences between Anishnaabe culture and Canadian society?

Debassige: Women are held to a very different standard than men. The same is true for some in Anishinaabe society due to intergenerational trauma and the imposition of ideology based on the female/male gender imbalance and discrimination throughout the years, including the residential-school era. 

The Agenda With Steve Paikin, June 28, 2017: First Nations governance

I feel and have witnessed many women in leadership positions really stand for and push for change. The change they push for is fairness, transparency, and process, which will benefit everyone in the community they serve. They help guide the decision-makers around the council table to be mindful of the bigger picture. They help guide a path forward that will benefit future generations, and they build hope in the young people. They lead with compassion and love and are not afraid of having difficult conversations that may challenge the status quo. They lead people through fear that is borne of intergenerational trauma; they see hope and prosperity. These are the things I see, too. At times, leadership is needed through unpopular change and unpopular conversations.

It is interesting to be able to navigate differences between Anishinaabe culture and Canadian society. Most things in Canadian society are based on economy or money. In Anishinaabe culture, it is based on humanness and relationships. I have to have the ability to transition from audience to audience and be able to articulate my words to help my audience understand where I am coming from and what I am advocating for.

For example, when advocating to either level of government, I have to speak in their language — generally, this means a business-case scenario or a policy-based scenario, based on their policies and not our Anishinaabe laws. I have to be dexterous enough to base my conversation on our laws but translate it into their language. 

The one thing I always maintain is that I never forget who I serve or who I work for, and I’m always respectful of this role. Being a chief is so different from being a mayor or reeve or municipal leader. As chiefs, we have huge responsibility across many sectors — from governance to health to education to social services to capital projects and public works. We maintain a 24/7 work schedule. It’s our commitment and love for our communities, and certainly not the money.  

In my community, the compensation for chief is based on a two-week honorarium. There is no pension, no benefits, no vacation, no sick leave — so, really, it is truly for the love of the community that one steps up to this huge responsibility and role in M’Chigeeng First Nation. To navigate the systems that I am faced with on a daily basis, I am fuelled by the people of my community, the hard work of our ancestors, and our future generations. This gives me the courage, the dedication, the honesty, the hard work, and the giving of all of my time to the betterment of our people.

TVO.org: Do you someday see yourself running for “higher office,” such as Ontario regional chief, Anishinabek Nation grand council chief, or AFN national chief? 

Debassige: I do not know where the Creator will lead me to next. I do not take my role as a stepping stone to something greater. The greatest honour in the teachings I have received growing up is the ability to serve your community and your people to help make their lives better. I have never viewed positions as “status” jobs, as I believe leadership does not require a title. We have leaders all around us. 

I do not see the positions of Ontario regional chief, national chief, or grand chief as a higher office when the rights-holders are the collective people of our communities and our nations in our treaty areas. The positions of Ontario regional chief, national chief, and grand chiefs are to advocate and to work for the chiefs and their communities and are not be treated as a higher position — not like in Canadian society, where there are prime ministers and premiers, and it’s based on a hierarchical structure.

I know that there is so much work ahead that requires strong advocacy in many forms through many venues. There are many opportunities to do this — to collaborate with others — to make real change for Indigenous people. I seek my guidance from Elders, ceremony, family. And, at the end of the day, the Creator has a purpose for me that I will do my best to honour.

TVO.org: In the Agenda interview, you said that, as a chief, your mission is to listen to the people. What is the community of M'Chigeeng saying these days, in terms of their priorities? 

Debassige: My mission continues to be to listen to the people. However, during the pandemic, M’Chigeeng’s priority has been firstly to keep the M’Chigeeng First Nation Elders and most vulnerable as safe as possible. 

During the pandemic, the chief and council’s priority was to keep the community as safe and protected as possible. This resulted in months of local restrictions while working with all of our departments to provide enhanced services to the community as best as possible. We ensured that additional investments were made to our band-operated elementary school — Lakeview School — and our M’Chigeeng Binoojiinhs Gamgoonhs (day care) with staffing and additional resources to allow us to continue to operate our school for most of the year.

The pandemic has been difficult on all community members from young to Elder. As Anishinaabe people, we are very social, and due to the pandemic, gathering has been a restricted activity. We have also seen an increase in mental-health challenges — depression, anxiety, grief, anger — an increase in addictions, an increase in communal frustration. 

During the past year, our community has suffered many losses. We have also declared a state of social emergency as it relates to opioids, illicit drugs, and violence. We continue to remain in this state of social emergency.

The priority now is to reopen the community cautiously and responsibly. We all want to get back to a sense of normalcy; however, we must do it in a safe and good way. Our Emergency Operations Group will be finalizing the overall plan and present it to council in the next week. The priority will then shift to healing, recovery, and rebuilding.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

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