Metro talks: Chief Marlene Poitras on women in politics and continuing a family legacy
Elected in late February, Poitras is the first female Alberta Regional Chief with the Assembly of First Nations
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Marlene Poitras is living up to prophecy.
Chief Poitras, from the Mikisew Cree First Nation, is the first woman to hold the title of Alberta Regional Chief with the Assembly of First Nations. She’s also a direct descendent of Mikisew, also known as Chief Justin Martin, who signed Treaty 8 in Fort Chipewyan in 1899.
Growing up, she was told her great, great grandfather foretold that someone in her family’s seventh generation would continue his work. And while she’s spent most of her career working within the Indigenous community, spanning the areas of health, education, treaty rights and employment, the three-year term is her greatest opportunity yet to create positive change for Indigenous people in Alberta and beyond.
We sat down with Poitras to learn what her new job means to her.
The Assembly of First Nations has never had a female regional Alberta chief before. What does that say to you?
The leadership has always been male dominated. I think now the leaders are starting to look at women, because traditionally women had a very powerful role (in Indigenous culture). We had matriarchal systems ... and I think now society is starting to recognize that. With what’s happening with women everywhere, with them really coming up and rising, you’re seeing the benefits of it.... And it’s about time. Because really, if you look at the communities, it’s the women doing the work.
You’re a direct descendent of Mikisew. What is it like knowing you have the opportunity to honour his legacy and add to it?
I just feel like it’s in my genes; it’s in my genetic makeup.... Especially through this whole process, I felt him with me. Just by honouring him, honouring his work and carrying on his legacy is so important to me. I just need to draw from that strength, and it will be there to propel me forward.
You were reappointed to the First Nations Women’s Council on Economic Security in December. What has that been like?
The biggest thing for me at that table is working with the Alberta government. I really enjoy working with (Indigenous Relations Minister) Richard Feehan. He listens and wants to move our issues forward. So we have that assurance. But the most satisfactory thing is working with these ladies who have so much intellect, so much passion and just really want to move things forward for our communities.
As a mother of two, when you hear about cases such as Colten Boushie and Tina Fontaine, how does that affect you?
Colten Boushie is the same age as my youngest son. And it just horrifies me thinking that something like that could happen to him. Kids his age are out there having fun, they’re drinking, so to me it’s horrifying to think. Because when he goes out now on the weekend, I say, ‘Be careful.’ So I have that fear.
How would you characterize the state of affairs for Indigenous women today?
There’s lots of fear out there because of the court decisions that are being made, which aren’t always in our favour. But one thing I can tell you, with winning this position, I’ve had so many women telling me that they’re inspired and they really feel I can be there to speak on their behalf.
What’s your top priority as regional chief?
The treaties. To ensure that in any kind of legislative framework that’s going through, that the treaties are respected and upheld. And that’s my mandate from the Alberta chiefs. But also looking at all the other issues that impact our communities, such as the justice system, health, education, child welfare. We just have so many issues that we need to confront.
Note: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Colten Boushie. This has been corrected.