The Cree Women of Eeyou Istchee Association held their sixth Annual General Assembly in Mistissini September 20-22. The event made an important step by involving men in the struggle to stop violence against women.
Led by Wayne Rabbitskin, a group of Cree male Nishiiyuu walkers made their way from Chisasibi to Mistissini on a traditional wellness walk with the goal of raising awareness to end violence against women.
According to the CWEIA president Virginia Wabano, this was a project that started last year when Rabbitskin addressed the CWEIA at the 2012 AGA in Chisasibi.
After getting a cash infusion for the project through the Status of Women Canada, the men’s Nishiiyuu walkers were once again set to take to the trails of Eeyou Istchee for 21 days with the venture ending at CWEIA’s AGA.
The goal of the walk was to present an apology on behalf of the men of the Cree Nation as a means of encouraging “healing, reconciliation and resolution in Eeyou/Eenou Istchee.”
Rabbitskin read out this apology on behalf of the walkers. And it was Abby Masty, the young girl who walked with the Nishiiyuu walkers from Whapmagoostui to Ottawa, who accepted the apology on behalf of the CWEIA, because of her own goal to end violence in her trek to Ottawa.
“This journey walk from Chisasibi to Mistissini is to make amends to Cree Women of Eeyou Istchee Association, and to others, and especially to our Mother Earth for the many years of abuse they have endured,” said Rabbitskin. “This gives us a new beginning and an opportunity to move forward together in partnership for a gender-balanced society and a harmonious relationship and connection at home, community, nation, and our precious Mother Earth.
“We declare our most sincere apologies and we will commit to demonstrate our support in ending all forms of violence against women.”
Rabbitskin’s apology was a culmination of the thoughts and emotions of the men he walked with.
“Without a doubt, we are all aware of the legacies and the impacts of residential schools and intergenerational traumas, but this can no longer define our destiny as Eeyouch/Eenouch,” Rabbitskin told the gathering. “We, Nishiiyuu men coming forward, we believe that we can define our destiny and leave a legacy of hope for the future generations that will no longer be shattered by violence. Nishiiyuu men believe in creating awareness and educating our people, and other nations, is the key to healing for all First Nations People.
“In moving towards healing and in the spirit of Miiyuupimatsiun in Eeyou/Eenou Istchee, reconciliation and resolution of ending all forms of violence against all women and girls, the Nishiiyuu men agree to approach this a collective effort with Cree Women of Eeyou Istchee Association to create awareness in ending all forms of violence against all sgwuetch (women) in Eeyou/Eenou Istchee, and all the four directions of Mother Earth.”
According to Wabano, the apology was followed by personal testimonials about violence by these men as well as individual apologies to many of the women in attendance who had come to witness the event. Those women were presented with scarves as a means of making amends.
“While I can only speak for myself, I have shed a lot of tears over the last few days. It wasn’t just from pain; I just felt so many emotions at this event. There was joy over the reconciliation and also sadness for the women who we lost because of violence. There was also a lot of compassion when you could see all of the love that these men had and all of their feelings (on display),” said Wabano.
According to Rabbitskin, reading the apology was a liberating experience as he said it was as though he had held on to so much bitterness in the past. With this event it was time to let it go.
“Even with just my silence over these many years, even though I had not done anything physically to a woman in many years, it felt like I was still participating in the violence because I wasn’t standing up with these women. I wanted to have this apology and so this has liberated me,” confessed Rabbitskin.
At the same time, he said this act was a means for the men to reclaim their roles as protectors and providers.
While these men and women had the opportunity to feast and celebrate the event together, this AGA gave them the opportunity to launch a special project aimed at reducing violence in the communities in the future.
The project’s goal is to reduce violence in high-risk neighbourhoods within the communities of Mistissini, Chisasibi and Whapmagoostui and it will be carried out in conjunction with the CRA Department of Justice.
“We are launching this project with them to develop a program that we will be able to use in the three communities and then from there, carry it out in the other communities in Eeyou Istchee,” said Wabano.
There were a wide variety of other issues addressed at the three-day event. According to Wabano, one of the most notable ones was the current lack of support for families with special-needs children.
“This issue was brought forth by the parent of a child with special needs, talking about the lack of resources and support available in the communities. We know that there are various organizations that work with children with special needs. And so what we learned is that they would like CWEIA to address this and advocate for the betterment of the lives of our children,” said Wabano.
Another focus is to develop a charter for the children of the Cree Nation as a means of protecting them and creating a guarantee to keep them on Cree land. Ottawa-based Cree lawyer Arlene Faries is researching ways to create and implement the initiative.
Other issues at the AGA included ways to support single-parent families, promoting Abby Masty’s Dream Foundation and how to carry out the message of the event’s keynote speaker, Washa Sibi Elder Emma Mapachee, who spoke about the power of forgiveness.
The women also had the pleasure of enjoying a fashion show put on by Whapmagoostui fashion designer Rachel Kawapit, creator of RK Creeations.
Cree creations designed for the Cree world were modeled by Cree delegates, including parkas, mitts and mukluks.
“I had a wonderful time,” Wabano concluded. “The host community of Mistissini showed great hospitality and kept our savouring mouths craving for more delicious food that was prepared by local caterers. I look forward to the seventh Annual General Assembly, which will be in partnership with the Local Women’s Association of Whapmagoostui.”