2021 has been a difficult year for many Canadians, for a multitude of reasons. From dealing with the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic hitting many Canadian provinces hard, to the horrific discovery of several mass graves at Canadian residential schools for Indigenous children, many Canadians are grappling with complicated feelings about what it means to be Canadian right now. 

At Randstad Canada, we are committed to supporting Indigenous communities around us, and we encourage people to continue learning about Indigenous history. As Canada turns 154 this year, we have decided to turn the spotlight around and highlight Indigenous Canadian women who have made meaningful contributions to Canadian society and the world of work.

indigenous women trailblazers canada day
indigenous women trailblazers canada day
   

Kenojuak Ashevak (1927-2013) - celebrated Inuk artist

Ashevak is one of Canada’s most celebrated Inuit artists, famous for her bold compositions that define the Cape Dorset style. She is well-known for her works in graphite, coloured pencils, watercolours, acrylics, and other materials. Her artworks are highly sought-after by museums and collectors, with many of her most famous works appearing in esteemed collections such as Canada’s National Gallery, the Metropolitan Museum of Arts, The Smithsonian, and the Art Gallery of Ontario. She was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1967 and promoted to a Companion in 1982.  She was also the first Inuk artist inducted into Canada’s walk of fame. 

Jaime Black - creator of The REDress Project highlighting missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls

Jaime Black is a Metis artist best known for creating The REDress project, to bring attention to Canada’s missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. First created in 2010, The REDress Project is an art installation that features red dresses hanging in various public spaces around Canada. According to Black, she chose the colour red after conversations with an Indigenous friend, who told her red is the only colour the spirits can see. She explained: "So it’s really a calling back of the spirits of these women and allowing them a chance to be among us and have their voices heard through their family members and community." 

Cindy Blackstock (1964-) - child welfare activist and academic

Cindy Blackstock is a member of the Gitksan First Nation and has over 30 years of experience in social work. Her tireless dedication to child protection and Indigenous children’s rights shaped her career, from her role as the Executive Director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, to publishing 75 articles related to First Nations child welfare and human rights. Blackstock’s most highly recognized work is a 9-year case about Canada's discriminatory funding of child welfare services. The case was heard before the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal in 2016. They found that First Nations children were denied the same level and quality of service as children elsewhere in Canada. This moment marked a shift in Blackstock’s career, positioning her as a leader for Indigenous children’s rights, equality, and justice. This famous case is now the subject of a documentary film by Alanis Obomsawin. In 2016, We Can't Make the Same Mistake Twice premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Alanis Obomsawin (1932) - Abenaki activist, filmmaker, singer, and artist 

Alanis Obomsawin is a celebrated documentary film director, not only in Canada but across the world. A born performer, Obomsawin began her career as a professional singer and storyteller before joining the National Film Board in 1967. As a singer, she performed her repertoire of Aboriginal, English, and French songs in North America - on reserves, in schools and prisons, at music festivals and on television - and in Europe.  Her work as a filmmaker focuses on the lives and perspectives of Indigenous peoples in Canada and the challenges they face, amplifying voices that have often been excluded. Obomsawin has won multiple awards and recognitions including the Governor General’s Award in 1983, an Honorary Fellowship at the Ontario College of Art and Design in 1994, and was named a Companion of the Order of Canada in 2019. 

Mary Two-Axe Earley (1911 - 1996) - pioneering First Nations and women’s rights activist

Mary Two-Axe Earley was a Mohawk and Oneida women’s rights activist from the Kahnawake reserve in Quebec. After losing her Indian status after marrying, she advocated for changes to the Indian Act. The act promoted gender discrimination and stripped First Nations women of their rights to participate in the culture of their home reserves after marrying those without status. In 1967, she established the organization Equal Rights for Indian Women and contributed to the Royal Commission on the Status of Women. In 1985 the Canadian government passed Bill C-31 to amend the Indian Act, in large part due to Mary’s work. The bill eliminated gender discrimination from the act and created a new process for allowing First Nations women to have their Indian status reinstated. Mary became the first woman to have her status reinstated.

Jean Cuthand Goodwill (1928- 1997) - first Indigenous woman to complete a nursing program in Saskatchewan

Jean Cuthand Goodwill was a Cree nurse, who, in 1954, became the first woman to complete a nursing program in Saskatchewan. She was born and raised in the Little Pine First Nation. As an adolescent, she contracted Tuberculosis and spent 3 years in a sanatorium. The experience influenced her decision to pursue nursing. Following her graduation, she worked with the Indian and Northern Health Services and La Ronge nursing station, often attending emergencies in remote Northern locations by bush plane or dog sled team. In 1974, she founded the Inuit Nurses of Canada (now known as the Canadian Indigenous Nurses Association) and in 1981 was appointed as a special advisor to Canada’s Minister of National Health and Welfare, and later the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development. She was an active advocate for Indigenous health, joining the Board of Directors for the Canadian Public Health Association as well as being a founding member of the Aboriginal Women’s Association of Canada.

Jas M. Morgan - boundary-pushing Two-Spirit Indigenous writer and editor

Jas M. Morgan is a Cree-Metis-Saulteaux writer and editor. They were the Editor-at-Large for 'Canadian Art' and published their first book, nîtisânak, in 2018. The book won prestigious awards including the 2019 Dayne Ogilvie Prize and a 2019 Quebec Writers’ Federation first book prize. Morgan is also a founder of gijiit, a collective that focuses on community-engaged Indigenous art, gatherings, and research around the themes of gender and sexuality.

Autumn Peltier (2004-) - Anishinaabe activist and clean water advocate

17-year-old Autumn Peltier is an advocate for clean water in First Nations communities in Canada and across the world. Her activism focuses on the importance, sacredness, and accessibility of clean water. As a leading global youth environmental activist, Peltier was appointed Chief Water Commissioner by the Anishinabek Nation and has spoken about Canada’s water contamination issue at the United Nations. She was nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize for three years in a row, in 2017, 2018, and 2019 and was recognized as a “Science Defender” by the Union of Concerned Scientists in 2019.

Buffy Sainte-Marie (1941-) - Indigenous singer-songwriter and musician

Buffy Sainte-Marie is a renowned Indigenous Canadian singer and songwriter, famous for her lyrical exploration of love, war, religion, and mysticism. She has numerous hits under her belt, including ‘Universal Soldier,’ ‘Cod’ine’, ‘Until It’s Time for You to Go’ and ‘Now That the Buffalo’s Gone.’ Her songs have been covered by popular artists including Barbara Streisand, Roberta Flack, Janis Joplin, Elvis Prestley, Neil Diamond, and Joe Cocker, among many others. In 1983, she became the first Indigenous person to win an Oscar for her song ‘Up Where We Belong’ written for the film 'An Officer and a Gentleman'.

Sheila Watt-Cloutier (1953-) - Inuk Canadian activist 

Sheila Watt-Cloutier has served as a political representative for Inuit Peoples on a variety of topics. She’s worked tirelessly on social and environmental issues that affect Inuit communities, such as pollution and global warming. In 2005 she turned her attention to the issue of climate change in the Arctic. Following a report from the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, she posited that Inuit hunting may not survive the loss of sea ice and other changes projected in the coming decades. In December 2005, she, along with 62 Inuit Hunters and Elders across Canada, launched the world’s first international legal action on climate change. They claimed that the unchecked emissions of greenhouse gases in the U.S. violated Inuit cultural and environmental human rights guaranteed by the 1948 American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man.
 

discover the stories of more inspiring canadian women in our women transforming the workplace podcast series.