Safety is key for Indigenous women

By Sandi Krasowski
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
The Chronicle-Journal

THUNDER BAY, ONT. — The 51st annual general assembly of the Ontario Native Women’s Association (ONWA) took place this weekend in Thunder Bay.

More than 200 people took part in the conference, which was accessible in person or online.

Cora McGuire-Cyrette, ONWA’s executive director, says this year’s theme is billed as “Indigenous women’s leadership for generations to come,” and everyone is excited to be able to reconnect with each other after a long couple of years due to the pandemic.

The conference will review last year’s accomplishments and start their new strategic plan, which continues to build Indigenous women’s leadership through the next decade.

“We’re extremely proud of the work that we’ve done together as a team over the past few years,” McGuire-Cyrette said. 

“When the pandemic first hit, and everybody closed their doors, we opened ours to the community and we really did change the entire way we deliver services, programs and community development, to be able to have barrier-free access to everything that we have to offer.”

As a result of that, she said they were able to outreach more than 70,000 one-on-one services across the province from Toronto to Sioux Lookout and Kenora. 

ONWA ran the largest urban Indigenous COVID-19 vaccination clinic in Thunder Bay. 

“Last year alone, we vaccinated more than 12,000 Indigenous women and their families and we’re continuing to do so. We now have a mobile vaccination clinic, and our mandate is not health care,” she said. 

“It was just something that we do as Indigenous women. When we see a need in the community, we step into that role and take up that responsibility.”

McGuire-Cyrette says the expansion of their organization across the province has created more than 200 jobs for Indigenous women over a five-year span. The key to it is based on making sure the women feel safe in their working environments.

“Indigenous women can’t have economic empowerment until they’re safe, have safe spaces and have opportunities where we can actually level the playing field of opportunity here in the province,” McGuire-Cyrette said. “We can’t move into those spaces yet and that’s clearly something that we’re taking into consideration in our next 10-year strategic plan. We’re looking at supporting and empowering our leaders of tomorrow.”

With the natural resources and mining sectors on the verge of a boom in Northern Ontario, many opportunities are anticipated for business and employment with Indigenous women. McGuire-Cyrette says it is vital to support the safety of the community when mining is taking place so there are no increased incidences of human trafficking of Indigenous women in those communities. 

Part of this forum, being held at the Best Western Plus Nor’wester Hotel & Conference Centre, is focusing on developing those safety components.

Participants will examine the “generations of tomorrow” focusing on youth, their needs, what they want to see and what a safe space for them would look like. The information and solutions learned at the conference session can be implemented in a new safety strategy for both Indigenous youth and women.

The assembly continued Saturday followed by the fifth annual powwow to honour missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls on Sunday. The powwow, which was the first in two years, began with a sunrise ceremony at 7:30 a.m. and an opening prayer at 10 a.m.