07/22/2012 04:09 EDT | Updated 09/21/2012 05:12 EDT

First Nations Female Leadership Candidates: What's The Secret To High Female Participation In Politics?

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OTTAWA - They did it without quotas, action plans or affirmative action.

Half of the eight candidates in the recent election for national chief of the Assembly of First Nations were women — a novel event, not just for the native organization but for Canadian politics in general.

The secret to such high female participation is two-fold, says Michele Audette, president of the Quebec Native Women's Association.

It lies in politics at the local level, where women on reserves have been taking the reins more and more often, she says.

And it lies in an inclusive approach to men, making them realize that their own health and welfare improve along with the empowerment of women, Audette said in an interview as the AFN elections wrapped up.

"We do not push the men away," she said.

Audette recalls that just 30 years ago, the women of her reserve had to peer through the windows of the band office in order to read the lips of the male counsellors in the room making decisions on their behalf. Women had been banned.

She grew up to be an ardent feminist, eventually becoming the deputy minister in the Status of Women ministry in Quebec. She believed in quotas and rules and affirmative action. But she later returned to First Nations politics, and found she had to change her approach.

The word "feminist" does not really exist in her native language, she said, but that's not because women weren't standing up for their rights. They just did it differently.

"We started to think, we have to work with the men, and have a healing process. And we have to work with the women, and empower them," she said.

Violence against women has proven to be a catalyst, Audette said. Native women, and then their husbands, sons and fathers, have been organizing against violence for years.

Now, the issue is a top priority for any national chief, and the key activists on the file are as likely to be male as female, she added.

Shawn Atleo, who defeated the four women and three men for the title of national chief to retain his title, notes that many First Nations have matrilineal roots — roots that were often disrupted by the imposition of the Indian Act.

“The issue of gender division (is) one of the external influences that have come into our communities and the re-building of relationships between men and women is something all our communities are undergoing.”

At the local level of First Nations politics, there is ample space for women to get involved in politics and gain the networks and experience they need to move up, said Audette.

Nancy Peckford has noted the same phenomenon. Peckford is executive director of Equal Voice, a group that advocates for more women in Canadian politics.

"I've been told repeatedly that on the ground (on reserves), there's tremendous grassroots leadership from women, who are using it as a launching pad," she said.

"It is for us to look at what they (First Nations) are doing right. Because we're not faring as well in the rest of Canada."

Still, the numbers suggest that a rise to the top for First Nations women is not easy.

The AFN says just 111 out of 633 chiefs are women — about 17.5 per cent.

That's just slightly higher than the percentage of female mayors in cities across Canada, according to Equal Voice.

And it's about the same percentage of women that are head of Liberal Party of Canada riding associations, where low female participation is considered a problem, said Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett, a one-time leadership candidate herself who also attended the AFN election meetings last week.

The momentum of First Nations women in politics may partly reflect their better success in the job market, said Dawn Mahdabee, who spearheaded a recent report on aboriginal well-being for the National Aboriginal Economic Development Board.

The report found that when it comes to participation in the workforce, there is a smaller gap between aboriginal men and women than there is between non-aboriginal men and women.

The wage gap is not as large either, and there's a similar pattern in entrepreneurship, the board found.

Aboriginal women have higher high-school graduation rates than aboriginal men.

And often, it's generally easier for women to become leadership candidates than it is for them to become MPs or even run for election, Bennett said.

That's because in order to run for a seat in the House of Commons, a woman must be nominated by the riding association first. To run in a leadership campaign, there are very few institutional barriers to joining the list, she said.

"Running for leadership is the one thing you really can get to do with a small posse of supporters," she said.

At the AFN, the four women candidates — Ryerson professor Pam Palmater, Winnipeg lawyer Joan Jack, Quebec activist Ellen Gabriel, and former treaty chief Diane Kelly — astounded the audience of chiefs and delegates with their articulate and passionate vision for First Nations, Bennett added.

"It's amazing to see the talent and the passion," she said. "Women run when they want to change things. They run when they are fed up."

But in the end, they didn't win. Indeed, Palmater blamed her distant second-place finish partly on the old boys' club. Jack spoke out publicly about sexism among the leadership candidates themselves during the pre-election campaign. And many chiefs wondered out loud whether the AFN was ready for a female leader.

"Are we ready to put in a woman? I don't know," said Audette. "I feel like we will get there."

Her advice to non-First Nations women thinking of taking the plunge? "Never give up."

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