“We are stronger together," says Cora McGuire-Cyrette, executive director of the Ontario Native Women's Association (ONWA). "It is about beating together as one drum going forwards. This is important to the work that ONWA does and continues to do.”
McGuire-Cyrette has been involved with the organization for over 16 years, working out of Thunder Bay, where she oversees the entirety of ONWA, which spans across Ontario and is made up of 10 sites and over 200 employees.
ONWA has tripled in size during the past seven years under McGuire-Cyrette’s leadership as executive director.
“While our work is far from over, the love, resilience, and strength that Indigenous women hold is creating healing for themselves and their communities," she said.
In her view, there is still much more to be done not only as an agency, but as an advocate for key issues, for women and young girls, for future generations, and for the youth of today.
On Sept. 16 and 17, ONWA held its 51st Annual General Assembly (AGA) and Leadership Conference in Thunder Bay celebrating “Indigenous Women’s Leadership for Generations to Come”. Following ONWA’s AGA, community gathered for the first time in two years for the 5th Annual Pow Wow to honour the families and of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG).
When asked, Cora shared her perspective on the importance of both events and the challenges faced by today’s leaders.
“We are living in the world of our youth of tomorrow. When you think about it… the land, our environment, our world, our community, it is really borrowed land of our children and our grandchildren’s grandchildren. I think we as leaders have a responsibility today to make not only space for those younger generations, but also look at strategies to engage them and to find out what are their needs, what are their priorities. We have an obligation to implement those strategies today, for them.”
ONWA’s AGA presented an opportunity to connect with youth, listen to their thoughts, and share ONWA’s recently released 10-year Strategic Picture 2021-2031 with them.
“It is giving us an opportunity to connect with our youth and get their voices and integrate this in our Strategic Plan, because the next 10 years needs to reflect their needs,” explained McGuire-Cyrette. “We need to be their space and mentorship.”
She defined Indigenous women’s leadership as being a role model and a mentor.
“We need to determine what Indigenous leadership looks like, we need to listen to women and hear their concerns, issues, and solutions. Being able to amplify these issues and solutions."
She defined this role also as one of Indigenous leadership, as one of being a role model and one of mentorship.
We need to determine what Indigenous leadership looks like, we need to listen to women and hear their concerns, issues and solutions. Being able to amplify these issues and solutions,” she stated.
In her view in order to gain this goal, one needs to walk a journey, a journey that Indigenous women have been walking for so long, and empower women.
McGuire-Cyrette envisions a future centered around becoming a Centre of Excellence, for all women, for programs and strategic advocacy. To do this, she believes one must also look at the systemic discrimination and racism that Indigenous people, and women in particular, have had to face. It is a type of discrimination that in her opinion has become a barrier preventing Indigenous people from their right to have access to a variety of systems such as health care and justice systems.
Ultimately, in her view, to bring about change and break this cycle of discrimination, society and government “must break down these systems and look at high level policy changes so that Indigenous women and youth get access to the services we have in our communities already."
“We must listen to our youth who are so brave so courageous who don’t see their own leadership skills. They get to the point with no politics in their truths, which I love. We need youth to make change and we must work together with them to make this change.”
As part of this initiative, the community offered a program for young girls who were 13 years old to come together and create their own Jingle Dresses. “
Their dress was a healing dress and when they danced it was a time for healing and one to be mentored by their community. It made them feel that they had a place in their community.” said McGuire-Cyrette.
The past few years were controlled by a global pandemic, and COVID-19 resulted in a time of isolation for many, especially the youth, who she said "need connection and community and space to discover who they are.”
The MMIWG Pow Wow was also a critical event for ONWA, continuing to build community and offering healing.
McGuire-Cyrette conveyed a sense of hope. She spoke about how important these events were, and how important it was to give youth a place and opportunity to be a part of community.
“It only takes one person to change a person’s life. We can be leaders every day; not just political leadership but mothers listening to their children, that too is leadership. Not being a bystander to violence, that is leadership.”