Changing the Narrative: OC Alumna Organizes Indigenous Women’s Leadership Summit
The idea was born on a December morning in 2017, when OC alumna Nicole Taylor-Sterritt sat across from her mom, Laurie Sterritt, talking and eating breakfast together before anyone else in their house was up.
“She shared this desire to create a network of support for Indigenous women in leadership across the country,” says Taylor-Sterritt. “We weren’t really sure how to do it but we saw a need and said yes without too many questions.”
Turning words into action, the mother-daughter duo quickly crafted a plan from the ground up and by the time fall of 2018 came around, they hosted the first-ever Canadian Indigenous Women’s Leadership Summit (IWLS). Held at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec, just two kilometres from Parliament Hill, the event marked the start of a movement for Indigenous women in leadership.
Earlier this month, the second iteration of the event was hosted in Vancouver at the Fairmont Hotel. A three-day event included an evening reception to foster networking followed by two days of round-table discussions, speakers and panelists. Topics focused primarily on women in leadership, but expanded to include education to health, justice and finances. More than 250 women attended.
Nicole took on the role of event manager, balancing full-time studies towards her business degree at Okanagan College while her mom took on the production side. This year they brought with them a team of 15 volunteers and a social media coordinator to juggle the workload.
The full circle moment came for Taylor-Sterritt when her former Okanagan College classmate Saige Girouard stepped into the room, having been sponsored by the College alongside fellow student Jillian Seronik to attend the summit.
“When she showed up, I got chills,” says Taylor-Sterritt. “It’s changing for me to know that this event profoundly impacted someone I know at a personal level.”
Speakers and panelists included Andrea Menard, Métis musician and speaker, and Melanie Mark, British Columbia’s first female First Nations MLA and current Minister of Advanced Education, Skills and Training as well as many other female speakers who brought depth of insight and an abundance of stories.
“It’s about changing the narrative,” says Taylor-Sterritt. “This is about Indigenous women in leadership and how we approach life, our professions and personal lives and how we lead in our communities. We have a bigger voice than we think we do.”
Creating a network from coast to coast was at the forefront of the duo’s mind, but it wasn’t until the event unfolded in 2018 that they understood the impact. The second time around only reinforced the importance of solidarity for those attending.
“The initial reason for the summit was to ask for help,” says Taylor-Sterritt. “It’s common for women not to ask for help, or feel like by doing something yourself is a way to show your femininity or a can-do attitude. To know that there is a group of women across the country for support is powerful.”
For current fourth-year Bachelor of Business Administration student, Saige Girouard, it was hard to describe the energy in the room.
“I have never experienced anything like the feeling of walking into that room,” she says. “Indigenous women are strong, powerful, and fearless and yes, we’re still healing and yes, there’s still a long road ahead, but we are breaking the cycle and we are taking control of our futures.”
On a personal note, Taylor-Sterritt, Girouard and Seronik are thankful for the experience to learn more about their own personal heritage.
“I’ve been brought up knowing I have First Nations heritage, but without any in to the community or ways of learning compared to my mom,” says Taylor-Sterritt, “this was a great opportunity for me to learn about my own heritage in a way I had never done before.”
“I’ve always known I was of Indigenous decent,” says Girouard, “but I’ve never really felt as if I’ve truly understood what that meant. The IWLS showed me that I am just as Indigenous as any other Indigenous person, as a Métis, and it gave me the tools to change that dialogue in my own head.”
Seronik, who is in her second-year of her BBA, adds that her time at IWLS is helping her in her search for more information.
“It’s up to me now as an adult to go out and learn, and I’ve felt supported here at the College to find out more. It’s encouraged me to be more vocal about my heritage, to not be ashamed and to use it to my advantage.”
After two successful years, Taylor-Sterritt is still reeling from the momentum but notes that it hasn’t been an easy road, noting sponsors and being a full-time student as potential roadblocks. As she moves into full-time work, she anticipates what next year could hold.
“If I can balance a new job and a conference, I’d love to keep doing it because it means a lot to me. I’m hopeful for it to happen again.”