First female chief forged a path for women in Cowessess

Pat Sparvier, former chief of Cowessess, helps change stereotypes about Indigenous females. Photo Kayleen Sawatzky.

Almost two decades after Cowessess elected its first female chief, young women in the community say Pat Sparvier is the ultimate role model for women in the community who want to be in positions of power.

Sparvier held the position of chief for two terms from 2001-2006, but says getting to the position was not without hesitations.

“I had told the chief of the day that I was going to run for council,” she said. “He thought about it and I told him why: I wanted to be a part of the change. Pretty soon down the road he came in and told me to run for chief. I said ‘no.’ ”

Sparvier claims the hesitations stemmed from the historical fact that no woman had ever tried to be in that position before.

“It was scary to think I would even have a chance as a woman,” she said. “But I campaigned on governance. I campaigned to be fair. And people believed in me.”

That leap of faith paid off for the community — specifically for women living in Cowessess —who saw new doors of opportunity opening for them with Sparvier as chief.

Brianna Lerat moved to Cowessess from Regina, and said Sparvier helped change stereotypes about First Nations women she had heard while living in the city.

“I didn’t know that women were even allowed to be chief until I heard Pat had been chief before,” said Lerat, 17. “It’s pretty cool that everybody is equal.”

Lerat is one of many young women in the community who now say they want to be chief one day.

Another is Bevanne Cote, a grade 12 student who has started her leadership role young. Cote is the student president of the local school. She said that Sparvier’s ambition is what all young women should strive for.

“When I ran for student president, I ran against two boys,” Cote said. “I thought I wasn’t going to win, because the previous election had been based off popularity. I had friends, but I wasn’t as popular.”

Cote proved that good intentions and determination can triumph over all else, something she learned through observing other female leaders like Sparvier.

“We get discouraged because of the stereotypes against women,” Cote continued. “It throws us off. But once we get past those, it’s no problem working your way up. You may run into barriers along the way, but there’s always ways to get past them.”

Sandy Pinay-Schindler, director of education in Cowessess, touched on these stereotypes for women in the workplace as well. She explained how, while many people think Indigenous women are disrespected in their communities, its actually quite the opposite. Women are regarded as wise because they are the givers of life.

“ ‘Iskwew’ in Cree is woman, but the word also encompasses fire,” Pinay-Schindler explained. “The woman is the keeper of the fire; they are the heart of the home.”

While she recognizes that a prejudice for women in power positions can still occur, she says it’s far less likely these days.

“You can work hard, but it doesn’t necessarily get you where you want to go because there are more men in power,” she said. “But in Cowessess, we don’t experience much of that anymore. Women are in key positions, and the respect for women has increased.”

Pinay-Schindler said Sparvier can take partial credit for this, because of her strong sense of character and spirituality.

“She’s forged a path,” Pinay-Schindler said. “She is a very strong and humble lady. She is very spiritual. Respect was given to her because of that. She is not boastful, she does a good job, she’s very approachable, people respect her for that.”

Even with all of this praise, Sparvier claims she can’t take all the credit for how inspiring her leadership in the community has been.  Her leadership skills were supplemented by the support she was given by her colleagues, who were often other females.

“I had good staff,” Sparvier said. “They were my go-to people. Sometimes you need to talk, you need to vent, you need to hear yourself when you say things. They were there for me. In the end, the decision was mine, but it was good to be able to talk to them.”

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