Previous Article Next Article FNPI Search Home Previous Year Next Year Year List

S.I.W.A. Keeps McNab Busy

SASKATCHEWAN INDIAN      MARCH 1974      v04 n03 p23  
From her office in Punnichy, Mrs. Isabelle McNab directs the operations of S.I.W.A.

SIWA Mrs. Isabelle McNab, the president of the Saskatchewan Indian Women's Association is rarely quiet. If she's not on the phone consulting with one of her 20 organizers in the province, then she's dealing with Indian women's problems on a more personal basis right in her office.

The SIWA office is located in the Times Building, a brown stucco structure of 1937 vintage, next door to a furniture store and a post office in the town of Punnichy - some 140 miles southeast of Saskatoon. The building shows some signs of neglect (the flag pole is bare) but it still comfortably houses both the offices of the SIWA and the Town of Punnichy. A side entrance leads to a Drop-In Centre, used as a casual meeting place for native people and as a rehabilitation centre for those with drinking problems.

The town itself is located in the Touchwood Hills, close to four reserves; Poor Man and Day Star to the north, Gordon's to the south and Muskowekwan to the east.

Mrs. McNab, a middle-aged Saulteaux Indian shares her office with stenographer Mrs. Glenn Worm. A couch and a coffeepot await the many visitors. Posters, clippings and memos line the walls and the telephone is nearly always ringing.

"How do you get the energy to work so hard all day," she jokes with one of her workers over the phone, and then with a laugh she adds, "what do you have left at night?"

The phone rings again and after the conversation ends she tells me - "That was one of my workers from Onion Lake."

Her husband, Mr. Pat McNab, a rancher from Gordons Reserve, eight miles south of Punnichy, can usually he found waiting around the office for his wife. He's a slim man, very quiet and patient - his sun glasses and hat rarely come off.

"He sometimes sleeps on the couch when he gets tired of waiting for me," his wife chuckles. However, the couch is presently occupied by a colorful assortment of headwork: a belt, headband, necklaces, armbands, and leggings, all sewn by Mr. Glenn Worm of the Poor Man Reserve. The headwork took three months of part-time labour to complete and sold for $125.

Mrs. McNab has been president of the Saskatchewan Indian Womens Association for two years now, and she's also a member of the Advisory Council of the Status. of Women. Although she claims that her involvement with the Indian Womens Association came about as an accident, her family has roots in political life - her father is a senior member of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indians.

"He's been working with the Indian people for years," she says proudly.

Life has been rather hard at times for the McNab family; six of their eight children are still

S.I.W.A. Keeps McNab Busy

SASKATCHEWAN INDIAN      MARCH 1974      v04 n03 p24  
at home, going to school.

"My husband was a hard worker though," she says, "he made a living chopping wood and selling pickets, we had no welfare in those days. I was never lazy either, if I had to haul snow to wash I kept my children clean."

The SIWA program is run with the financial support of Local Initiative Program grants, these grants pay the salaries of the 20 organizers. Saskatchewan is divided into five districts, each district representing a certain number of reserves with field workers being stationed accordingly. Co-ordinators phone the Punnichy office daily and they also send in weekly reports. All expenses are processed by the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian accounting services.

It was eight years ago that Mrs. McNab, depressed by the environment on the reserve began an attempt to improve her education.

She recalls, "One day as I was walking to town to get groceries - we didn't have a vehicle - I thought to myself, dammit, I don't have to be this poor, there has to be a way out for me."

The following winter an upgrading course was offered through the Department of Indian Affairs and she applied with the intention of bettering her grade eight standing. When her application was screened, Indian Affairs tried to discourage her - she was laughed at and told - "All these young people are young kids, you are the oldest one here." However chief Hilliard McNab (her husband's cousin) took her side and she was permitted to enroll.

All that winter, she walked to school with her son; on stormy days he would go first and break a path through the snow. By spring she had a grade ten certificate.

At that time Mrs. McNab was interested in domestic subjects such as cooking and sewing, being as yet uncertain of her ability as a student, but nevertheless she asked Canada Manpower to let her know if there was any further training available which she could take.

Then one day chief Hilliard McNab proposed that she enter university in Saskatoon and take a course as a teacher's aide. "It meant going away from home and leaving my baby," she recalls, "but I was determined - I think that's what a person has to have is determination."

Before the beginning of the second summer the Department of Indian Affairs was starting to become interested in her and she was asking to return to Saskatoon and take more training.

"Everything was falling apart at home," she says, "my husband was getting drunk because I wasn't there, but when I went back to university, I took my baby with

S.I.W.A. Keeps McNab Busy

SASKATCHEWAN INDIAN      MARCH 1974      v04 n03 p25  
me this time and I got a house in Saskatoon."

Mrs. McNab went back again for a third summer and by this time she was becoming rather well known: after being overheard speaking in class on the topic of Indian Education she was invited to another (white) classroom to give the same talk.

"There was never an idle moment after that," she comments, "I was always being asked to go and speak at different places - even a banquet. I never had the ability to speak in public before, I didn't have the confidence in myself."

Following the university training she worked a total of six years for the Indian Affairs Department, teaching kindergarten, before abandoning her career and becoming a full time worker for the SIWA. While still teaching she was elected as a district worker for the association. Later she requested a six month leave of absence from Indian Affairs to work as an area co-ordinator but following that period she found that another six months would be needed to complete her work. By the end of a year's leave she had become so involved working with SIWA that she couldn't go back to Indian Affairs.

According to Mrs. McNab, the basic problems on the reserves are caused by alcohol. "It's hit the Indian people real hard," she admits, "and it's the children and old people who suffer the most."

Child neglect comes as a by-product of the abuse of alcohol and the increasing number of Indian children who are being put in white foster homes concerns the SIWA. This practise, they feel, robs children of their identity as Indian people. At the present time the organization is in the process of closing a deal with a group of nuns who operate a hospital in the near-by town of Lestock. The government has approved a new hospital for the nuns and the SIWA hopes to convert the old building into a child care centre. However, Mrs. McNab's experiences as a student in a residential school at File Hills, near Balcarres, have turned her away from institutional forms of education.

"I often wonder how we survived in that place," she grimaces, "I feel that we have to get away from institutions, this is one thing that has driven Indian people into a rut. Our child- care workers must be people who really love their job, if a person gets into this type of work just for the paycheck, then the children will suffer."

The lack of legal guidance is another problem area for the SIWA. Thirty-seven court workers

S.I.W.A. Keeps McNab Busy

SASKATCHEWAN INDIAN      MARCH 1974      v04 n03 p26  
who had completed a course in legal-aid were all grabbed by northern reserves as they were desperately need there. Even with training of court workers beginning, Mr. McNab believes that 99 per cent of Indian people don't know their legal rights.

Inadequate housing conditions drew another barrage of criticism from the SIWA president. "It was just a few years ago that we started getting proper housing. I say proper, but to me it's still a joke because they get the cheapest kind of material for an Indian house. The build our houses in one location - transport them 200 or 300 miles and plunk them down on the bare ground with no foundation."

One of the most important issues that Mrs. McNab and the SIWA have fought was the upholding of the Supreme Court's decision on the Jeanette Lavell case.

Jeannette Lavell was a treaty Indian from Ontario who married a white man and then attempted to recover her treaty status, however the Supreme Court ruled against her. The decision was interpreted as an example of discrimination by the Advisory Council on the Status of Women, a group of which Mrs. McNab was a member.

She says, "It seemed to the general public that Jeannette Lavell was going in the right direction. At on Status of Women meetings, which I wasn't able to attend, an Indian woman had appeared and she put up a good case for Jeannette Lavell. The Council then sent a letter to government complaining that she was being discriminated against. So at the next meeting I had to prepare a statement strong enough that it was going to overcome the recommendations that the Status of Women had made. I felt that I was representing the whole province of Saskatchewan while Jeannette Lavell was just an individual."

Mrs. McNab insists that she took such a firm stand against Jeannette Lavell being reinstated because it would have meant the abolishment of the Indian Act, which she admits, "is the only protection Indians have, even though it may not be perfect." It would have also meant that Jeannette Lavell's husband would have automatically enjoyed the rights of the Indian people, and if whites are allowed to live on a reserve, there wouldn't be any boundaries left for the protection of Indian people as reserve lands would be gone, she warns.

"In my younger day I did have a choice to marry a non-status or a treaty boy," Mrs. McNab recalls, "and my dad said- 'you marry a treaty boy' - that was 25 or 30 years ago."

As to the future, Mrs. McNab declares, "We're just starting to see daylight now. There are times when it's very hard for me to carry on, but when I can do a day's work and know that I've helped my Indian people, I have a real good feeling when I go home. I find that I'm now recognized not only as an Indian woman, but as Isabelle McNab."

The president's term of office expires this summer and she will probably not stand for re- election, although it doesn't appear that she'll be deserting the cause.

"One lady said to me 'if you are not president for the next term I'm quitting.' I told her - "You're still a worker and I'm not quitting either. I'll be helping all I can."