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'Herstory' highlights Northern heroines
Museum's educational program aims to incorporate more stories about women into Northern history lessons

Meagan Leonard
Northern News Services
Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Standing in front of an intimate crowd at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre last week, Tiffany Ayalik brought Gwich'in heroine Ats'an Veh to life for a 21st century audience.

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Artist Tiffany Ayalik performs as part of "Sisters of the North" a first-person dramatization of six women's contributions to the Northwest Territories held at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre last week. - Meagan Leonard/NNSL photo

Ayalik's performance was one of six, first-person narratives presented alongside fellow artists Ria Coleman and Natalie Labossiere.

Allowing themselves to become vessels through which the stories of some of the North's most important women could flow, the group is working to reshape the way people view history.

The bilingual presentation, dubbed "Sisters of the North" showcased the stories of women from pre-European contact to the 20th century and is part of a shift in the museum's educational programming to reflect a more unisex approach to the telling of Northern history.

The museum's French language heritage assistant Rene O'Reilly told Yellowknifer staff started to notice all of the presentations given to students featured male explorers and pilots and they wanted to add some female voices to the mix.

"We saw there was a bit of a lack of women in that heroic role," he explained. "We thought it would be a good idea to develop something to promote that and show women were just as important a part of ... communities and bringing people together in the North."

The museum, in collaboration with area artists started doing research last fall by working together with aboriginal governments and community cultural centres to gather the stories of women from across the territory - some well-known, others more obscure.

Labossiere is one of the people spearheading the research and has been working with the museum to incorporate women into the educational curriculum. She said the goal was to represent as many different time periods and cultures as possible.

"We'd like to have a new play we offer to the school audience where we showcase women's stories," she explained.

The first run of the project was performed last week in which Labossiere, Ayalik and Coleman each took on the persona of two women.

Coleman said she felt such an affinity and respect for one of her characters, Sarah Simon, she cried during the first few rehearsals.

"We were so much alike when I was reading the script, I could feel her, I knew what she was feeling," she said. "I was just streaming (tears) and crying because it was so powerful and really connected with me."

With such strong performances, the question of whether the program is a demonstration of feminism has come up. Labossiere said this has generated mixed responses, adding it depends on one's definition of the term.

"If feminist means we believe in equal rights, we believe in equality, then yes I think this is a feminist piece," she said. "We've written history and now we have to write 'herstory' - that's what it's about. It's not about pushing anybody down."

She said, gender is not really a factor when one looks at the universal qualities each woman possesses and what can be learned from their hardship and success.

"All these women are strong because they stayed true to the essentials - what was true to them," she said.

"I think that's what we can learn from all of these stories. We don't have to be celebrities or political leaders ... we can be the best in our everyday lives and be true to ourselves."

Coleman reiterated the sentiment, saying it is simply putting women on par with the men who were contributing to society alongside them.

"The women who may have been overlooked and not celebrated as they could have or should have been - (it's) just allowing them to stand on their own because they obviously did a great job," she said.

After a successful first run, Labossiere said she is hoping to expand the show to include more women before it is performed for students participating in the museum's programming next year.

"It's time to give a voice to women's stories and and inspire young women and men to stay true to their values," she said.

NNSL photo/graphic

Women of the north

Name/Claim to fame


"The Peacemaker" (1717) Successfully negotiated peace between the Cree and Chipewyan people.

Ats'an Veh

Gwich'in woman who escaped capture from an enemy clan to reunite with her family.

Catherine Beaulieu

Bouvier Lamoureux Highly respected Metis and matriarch from the Deh Cho (1836-1918)

Sarah Simon (1901-2001)

Helped shape the Mackenzie Delta as an adoptive mother, midwife and woman of the church.

Jeannie Gilbert (1902)

One of the first women in Canada to get a pilot's licence, helping to open up the North.

Irma Miron (1921-2011)

First school teacher in Hay River who stood up for the protection of natural heritage.

Source: Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre

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