The importance women play in local, regional and Indigenous politics was recently highlighted in the first Women in Leadership Series hosted by the Circle of Hearts Society for Women.
Mayor of Fraser Lake, Sarrah Storey and Saik’uz First Nation Chief, Priscilla Mueller, shared their experiences and barriers they’ve overcome in entering political playing fields dominated by men, in an online Zoom conference held Monday, May 10.
Of the 162 municipalities in B.C., just 39 have a mayor who identifies themselves as female, Storey said.
The mother of two young boys believes there is a need for well-rounded municipal councils that include both men and women working together at one table.
“I want them to know that their voices matter as much as a woman’s, but I also want them to know to respect women and that everybody’s voice at the table is impactful,” she said.
“Men holding each other up, men holding up women, and women holding up men – it does come all hand in hand, and we need to do a better job.”
Wow!! What an amazing first session of our Women in Leadership series! 💕 Thank you Chief Priscilla Mueller and Mayor…
Storey identifies herself as a doer and not a complainer, and had decided to make Fraser Lake a better place for herself, her children and her community.
Before she had considered running for council, Storey was raising funds through CNC for several programs she operated, including Meals on Wheels and Crisis Centre, when she said municipal council at the time did something she was not sure they should have.
Although Storey witnessed complaints each day about Fraser Lake, where she and her mother-in-law started a seniors center, she also saw its potential.
It wasn’t until a student asked her why she did not just run for mayor when Storey finally put her name forward. While she lost by 49 votes, she would win the by-election for councillor approximately five months later, in which she ran against seven men and won majority of the vote.
After her term as councillor, Storey ran again for mayor and this time won by 49 votes.
“I don’t know if that’s a special number but it was an interesting experience,” she said, noting she had to prove she was capable of doing the job in a way most don’t or couldn’t understand.
Fraser Lake residents told her a few different things, and the one that she said stood out was Fraser Lake Mayors do not make waves because that is their job, and being “female would not help the situation.”
In 2018 Storey would work around the clock dealing with the Shovel Lake and Island Lake wildfires. After that, she had received another message from the same person asking her to ignore their previous comments.
“My gender has caused a lot of issues that are truly unfortunate and never really needed to be,” Storey said, noting her first experience of gender inequality was she was in the seventh grade and told by the principal she could no longer play floor hockey as she would score too many goals on the boys and made the goalie cry.
“I was given advice in my first term as a councilor not to think big and never to give out my room number.”
In her first year as councilor Storey said she surrounded herself with knowledgeable people who she could rely on and trust, and did her best each day to prove everyone wrong. Tom Clement was also integral to everything she said she has done.
Saik’uz First Nation Chief Priscilla Mueller meanwhile spent many years on her community’s council and has been married to her husband Reg for nearly 36 years.
She has three adult children and two granddaughters.
Mueller was raised by her grandmother Celina John, a hereditary chief and outspoken woman in leadership, who had looked after 15 grandchildren and foster children.
When Mueller was 15-years-old, she said John asked her to take over her hereditary name and clan seat at potlatches, but as a shy, self-conscious teenager, she had turned it down.
In 2016 Mueller would attend the grand opening of the Nadleh Whut’en First Nation’s administrative hall in which local and provincial dignitaries walked in a grand entrance with First Nation leaders followed by singers and drummers.
“It was such a powerful moment in my life, and I’ll never forget that moment, and right then and there I knew I had to run for chief and I felt excited,” she said.
“I knew that my grandmother was with me, and I also knew that God was giving me peace, and I never doubted the decision and I didn’t have second thoughts.”
Mueller was elected Chief of Saik’uz in late March 2019 and said the tough job has not been easy, but she has managed to learn and grow.
She prays for strength and guidance when she needs it most and said the biggest challenge for women in Indigenous leadership is lateral violence which she believes in her community is primarily caused by a lack of education. “If we don’t educate people they won’t know about lateral violence,”she said.
“So when I talk about the headache and the workload today, I don’t feel the same as I used to,” Mueller added.
“I face the challenges head-on because I don’t know if there is any other way to do it.”
For many years it was always men in leadership with female elders working behind the scenes to support their chief and council.
The last two terms of Saik’uz Chief and Council, however, have been primarily women who have made changes in their community’s administrative office by putting policies in place for a safe work environment as well as a complaint process.
A recent incident that Mueller said really upset her was at a funeral. After the service at home, she said she told Reg what had happened and started to cry.
“I said, you know why I’m crying? I’m not crying because of what he did to me. I’m crying because there were about six to eight men standing around me, and not one of them stood up for me,” she said.
“The way I overcome some of this is to address them directly. I feel that if I don’t then they win or think they have power over me. I also, tell them in the moment that I won’t stand for their behavior and if they want me to respect them then they need to show respect to me.”
“I go and do home visits to each house even if I know they don’t like me or have issues with how I run things. I face the members and tell them I’m here to listen and if they have concerns I’m here. By the time I leave they are thanking me for stopping by,” she added.
The Women in Leadership Series is set to continue on Monday, June 7, with northern B.C. green advocate Mackenzie Kerr one of two guest speakers.
Editor’s note: The Express has modified the story under Chief Priscilla Mueller’s comment as they didn’t represent what she said correctly. We have made those changes, and want to apologize to the Chief for any inconvenience caused by the errors made.