Monday, October 26, 2015

Elsie Knott

Aboriginal Woman Entrepreneur of Distinction
First Female Indian Chief in Canada under the Indian Act

Elsie Knott made history when she became the first woman in Canada to be elected as chief of a First Nation. While that feat earned Knott a place in the history books, she chose to take on a leadership role not to make a name for herself, but to improve the lives of the people in her community.

Born Elsie May Taylor in 1922, she grew up just north of Peterborough in southeastern Ontario on Curve Lake First Nation. At the age of 15, she married Cecil Knott and the couple had three children. She was first elected chief in 1954, three years after amendments to the Indian Act gave Native women the right to vote in band elections and hold positions on band councils. She served until 1960, then was elected to the position again in 1970 and held the post until 1976. Even before she became Chief of Curve Lake, Knott displayed her skills as a leader...not only with her family, also with members of the community seeking her opinion and guidance.

She improved the quality of life for the community, negotiating with government for funds to build new houses...dig new wells...pave roads on the reserve. A grocery store, a post office and a daycare centre all opened in the community. She was a staunch advocate for Native people, wanting the members of Curve Lake to have all the same opportunities available to non-Native communities.

As a successful leader, she always had good, creative ideas and always did her homework, ensuring that before suggesting a plan of action, she was prepared to back up her proposal with facts. With her well-thought-out plans, gregarious personality and ability to motivate, Knott never seemed to have problems with her many projects. It's been said of her that, “The only time she wasn't working on a project, was in the time after she'd completed one task and was planning what to take on next.”

She worked to organize activities like Boy Scouts and Girl Guides for the young people of the community and was instrumental in getting a senior citizens home and a community centre built on the reserve. She also owned and operated the Tee Pee Trading Post and served as postmistress.

Knott recognized the value of an education. She never went further than Grade 8 herself (at the Mud Lake Indian Reserve School), but she encouraged her children and grandchildren to get a good education. For more than 30 years, she personally took on the task of driving them to the off-reserve schools each and every school day using her own car. When the number grew, she bought an old hearse and converted it into a school bus. When that became insufficient to accommodate everyone, she found the funding needed to buy two school buses for the community.

Preserving and promoting the Ojibway language was also a priority for Knott, who would visit jails and teach the language to prisoners. She was also instrumental in starting up an Ojibway language program at Curve Lake First Nation School, with Knott's daughter, Rita Rose, serving as language instructor. To revitalize cultural activities on the First Nation, she helped establish the Curve Lake Pow Wow, which has become an annual event for the community. She initiated an annual event where a day is set aside for the beautification of the local cemetery. Knott was also involved in the local United Church, serving as a Sunday School teacher and later as church superintendent. When the existing church was condemned, Knott co-ordinated efforts to get a new one built. Selling cassette tapes of herself singing gospel songs in English and Ojibway...and organizing other fundraising activities, her efforts were rewarded when the new Curve Lake Community Church was completed in 1992.

Whenever there was someone in the community in need of her help, Knott was there. Once, when tragedy struck the reserve and a young boy died, she organized a walk-a-thon to raise money to help the boy's family with burial costs.

Knott served as an Elder with the Union of Ontario Indians. She helped found the organization's sports committee and was involved in starting up events like the Little NHL as a way to get Native communities together. Her work on behalf of her people took Knott to meetings and events across the country, where she met with other leaders, both Native and non-Native...and dined with prime ministers and even the Queen of England.

The determination that helped Knott be so successful in her work to improve conditions for the people of Curve Lake also served her well in overcoming challenges in her own life...including a battle with breast cancer. By the time she reached her 70's, Knott was forced to slow down her pace because of problems walking...attributed in part to those many years spent driving the community school bus up and down bumpy roads...and it bothered her that she couldn't dedicate as much time and effort to helping others, as she always had.

She died of congestive heart failure on December 3, 1995 at age 73.
Knott's efforts to improve the lives of the people of Curve Lake
and Native people in general, did not go unnoticed.

In 1992, Knott received an Outstanding Women Award. In 1998, her memory was honoured as part of the Anishinabek Nation's Celebration of Women Conference...and in 1999, she was one of the recipients of a Lifetime Achievement Award, given by the Union of Ontario Indians to recognize
her service to her community and to her nation.
(the foregoing are excerpts from article written by Cheryl Petton)

Observation by Tony Abbott

The problem with politicians getting to know the issues in indigenous townships
 is that we tend to suffer from what Aboriginal People call
 'the seagull syndrome'.
We fly in...scratch around...and fly out.

Merle Baird-Kerr...written March 2, 2015
To comment on this to:


  1. ABA & DILU WRITE: "Excellent read! Perfect time to be recognized and appreciated. This should be published in the Toronto the public would know and remember the great person she was."

  2. Her legacy will long remain in the hearts and souls of her people and all other aboriginal tribes across Canada. It's absolutely significant that ALL CANADIANS pay tribute to her contributions. She made a difference!
    Thanks to you both for your continued interest in following my writings...
    so much appreciated.

  3. MEG REPLIES: "I am no longer surprised at the quality
    of your blogs.This one, as the others, is superb and educated me
    on a person I had not known about...but am so glad I do now.
    Thank you for your efforts. I wish everyone here could read them."

  4. So pleased was I when I discovering an Aboriginal Woman who had, as Chief of her tribe, 'made a difference' in the lives of so many women and men.
    It amazed me also that many other tribal women have and are making an impact through education on their culture, arts and everyday life.
    Good for them! And, as always, thanks Meg for your comments.