Elsie Knott

By Johanna Strong

Elsie Knott was the first Anishinaabe Kwe O’gimaa, that is, the first woman to serve as chief of a First Nation in Canada. Elsie was born on 20 September 1922 to George and Esther Taylor on the Curve Lake First Nation (CLFN) reserve.

She spoke only Anishinaabemowin until the age of 9 when she started school, her attendance having been delayed by illness. At the government-run school, though, she was banned from speaking her childhood language. The school only taught grades 1-8 (typically ages 6-13) and as a result, many women married young, as did Elsie when she married Cecil Knott at the age of 15.

She was very active in her community and convinced CLFN’s appointed government agent to provide a bus driver so that students could commute to the high school off-reserve. When the driver’s schedule proved erratic Elsie took on the work herself.

In 1951, the Indian Act was amended, allowing women the right to vote in band elections and to hold positions on band councils. Three years later, in 1954, Elsie was elected chief of CLFN and served until 1962 and from 1970-1976. As chief, she established an Anishinaabemowin language program at the CLFN School, convinced the government to dig wells on the reserve, and oversaw the construction of new homes and many community buildings. She also revived the powwow, historically banned by the settler government. Throughout her time as chief, Elsie refused to take a salary because she knew the funding didn’t exist in her community.

Elsie died on 3 December 1995 and was posthumously awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1998 by the Union of Ontario Indians in recognition of her service to her community.

Recommended Reading

Cora Voyageur, Firekeepers of the Twenty-First Century: First Nations Women Chiefs (Montreal, Canada: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008)

Julia Skelly, “Elsie Knott,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, 2018. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/elsie-knott

Rita Rose, “Canada’s First Elected Woman Chief,” Heritage Matters, 20 March 2018. https://www.heritage-matters.ca/articles/canadas-first-elected-woman-chief

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