Family of Elsie Knott remember her historic election as first female chief

Rita Rose proudly sifts through old photos of her mother Elsie Knott.

Knott is celebrated as the first female chief in Canada when she was elected in Curve Lake First Nation, about 200 km northeast of Toronto.

“She was always helping before that,” Rose says. “She was helping in baseball and things going on in Curve Lake, like the home makers club and the church, so I guess maybe they saw that leadership quality and everything and they came and asked her to run.

“So she did and she was really surprised when she won.”

That was in 1954 – three years after the Indian Act was amended to allow women to participate in band elections.

People in the community saw her convincing spirit Rose says, and her unconventional ways and resourcefulness.

Rose says at the time, the band had little money. She bought an old hearse to get some of the reserve kids to high school in a nearby community.

“She coloured the hearse a real light blue and she took the children,” says Rose. “She put benches on the sides and then she took maybe about ten (children) and after a while, she was able to buy bigger buses because more children want to go but she couldn’t get a loan still from the bank.

“The Indian agent at the school signed for her, and she drove the bus for over 30 years.

Knott is one of the people profiled on the federal government’s Women in Canadian History page.

Councillor Laurie Hockaday says she’s proud to be following in her aunt’s footsteps.

“Elsie, her strength and wisdom always touched me and was my inspiration,” she says. “This is my third term on council and a lot of the inspiration has come from our older leaders and Elsie is one.”

Knott served seven terms.

Rose says she continued to dedicate her time to helping her community until her passing in 1995. She was 73.

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