By Shari Narine
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
There is a new premier in Alberta, but Rachelle Venne, who was announced as chair of the Premier’s Council on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) earlier this week, is not concerned that her council will be shelved.
The governing United Conservative Party (UCP) is electing a new leader after Premier Jason Kenney was forced to step down from the helm of the party.
Venne says the MMIWG working group, which she also chaired, took steps to ensure leadership changes wouldn’t impact the life of the council.
“Whoever gets in, we’ll have to have that commitment
reaffirmed?(but) the working group tried really hard to make sure no government would be able to stymie the work involved, so it is a three-year term in legislature. There’s no ability to kind of kibosh it or anything like that,” said Venne, who is Metis and serves as CEO of the Institute for the Advancement of Aboriginal Women.
Windspeaker.com reached out to Alberta Indigenous Relations to confirm that the council’s three-year commitment is firm despite any change in premier or government, but did not hear back by press time.
While Venne asserts the council can’t be disbanded, she admits that a new premier or a new government, Albertans go to the polls no later than May 2023_could slow movement on implementing the recommendations that came from the working group’s 113 Pathways to Justice report, which was delivered to the province in January. That report sets out a plan for Alberta’s response to the 2019 National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls’ 231 Calls for Justice.
“I know there are seven strong participants on the council that will be doing whatever we can to make sure these are implemented with whoever’s in power,” said Venne.
Although Michelle Robinson, a Sahtu Dene activist and host of the Native Calgarian podcast, is pleased to hear about the three-year commitment, she is still concerned that a change in UCP leadership could lead to a Cabinet shuffle, which could impact the work the council does.
“The average UCP MLA that I’ve talked to is actually not aware of what the national inquiry (on MMIWG) is or their own report on
113 Pathways to Justice. So my hope is that the average UCP MLA and the new UCP leadership will honour this and put it forward,” said Robinson.
She admits she’s “not a fan” of Kenney or his government, but the work that has been done in Alberta, much of it under the direction of Indigenous Relations Minister Rick Wilson, is “more than any other province in this entire country has done. If they are doing this good work and they’re going to be putting funding towards it, this is a really positive step for doing some good work.”
Budget 2022 included approximately $1 million to Indigenous Relations to support well-being and safety initiatives for Indigenous women.
Robinson doesn’t want to see that work jeopardized.
“This is the type of commitment we need to see from all orders of government,” she said.
Along with naming the members of the premier’s council on Oct. 4, Wilson also designated the day as the annual Sisters in Spirit Day.
“We don’t have to apply to have a declared Sisters in Spirit Day every year and we know that’s something in perpetuity that will be going on. For that I really respect him for making that a little easier,” said Venne.
She says the recommendations put forward by the working group followed discussions with government departments, stakeholders and background research. That work was done to ensure that all the recommendations in the 113 Pathways to Justice were viable.
“Sometimes we don’t know the systems as well as the people who are working in them, so there might have to be some tweaks in there.
Overall there are larger forward-thinking recommendations and then there are (some that are) really cut and dry. This is easy, and then we can run with it. I think there will be a variety of different types of work that will happen,” said Venne.
She adds that council members are “chomping at the bit” to begin doing the work.
The concept of the council was introduced in June, on the third anniversary of the national inquiry’s MMIWG report. It took until this week to name the members.
Venne is joined on the council by one other member from the working group, Josie Nepinak, executive director of Awo Taan Healing Lodge Society. Both women have three-year appointments.
Venne isn’t concerned about the lack of carryover of members from the working group to the council.
“I’m sure we’ll have a thorough review of what we’ve come up with but I think the people who are added to this council are very well respected and have a lot of experience in their back pocket that they’re going to be bring to the council as well?It just adds to the good decisions that we’re going to make,” she said.
Also with a three-year term on the council is April Eve Wiberg, founding member of Stolen Sisters and Brothers Awareness Movement.
Two-year terms will be served by Ashleigh Cardinal (president of Edmonton 2 Spirit Society), Kimmy Houle (director, Environment and Economic Development, Blackfoot Confederacy Tribal Council), Meeka Otway (advocate on Inuit issues and member of the **>First Nations<** Women’s Council on Economic Security), and family member and advocate Cheryl Uchytil.
The council is rounded out by one member from each of the four ministries most relevant to MMIWG issues: justice and solicitor general, health, Indigenous relations, and community and social services.
The council will be providing advice to the government on how to implement the actions and monitoring progress.
“There’s no guarantee unfortunately, (that our advice will be followed). We have to go on people’s intentions and what they give us as their commitment,” said Venne.
“It does take time, this work, and it doesn’t help the families who are trying to get justice with their loved ones being missing or murdered, but it’s definitely something that I think, as long as we’re progressing, that’s a positive, keeping the government and others at task.”
Robinson says she’s never seen a government that has fully implemented any set of recommendations. So for her and other MMIWG advocates, “that’s what we’ll be monitoring. Will they actually follow through with this and will there be substantial funding to make that work?”
But, she admits grudgingly, the Alberta government’s work to date in addressing MMIWG initiatives is “quite positive and shocking.
And I’m quite happy.”
Earlier this week, Alberta also announced that it would provide an additional $20.8 million in funding over the next four years to implement recommendations from the Alberta Human Trafficking Task Force, which includes establishing and implementing an Office to Combat Trafficking in Persons and supporting a new grant for coordinated community support and Indigenous-led and culturally appropriate services.
Venne said her working group met twice with the trafficking task force to ensure there was no duplication.
“We’re definitely in support of those recommendations and I think they will enhance the work that will be done on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls,” she said.
In Canada, Indigenous women and girls are overrepresented as victims of human trafficking.
Shari Narine is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter who works for
Windspeaker.com. The LJI program is federally funded. Turtle Island News does not receive LJI funding.