By Clint Buehler
EDMONTON – An abiding belief in the strength and spirit of Aboriginal women and her concern for the rights of all humanity has led Muriel Stanley Venne to devote her life to championing human rights.
Her dedication has resulted Ain extensive recognition, most recently the Order of Canada and, The Honourable Lois E. Hole Award for Lifetime Achievement at the Edmonton YWCA’s Tribute to Women of Distinction.
Her career as a human rights advocate began in 1973 when then-Premier Peter Lougheed appointed her one of the first seven commissioners to the Alberta Human Rights Commission. In honour of her commitment and work in the area of human rights, Stanley Venne, who is Metis, was presented with the Alberta Human Rights Award on the 25th anniversary of the Alberta Human Rights Commission.
Stanley Venne, the mother of four and grandmother of three, was born on a farm 60 miles east of Edmonton at the end of the Great Depression, the eldest of nine children and part of a long line of strong-minded women. (A grandmother built her own covered wagon and drove it halfway across Alberta when she was in her late 50s.
She survived two bouts of tuberculosis that ended her high school career early and entered two marriage which were marred by violence. Marrying young, and with little education, she was scrubbing her kitchen floor with two young children in tow when she heard on the radio that it was possible to complete high school through correspondence. She began this process in 1965 and finished Grade 12 six years later.
She attended university for three years, then left four courses short of a degree to become department head of Job Opportunities and Placement for the Metis Association of Alberta.
She was executive director of Native Outreach for 10 years, working to gain employment for Aboriginal people in Alberta; Bechtel Canada’s Community Relations Officer for the Alsands Project in Fort McMurray; coordinator of the Metis Settlements Carpentry Training Program; general manager of Settlement Sooniyaw Corporation (financing Metis Settlement businesses), then marketing officer for the National Film Board of Canada in Edmonton.
She left the film board to create MSV Development Corporation with its four divisions: Aboriginal Expressions, Square Sircle Boxing Club, Esquao Fashion Design and MSV Consulting. As her focus turned to the issues confronting Aboriginal women, she concentrated on human rights with her new company, Dynamic Dimensions Consulting Inc., through which she conducts human rights seminars and project management within the context of the Aboriginal community.
But her iconic achievement was the creation of the Institute for the Advancement of Aboriginal Women (IAAW), created “to let our voices be heard. Now we are ready, willing and able to address the need to be heard, listened to and excellerated into decision making” for Aboriginal women. “We will help each other. We are ready for action.”
Key initiatives for the IAAW are the Esquao Awards (covered elsewhere in this issue) and its Social Justice Award, recognizing those who have made an exceptional contribution to human rights such as Amnesty International, for drawing the world’s attention to the abuse of Aboriginal women in Canada.
“For them to recognize the injustices and issues of Aboriginal women in this country is extraordinary, and we have benefited from their attention to this.”
One of Stanley Venne’s major concerns and initiatives has been the tragic plight of the missing or slain women, most of them Aboriginal and many of them sex trade workers, in western Canada.
“Hundreds of Aboriginal women are missing and murdered in Canada but does anyone care? The Insititute for the Advancement of Aboriginal Women says, ‘not enough.’”
She hopes that perhaps now something can be done to address the social conditions that lead women into that world, what she calls a national disgrace.
“We still have a long way to go,” she told the Edmonton Sun, “but the first thing that must happen before any problem is addressed is awareness. We’re finally at that point.”
At long last, times are changing, she says, “and there’s almost a groundswell, or revolution among Aboriginal women. We realized that things were bad, but we didn’t think that we could do anything to change it. We’re coming together, and now we’re no longer willing to believe that we have to accept these things.”
A critical step in that awareness was the “Gathering Our Strength Conference on Violence Against Aboriginal Conference” that she organized.
Stanley Venne and the IAAW produced a booklet, “Rights – Path Alberta” with the assistance of Aboriginal lawyers, referring to the racism involved in the Connie and Ty Jacobs killing by an RCMP officer at the T’suu Tina First Nations near Calgary. The booklet was created to inform Aboriginal people of their rights and responsibilities. The booklet gained international attention when it was endorsed by Mary Robinson, High Commissioner for Human Rights at the United Nations.
When she received the 2004 National Aboriginal Achievement Award for Law and Justice, she said, “I am delighted and honoured to be receiving a National Aboriginal Achievement Award.”
The former NAAF board member added that “receiving the award is important to me because it gives me an opportunity to bring forward some issues affecting Aboriginal women. Creating awareness of what Aboriginal women face is an essential part of IAAW’s work.
“I will continue to reach out to Aboriginal women, to listen to them and to validate their concerns. It’s critical that women feel supported and see opportunities for participating in the community.”
In 2005, Stanley Venne received the Governor General’s Award in commemoration of the Persons Case, an early 20th century challenge of legal definitions that denied women their rights, basically defining them as not being persons.
A recent project dear to her heart was the book “Our Women in Uniform” which she edited, chronicling the contributions of Canada’s Metis women in the armed forces.
She says she is very proud of the accomplishments of these courageous women.
“This is a unique historical record of our women that reflects the dreams of these young women to defend our country. They give us a glimpse of their growing up, how things were during the war years, the courage it took to join up, the romance and toughness of it all.”
Stanley Venne is currently chairman of the Aboriginal Human Rights Commission.
Among the the many other awards she has received are the Bowden Native Brotherhood Award, the 2002 Queen’s Commemorative Medal, Metis Woman of the Year, the Canadian Merit Award, and the Aboriginal Role Model Lifetime Achievement Award.