By Shari Narine, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Windspeaker.com
Alberta Indigenous Relations Minister Rick Wilson got emotional over the telephone in an exclusive interview with Windspeaker.com when he spoke about a Red Dress ceremony held in his riding of Maskwacis-Wetaskiwin on Oct. 23.
“The stories that come out, we stood around crying in the cold for about two hours. I’ve developed such a heart for Indigenous people and what they’ve suffered. I’m crying here … It’s really touched my heart,” he said.
So, when new Alberta Premier Danielle Smith said unvaccinated people were the “most discriminated against group” that she’s seen in her lifetime, Wilson’s thoughts went “first thing” to Indigenous people.
“For the work I’ve been doing over the last three years, I see (discrimination) out there on a daily basis,” said Wilson.
He draws on that Red Dress ceremony as an example.
“It just blows your mind when you start thinking about it,” he said. “If we had those many murders in the white community, you would all of a sudden get your eyes opened up, I think.”
The Red Dress symbolizes missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and gender diverse people. According to Statistics Canada, in 2020 the rate of homicide of Indigenous people was seven times higher than that of non-Indigenous people.
Wilson said, however, that Smith’s comments were not meant as a slight to Indigenous people.
“She was just talking about one issue. It got twisted … That’s not what she meant at all,” he said.
Smith made her comments on Oct. 11 in a press conference following her swearing in as the province’s 19th premier. She then doubled down on her remarks by reiterating her plan to amend the Alberta human rights legislation to make it unacceptable for discrimination based on medical choice. She also announced she would be pursuing amnesty where possible for those charged or fined for breaking coronavirus pandemic restrictions.
While Smith has not apologized for her comments about the unvaccinated, she did clarify with a statement that said, in part, “I want to be clear that I did not intend to trivialize in any way the discrimination faced by minority communities and other persecuted groups both here in Canada and around the world or to create any false equivalencies to the terrible historical discrimination and persecution suffered by so many minority groups over the last decades and centuries.”
Wilson contends that Smith “has a great heart for Indigenous people,” noting she served as Opposition critic for the Indigenous Relations portfolio.
In 2012, when Smith led the Wildrose Party, which served as the Official Opposition, she was also responsible for International, Intergovernmental and Aboriginal Relations.
Two years later, Smith crossed the floor with two other Wildrose Party members to join the governing Progressive Conservatives. She lost her seat in the 2015 election.
Prior to the 2019 election, the Wildrose and PCs joined forces to create the United Conservative Party (UCP).
Smith returned to politics to win the UCP leadership race in the sixth and final ballot on Oct. 6.
Wilson says when Smith met with him to talk about his Cabinet position, she asked him if he wanted to stay on.
“I said I really would because we’ve cultivated these really great relationships and it’s taken a few years to get to the point where we can sit down and have these great discussions. We’re doing it as friends so we can work together to come to some great solutions,” he said.
Wilson adds he has developed relationships from Fort Chipewyan in northern Alberta through to the Blackfoot Confederacy in southern Alberta.
Wilson is one of only three Cabinet ministers to retain his original posting made under former premier Jason Kenney.
To help Smith in moving forward with Indigenous issues, says Wilson, one of her first appointments was that of former Enoch Cree Nation chief and former grand chief of the Treaty 6 confederacy, Billy Morin as an advisor consultant. Earlier this year, Morin joined the private sector, working with Axxcelus Capital Advisory to help Indigenous communities benefit from natural resource development.
“To have (Morin) on our team in here and … helping the premier to give her that lens (so) when we go to do something, we run it past somebody who lived in that world, (and) you get all of a sudden a different perspective of what you think is happening out there,” said Wilson.
He adds that although mandate letters from Smith to the ministers have yet to be delivered, he says Smith has “stressed” with him to keep doing what he has been doing. He points to the success his department has had in implementing almost 80 per cent of their initiatives.
“We’ve really been active in trying to promote working with Indigenous people, making sure that we do become those partners in prosperity that we talk about (and) not just talk about it, but actually do it,” said Wilson “This government has been a government of action and the new premier fits right into that.”
As for the Alberta Indigenous Opportunities Corporation (AIOC), a Crown corporation created as one of Kenney’s platform promises, Wilson anticipates “if anything, we’ll just keep expanding it. That’s our goal.”
Initially established to provide loan guarantees for Indigenous participation in natural resource projects, the AIOC was expanded in January to include financially backstopping projects and related infrastructure in the agricultural, transportation and telecommunications sectors.
Wilson doesn’t anticipate Smith’s push of an Alberta First concept or the Sovereignty Act to impact his dealings with Ottawa when it comes to collaborating on Indigenous programs and services. He says he was in Ottawa just last week meeting with federal Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller and they have a “really good relationship.”
The Alberta Sovereignty Act, one of Smith’s campaign pillars, sets out to challenge what Smith sees as the federal government interfering in provincial jurisdiction.
“Alberta First means we’re not going to let Ottawa attach strings to the tax dollars coming back to our province. But It’s not going to impact the work (Indigenous Relations) is doing,” said Wilson.
A provincial general election must be held no later than the end of May 2023. So, Wilson says they’re not waiting to get work done.
“We’re hitting the ground running. There’s no welcome back. We’re moving forward with all of our programming,” he said.
Wilson says he will be running for re-election in 2023 and if he’s successful and the UCP stay in power, he would like to go into his second term as Indigenous Relations minister.
“I’ve learned so much … It’s been a great experience for me,” he said.