Growing up, Bernadette Smith never visited the Manitoba legislature.
Smith didn’t see the legislature as a place that reflected her as an Indigenous person.
So, to be in her second term as the NDP MLA for the riding of Point Douglas is “very surreal.”
One of the first pieces of legislation Smith brought forward was an amendment to the province’s child welfare act.
It was an effort to ensure children would not be taken away from their families out of poverty.
“Parents shouldn’t have to be making those decisions in terms of should I put food on the table, pay my hydro and risk getting my children apprehended” says Smith who growing up was a child in care.
“I think that we as a system really need to shift the way that we support families,” says Smith.
The NDP MLA has long been an advocate for families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
Smith is also one of the founders of the Drag the Red initiative, where volunteers drag Winnipeg’s two rivers searching for clues of missing people.
Her sister, Claudette Osborne vanished in 2008.
It was while lobbying for better access to victim services for families of missing and murdered that her mind changed on taking a more active role in politics.
Smith and her family were critical of the way the media portrayed her sister’s case and feels there’s still more work to do.
“We often don’t humanize them and with my sister’s case that really hurt how the public reacted to her case,” says Smith. “There was a lot of blame ‘well she put herself in that situation. Where was her family? Why was she on the street, what do you think would happen?
“Rather than painting this picture that she’s a mother of four, she’s missed, she’s loved.”
Smith also feels there hasn’t been a shift in the way police investigate cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
“The relationship is lacking with Winnipeg police,” says Smith.
Danny Smyth, the chief of the Winnipeg Police service recently announced officers would be shifted out of a joint task force with the RCMP that looks into historical cases of missing and murdered vulnerable women.
Six of the eight or nine Winnipeg Police officers will be redirected to deal with what the police chief says is an unprecedented amount of crime.
Smith’s sister Claudette is among the 30 cases Project Devote was looking into.
Smith says the “community expects the two policing bodies to continue to work collaboratively” and feels “there should be a review of the criteria for selected cases.”
For the past 11 years, Smith has organized the ‘No Stone Unturned’ concert for families of missing persons in Manitoba.
“Families often feel like they’re alone. That the rest of society doesn’t really care that it’s your loved one,” says Smith
“You’re at home waiting for a phone call, you’re at home waiting at the door for someone to give you that news about a loved one. I think about my own step mom, in the first year she barely left the house,” she says.
“So, its super important for people that aren’t directly connected to this to come out to show these families that they’re not alone.”