Manitoba government questions value of Special Advisor on Indigenous Women’s Issues position

Manitoba’s new government isn’t rushing to fill a job that became a support for families of MMIWG

(Nahanni Fontaine,  former Special Advisor on Indigenous Women Issues is shown here in 2010 at a MMIW Christmas event she organized called “Never Forgotten” at the Manitoba Legislature. The Conservative government said they haven’t found any evidence of the work she performed.)

Melissa Ridgen
APTN Investigates
Manitoba’s new Conservative government isn’t rushing to fill a job that became a support for families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, because the premier said they can’t find proof of work that would justify the position.

In 2010, the-then governing NDP appointed Nahanni Fontaine, a Winnipeg academic and activist, to the $86,000-a-year position, which she held for five years before being elected NDP MLA last spring.

Two months into her new job, she asked the new Conservative government when they’d fill her former position. At that time, she was asked to file records detailing what she accomplished, as the government was reviewing all positions in an effort to cut spending.

At the legislature last week she again called for the position to be filled in order to provide support for families preparing for the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. But the premier told the legislature there remains no proof of work done for five years.

“(Last May) during budget estimates I personally provided some information directly to Premier Pallister and ministers (Eileen) Clarke and (Rochelle) Squires when I had the opportunity,” Fontaine told APTN. “I extended an invitation to meet to discuss in greater detail the work of the special advisor on Indigenous women’s issues.”

No one took her up on the offer, she said.

Pallister told CBC Manitoba on the weekend “I have no evidence she did the work. Zero, nothing, nada.”

That doesn’t sit well with Bernadette Smith, a Winnipeg woman who has four family members missing or murdered, including her sister Claudette Osborne who vanished in 2008.

“A lot of families take offense to that. It’s a slap in the face to the families who have been helped,” Smith said.

Earlier this year, APTN Investigates filed freedom of information requests for travel and expenses associated with Fontaine’s former job, the Special Advisor on Indigenous Women’s issues in 2014 and 2015, as well as all reports and policies made as a result of these trips.

In 2014 Fontaine billed taxpayers $5,452 to travel to meet with families or organizations on the topic of violence. In 2015 that amount was $8,080. The breakdown of expenses show she visited four families in those two years.

“I have met with hundreds of families, these are only families where I had to claim mileage,” Fontaine said.

Fontaine was also part of a 2013 delegation that traveled to New York City to attend the UN Commission on the Status of Women for four days. Her travel, hotel, meals and incidentals totaled $2,639, including one meal for $104.08.

“I wasn’t aware how expensive it was,” Fontaine said, adding that even a breakfast of just yogurt was pricey.

As a result of the trip, she said, Winnipeg was convinced to join the UN Safe Cities Initiative. And information sharing in New York gave the Manitoba delegation information on “engaging men and boys to address violence against women” according to the government staffer tasked with responding to the FIPPA request.

Pallister has said there needs to be more concrete evidence of work when considering which government jobs will be extended and which ones will be axed.

Smith said she has met with Minister Squires, who is responsible for the status of women.

“I told her I don’t care what you call this position but there has to be someone to help families navigate the system. I was pleading with her,” Smith said, adding she and other families have been waiting seven months for a new point-person. “The province can’t wipe their hands of this. We’re talking about human lives … and families need an advocate.”

A statement from Minister Clarke’s office said “Manitoba Justice has provided support for families who are participating in the inquiry and has applied for further federal support to bolster Manitoba’s Family Liaison Units.” And “Representatives from the departments of Indigenous and Municipal Relations, Justice (Legal and Victims Services) and Status of Women are participating in the federal government’s Federal-Provincial-Territorial Working Group related to the inquiry, where discussions have focused largely on legal matters, document preparation/management and a collection of technical issues related to records management, privileged documents, freedom of information and privacy regimes.”

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Host, Producer / Winnipeg

Melissa is a proud Red River Métis and award-winning journalist who has spent more than 24 years covering crime, courts, politics, business and entertainment for newspapers in four provinces.
She then joined APTN Investigates in 2009 and APTN National News in 2018 and in that time has garnered numerous awards and nominations including from the World Indigenous Television Broadcasters Network (2013), Canadian Association of Journalists (2016, 2019) and Canadian Screen Awards (2018, 2019).

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