"The thing I was trying to change was to have people see my family and my people with love and caring. I really wanted people to be equal — with no hierarchy — just the right to be who you are and for women to be respected."
Muriel Stanley Venne is a fierce champion of human rights and social justice, speaking courageously for the rights of Indigenous women. Through her lifetime of tireless advocacy, she has advanced the fair and equal treatment of Indigenous people within all levels of society.
Born Muriel Esther Kopp in 1937 in Lamont, Alberta, Muriel and her twin brother Wesley were the second-eldest of ten children. They grew up in Whitford, Alberta, named after their great-uncle Andrew Whitford, who built the first school in the area.
When she was in Grade 10, Muriel contracted tuberculosis (TB), forcing her to enter the Aberhart Memorial Sanatorium in Edmonton for a year, isolated and alone. Having lost her uncle, aunt and their baby to TB — all within eight months — Muriel feared her fate. Thankfully, she recovered. Though the year was a difficult trial, the experience deepened her compassion for other people's suffering and showed Muriel her own strength. She would use this strength many times in her life, including when the TB returned as she carried her second son.
When she was 17, Muriel married Albert Venne, eventually having four children together. The marriage ended violently. Initially, Muriel was hesitant to talk about the experience, but as time went on, her experiences and strength set her on a new path. Muriel became one of the first advocates to speak out against similar abuse experienced by Indigenous women.
As Muriel built her new life, she knew she wanted a university education. She worked on upgrading courses by correspondence as she raised the family on a shoestring budget, carefully allocated to the last penny. After gaining entrance to the University of Alberta, she worked on her education degree for three years. But the demands of raising four children while going to school proved too costly. Muriel left her studies and began working at the Métis Association of Alberta where she started the Native Outreach program.
Muriel excelled at her work. Her success was thanks to her respect for the program's participants. She didn't dismiss; she listened. Muriel's career in workforce development saw her go on to implement a variety of successful programs that inspired a rethinking of the role of Indigenous people in the work force.
Muriel's advocacy took on an added dimension in 1973 when Premier Peter Lougheed recognized her strength and compassion by appointing her as one of the first seven commissioners to the Alberta Human Rights Commission. That appointment brought her into the public realm of education and advocacy. So began her long history of working tirelessly to bring Indigenous human rights issues to the forefront.
In 1994, Muriel was inspired to establish the Institute for the Advancement of Aboriginal Women (IAAW) as she helped a student navigate the legal system. Like her great-uncle Andrew Whitford, Muriel created an organization that builds community while educating people, specifically about the experience and accomplishments of Indigenous women. Muriel credits Bertha Clark (of the Voice of Alberta Native Women) and Nellie Carlson (of Indian Rights for Indian Women) with forging a path that Muriel continues to travel.
Muriel was instrumental in producing The Rights Path-Alberta, a comprehensive publication that informs Indigenous people about their human rights. So significant was its publication that Muriel presented a copy to Mary Robinson, then United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights, in 1998. When UN Rapporteur James Anaya came to Maskwacis, Alberta, in 2013, Muriel made a passionate and eloquent presentation about the state of Indigenous women's lives in Canada.
Perhaps her most significant achievement is changing how Canadian law and criminal justice systems respond to systemic violence against Indigenous women. For example, when IAAW joined forces with the Women's Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF), they demonstrated that the inhumane treatment of Angela Cardinal (a pseudonym) and discrimination in the courtroom of Cindy Gladue are not isolated injustices, but instead "symptomatic of the mistreatment of Indigenous women by the criminal justice system."
"The Cindy Gladue case, to me, is the most important case in my lifetime," says Muriel. Cindy's story is part of the larger human rights crisis surrounding missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada. There are now 231 Calls for Justice to be implemented to see the systemic change that Muriel and other advocates expect.
Under Muriel's leadership, as IAAW advocates for Indigenous women, it also celebrates them. Each year, IAAW honours the strength and beauty of Indigenous women with the Esquao Awards, the largest recognition event of its kind in Canada. The awards are unique in that they have no jury. Communities nominate women, who are then honoured for their contributions in art, literature, entertainment, business, social services, advocacy and community involvement.
Muriel's advocacy is borne out of her respect and compassion for others. In turn, she has gained the respect of organizations that have sought her input and guidance — organizations such as the National Aboriginal Economic Development Advisory Committee, Remembering the Children Society, Indspire, Métis Nation of Alberta, and the National Aboriginal Advisory Committee to the Commissioner of Prisons, to name a few.
Muriel has received many honours for her work. In 1998, on the 25th anniversary of the Alberta Human Rights Commission, she received the Alberta Human Rights Award for her lifelong contributions to social justice. In 2005, she was the first Métis person to receive the Order of Canada for her human rights advocacy and for bringing national attention to the crisis of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls. That same year, she also received the Governor General's Commemorative Award for the Persons Case. She is a recipient of the Queen Elizabeth II's Golden and Diamond Jubilee Medals, and the Alberta Centennial Medal. In 2010, she received a Distinguished Citizen Honourary Bachelor of Arts Degree from MacEwan University.
Muriel was the first Indigenous woman to have an Alberta government building named in her honour. At the official ceremony in 2017, Muriel was celebrated as a woman who has fought her whole life to make life fairer and more just. That day, Muriel said, "I hope this is a sign to young women and girls across the country that they can raise their voices and demand to be treated with respect."
Muriel's work to enlighten others through education continues. She's part of a movement to educate new Canadians at their citizenship ceremonies about the sacred agreements held between Indigenous Peoples and the Crown. Believing that Indigenous history — particularly Métis history — is missing from our textbooks, Muriel is also proud to be working with Alberta Labour Histories Institute to recognize Métis ironworkers who built the CN Tower in Edmonton.
As she accepted her honourary degree from MacEwan University, Muriel quoted a passage by poet Robert Frost that encapsulated her commitment to her path:
"The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep."
Thankfully, her legacy of strength and compassion will continue as her daughter Rachelle — now CEO of IAAW — joins Muriel on the path of advocacy for equality and respect for Indigenous women.