By Jeremy Appel, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
(ANNews) – On June 10, longtime Metis Nation of Alberta (MNA) President Audrey Poitras announced she won’t seek re-election in September’s election, where nation members will elect their first self-governing Otipemisiwak Métis Government.
In February, the MNA signed an agreement with the federal government that recognizes it is a distinct nation on par with First Nations. This came in response to MNA members voting overwhelmingly in 2022 in support of the Otipemisiwak Métis Government Constitution, which put the nation on path to self-government.
In an exclusive interview with Alberta Native News, Poitras reflected on her 27-year-long career in Metis politics, detailing how she got involved, her major accomplishments and challenges, and advice for her successor.
Poitras, an accountant by trade, began her involvement with the MNA in 1990 as the nation’s director of finance. She became so discouraged by infighting within the nation’s board, which resulted in many missed funding opportunities, that she decided to quit her job after five years.
But as she was visiting the different Metis settlements to say goodbye to those she had worked with, many encouraged her to run for the presidency.
“I did not believe at that time that the nation would elect a woman president,” Poitras recalled. “But I knew that the only place you would make a difference is if you went to the top to say, ‘This is what needs to change,’ so that’s what I did.”
As she travelled around the province, she set up a campaign office at her house, where volunteers made phone calls to nation members. After two weeks on the road, campaign headquarters phoned Poitras to let her know that they needed to order more brochures due to unexpected levels of support.
“That’s how it started for me. People knew they needed change,” Poitras said.
She cited the September 2022 opening of Metis Crossing in Smoky Lake — Canada’s first Metis cultural centre — as one of her proudest accomplishments.
Construction on the McMurray Metis Cultural Centre at Wood Buffalo’s MacDonald Island Park is underway, but its scheduled December 2023 opening has been postponed.
Another important accomplishment for Poitras is in the realm of education, which has been a pressing community concern since she was first elected.
Under her leadership, the MNA was selected as one of the Indigenous communities to participate in the Aboriginal Skills and Employment Training program in 2010, which became the Indigenous Skills and Employment Training program in 2018, with a renewed 10-year funding commitment.
The nation also established the Rupertsland Institute in 2010, which facilitates job training and helps design Metis-focused curricula for schools.
From 2008 to 2021, the Metis Education Foundation, which was founded prior to Poitras’s presidency, provided $30,387,744 in post-secondary scholarships.
“I’m very proud … that we were able to move forward in some of the areas that I had heard our people talk about forever,” Poitras said.
The leaders of each Metis government — the MNA, the Manitoba Metis Federation, Metis Nation-Saskatchewan, Metis Nation British Columbia and Metis Nation of Ontario — sit together on the Metis National Council, to collectively promote the interests of the Metis People.
She said being the only female representative on the council for years led to some frustration at times.
“My feeling at that time was that all of those people sitting around the table believed that I did not belong there,” Poitras said. “What was I doing there?”
Poitras, however, focused on doing her job and eventually formed strong friendships with many of the male councillors.
“We’re all different in a lot of different ways, in the way we live within our province, the way we work within our province … But there’s a lot of similarities that we can take forward at the national level and be stronger because there’s five of us together,” said Poitras.
She said she hopes her legacy is one of bringing tangible improvements to the lives of Metis People in Alberta that will continue into the future. But Poitras cautioned this legacy isn’t hers alone.
“If you don’t have the team of councillors around you to work with you, if you don’t have the key knowledgeable, skilled staff that we have, there’s a lot of things that would not be able to happen. And so I always believe that the legacy for me is that we move forward, not backwards,” Poitras said.
Poitras pledged to provide support to her successor, whomever it ends up being, acknowledging that serving as MNA president can occasionally take a toll.
“Be who you are — an honest person with integrity,” she said. “You must have good health and you must have a family that supports you, because I have missed many, many family events that I wanted to be at, but knew there were other things that needed to be done.”
The Otipemisiwak election occurs from Sept. 13 to 19. The nomination period is underway, ending on July 30.
Those interested in seeking a nomination can do so at https://deloittecanada.ca1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_3V29oMn7S7SS01U.