An Indigenous woman has announced her intent to run for the leadership of Alberta’s NDP. This follows former Alberta premier Rachel Notley’s recent announcement that she is stepping down as party leader after almost 10 years.

Jodi Calahoo Stonehouse was elected as the MLA for Edmonton-Rutherford in May 2023 and garnered acclaim as the first First Nations woman to be elected to the Alberta Legislature, and the first to run for leader. She is the second Indigenous woman, to Pearl Calahasen, Metis, elected in 1989.

Calahoo Stonehouse is a member of the Michel First Nation, a mother to five children with an extensive resume, including an arts degree and a Masters in Science and Resource Economics. Before her career in politics, she was the reconciliation advisor to the president and vice provost at the University of Alberta, and most recently, the Executive Director of the Yellowhead Indigenous Education Foundation.

The 49-year-old is the opposition critic for Environment, Parks and Climate Resilience. She’s relentlessly demanded action from the UCP government in the legislature regarding high-profile environmental shortfalls such as the Exxon-Imperial Kearl oil sands tailings spill in 2023, imploring the Alberta Energy Regulator step up and “do its job.”

But then her phone started blowing up. Hundreds of texts flowed in from elders from across the province encouraging her to put her name in the hat. Then she called her long-time friend, Wab Kinew, the newly elected premier and Anishinaabe leader of Manitoba’s NDP. He told her it was her time.

She previously had no intention of running to lead the NDP. She felt it was too soon. But then her phone started blowing up, she said. Hundreds of texts flowed in from elders from across the province encouraging her to put her name in the hat. Then she called her long-time friend, Wab Kinew, the newly elected premier and Anishinaabe leader of Manitoba’s NDP. He told her it was her time, and not to worry about how long she’s been serving. He too, had only been an elected MLA a short time before he was successful at becoming the head of his political party.

After weeks of ceremony, prayer and talking it over with her now-adult children, she decided to go for it.

Now she has a message for the current premier, UCP leader Danielle Smith.

“Start packing your bags,” said Calahoo Stonehouse.

“It’s not okay to be a leader and create chaos amongst your people… This divisiveness between the Tucker Carlson group, which promotes hate, we are not America. We are not ever going to join America. And I can guarantee the First Nations will make sure of that. We are Canadian. We are proud to be part of Canada.”

She went on to highlight what she considers to be her edge against the contentious leadership of Smith and her party.

“The most important thing I’ll bring to politics is kindness. I care about all Albertans because I grew up in the rural, I grew up with rednecks, I grew up with First Nations. I love them all and I understand their points of view. I’ll bring lots of love, care and compassion and strong leadership.”

The following is a Q&A with Calahoo Stonehouse. It has been edited for clarity and length.

Tell me a bit about yourself and where you come from

I started as a little itty-bitty girl with my mom and my dad. We had an apartment above the auto body shop downtown Stony Plain. And then when I was five, they built a house in Onaway. I grew up in Onaway until my grade 12 year when I moved to Calgary with my parents.

Growing up in a small town where my grandparents owned the hardware store, at a very young age, I got to visit with farmers, mechanics, and plumbers.

So I was exposed to diverse economies in a small town, like what makes a rural town thrive. And it’s really about the local businesses and the local people. And I also watched what happened when big stores like Costco and Loblaws started to grow in Spruce Grove and Edmonton, how that harmed the family businesses.

In the 80s, my grandfather was a farmer and watched the big shift from small farms to corporate industry, and how it hurt the small farming industry. And now, if we look around the world, we see Switzerland protecting the small farmers, recognizing their contribution to the economy.

We didn’t do ourselves any favours in Alberta in the 80s and 90s when we moved to really big industrial farming. It harmed the small families who were trying to farm.

When did you become involved with advocacy?

My stepdad was a nurse and got hired in Calgary. I fell in love with Calgary and attended Mount Royal University there enrolled in a program studying children with developmental disabilities, looking at addiction and fetal alcohol on the brain and in utero development. Then I moved to Morley and started teaching there.

That’s where I saw the systemic disparage, the systemic harms in education surrounding First Nations people. So that’s when I started my advocacy work because I saw the systemic racism. And we know education is the way out of poverty.

My Chaplan (grandfather) was the president of the Indian Association. He was the chief of our nation. They always fought and advocated for children and education, and to see a whole nation be deprived of it intentionally and deliberately. Where do you end up if you cannot read and write in today’s world?

That’s a question we have to ask ourselves. What kind of drain is that, when we’re not educating people, when we’re depriving them of their ability to support themselves, what kind of drain does that become economically on the whole system?

You were elected just last year. What motivated you to get into politics?

When I was a kid, I had a dream that I was going to be the first woman to be national chief.
It started when I lived in Morley, when I was seeing the disparity. I also worked in group homes at the time, helping folks who were dual-diagnosed. So, I was supporting men and women with schizophrenia or social-emotional disorders.

I’ve worked in all kinds of group homes, and medically dependent homes, and I saw how terrible the system neglects vulnerable people. In our culture, it’s our responsibility to look after everyone equally, not to privilege people because they’re smarter, better looking, richer.
So I started advocating for folks with developmental disabilities. And that’s about when I adopted my first son — he was 11 and I was 20. He had broken every window in the school and I was fresh out of college.

They were going to put him in CYOC (Calgary Young Offenders Center) at the time. And he was only stealing food. I was like, this is an adult problem. So that was the day I became his foster mom.

He has been one of my greatest teachers about the real investment we have to make into people when we’re talking about recovery from trauma, and recovery from sexual abuse, especially children who’ve been horrifically abused. It takes a tremendous amount of resources, energy, and time.

And we are not doing it. We are creating more systemic problems. We have more kids in care than we ever have in this province. More kids have died than ever before in care. You have to study the systems to be able to imagine what is possible to fix them.

My second oldest is 33 — I adopted her when she aged out of foster care. She was a student of mine when I used to produce a radio show. And I noticed she started to become more violent to herself. She was talking about aging out and she was terrified. I didn’t know what it meant to age out. She would no longer have resources any longer and she didn’t have connection with any family. So I was like, ‘Well, I’ll be your mom.’

Now, she’s in her second year of university getting honors in women’s studies. I’m so proud of her.

I have two biological kids, who are 21 and 19, and the other 21-year-old is my nephew, whose dad unfortunately passed away from a fentanyl overdose.

My kids only see these people as their siblings, there’s no difference. Blood or not blood. They, we are family.

You don’t get compensated (for this work) and it’s not because it’s about to make you wealthy. You do it because you want to see these kids thrive and blossom and because you love them.

Jodi Calahoo Stonehouse and her family.
Amber Bracken

Tell me a bit about your campaign platform

My campaign slogan is Stronger Together. Because we are stronger when we work together, when we’re collaborative, when we’re lifting each other up, to be a better people, a better province.

You know, when we’re diversifying our economy with renewables, and natural gas and oil, we are stronger when we’re all working together, not just privileging a few economically and socially. We need our economics to fulfill the social obligations to make us a healthy society, which is why we have to expand.

Let’s talk about climate change. It’s about how we capitalize on and make the climate change response our economic response. Because we have to feed each other in order for us to thrive as a society.

First and foremost is water. Water, water, water — water is life. We are taught this as children and we are going to be headed into the biggest, and the driest, drought that we’ve ever seen in the history of the province. And we have no strategy.

We need to make sure that crops can get the water that they need to thrive. I was talking with a soil erosion expert. We have the driest soil we’ve ever had in 105 years.

We are going to have to renegotiate how we manage that so that people have drinking water and that crops have the water they need. We need to be proactive. We need to be smart. We need to be innovative, and we have to look at what others are doing in the rest of the world.

We have to create Indigenous water advisory groups, and we have to look at long-term conservation plans. We have to fund and invest in water innovation and stewardship.

What about the oil and gas industry? It’s an economic powerhouse in Alberta, but it’s also driving emissions and climate change.

We cannot be stuck in the 1980s thinking that oil and gas is going to save everything. Oil and gas are part of it, but it’s not everything. And so how do we make sure we’re getting the power? Because the demand for electricity is not going to go down, right? So, we have to diversify, which means a moratorium on renewables is harmful.

We have to rely more on natural gas. We have to rely more on renewables, and we have to be innovative.

It’s also fire season. The province already announced an early start to wildfire season

When we think about policy, climate response is the priority. How are we preparing herds, crops, people’s ranches, their homes, their towns, their cities?

There has to be a whole strategy. How do we learn from what happened in Fort McMurray? Yes, we can get everyone out of a town quickly and alive, but let’s not wait till the town is on fire. Let’s make sure every northern and southern town has a plan and a strategy to mobilize to get people out safely.

Second to that is diversification, using the climate crisis as a way to build our economic system [in ways that don’t rely on oil and gas]. We have to find ways to thrive. Then when our economy is doing well, we can invest in our healthcare. We have got to fix the healthcare.

So what’s your plan to fix the healthcare system?

It’s going to take a decade to repair the system. What does that mean when we’re looking at a systemic transformation? We have to look at the users — no one is talking to people who are using health care. No one is talking to the healthcare workers who keep the system going.

And so, when we’re going to do a systemic transformation, we need to hear from every part of the system. So that way we’re not investing in things that are not going to work, which is what we see now. We see continuous Band-Aid over Band-Aid over Band-Aid to fix the problems when we need to go to the root of the problem.

Our population is growing. We have opened our doors in Alberta and we’re getting anywhere from 10,000 to 15,000 people a month moving to the province. That means we have to invest in the infrastructure systems that are going to provide services to these people.

As we saw with the homeless encampment sweep, housing and affordability is a key issue. It wasn’t just First Nations in there. Many immigrants and refugees were also there. So how is it that we are taking on people who need a safe place but we don’t have places to house them?

And that’s where housing comes in?

Yes, we have got to build affordable housing that has wraparound services for complex people, and people with needs. We have to invest in people. That’s not impossible. And the economics of it make sense. If we look at what emergency care costs Albertans, for instance, there were 800 amputations last winter. What is the cost of that on the healthcare system? What does that cost us around the amputations and the medical procedures?

Do you mean from being outside? The homeless?

Yes, so then we look at the calls for service, police calls, paramedic calls, all of that. Then we look at all the money that we’ve spent to keep people where they’re at, versus investing in affordable housing and wraparound services. We’re going to save taxpayers millions and millions and millions of dollars and free up space in the hospitals.

Why do you think it’s not being done now? Is it just a lack of political will?

I don’t think people have spent enough time studying how we got here, and are now overwhelmed by the problem. If we look at Alberta, we have the highest amount, of Indian Residential Schools in the country, which means we have more intergenerational trauma.

We have more residential school survivors, which is very demonstrative in the people who are living on the streets, as well as the systemic harms of foster care. We see generations of Indian Residential School survivors. Sixties Scoop, Millennial Scoop, Child and Family Services — we have built systems that are perpetuating poverty, that are perpetuating crime, that are perpetuating houselessness. And so it’s about transforming those systems.

Jodi Calahoo Stonehouse on her laptop at her home while attending a Zoom strategy session for her campaign.

Regarding some of the controversies that are happening right now with some of Danielle Smith’s policies that are targeting certain groups of people, such as transgender young people, can you speak to that?

The attack on trans children is an attack on human rights, and politicizing a tiny percentage of the population. My caucus and my colleagues will always stand up for human rights. We will not stand for anyone’s human rights to be attacked, period. And we would all unite in protecting human rights, protecting children, protecting the futures of young people.

What about seniors?

Caring for our elders — this is fundamental, right? Seniors, we have to take care of those who came before us. When we think about who built this beautiful province, whose sweat, equity, tears, and blood went into this land, into the oil sands, into all of it. And then we look at some of the homes we have for old folks in this province — it’s embarrassing and it’s shameful. We have to invest in our seniors. We have to take better care of those who have taken care of us.

You know, some people who may vote conservative often accuse the NDP of being fiscally irresponsible. They say the NDP is out of control with spending. What do you say to that?

Well, let’s talk about conservative history for the past four decades. We have spent billions of dollars in royalties. You tell me how the conservatives have invested that money in the healthcare system, so that it’s sustainable throughout the province?

You tell me how conservatives have invested those funds in the education system so that our children have world-class education facilities?

You can’t tell me that because they pissed away all that money. They didn’t build infrastructure.

Some people might look at you coming in and they might say, ‘Oh, well, you know, she’s a First Nations woman. She’s not going to care about what I need. Can you talk about that, to someone who might think that way?

Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s part of the way racism plays tricks on us to think that we can only care about one group of people. Because that’s what racism does; it causes us to not have relationships, not care and not love one another. And my granny, who was straight from Denmark. She was a Dane, and she married my Moshum, my grandfather, who was Cree, and their relationship was so beautiful.

She didn’t love her kids less because her husband was Indian, or my grandfather did not love her or her brothers because they were white.

There’s no place for racism anymore. It just causes harm. For me, it’s about people, our economic system, our health care systems. Where do we need to invest the energy so that Albertans have the best quality of life? How do we ensure that every single Albertan has access to education, has access to clean drinking water, has access to a hospital, and doesn’t have to wait 12 hours to see a doctor.

And we also have to take care of our doctors, our nurses, our firefighters, and our police, right? They have hard, difficult jobs.

A leader has to take care of the people, and that’s not what’s happening right now. Politics is increasingly divisive and destructive. We need to bring a lot more love, and kindness to the province, and our politics, because we have a lot of complex issues that need to be addressed.

What specific traits do you have that are needed to lead this party?

This work, leadership, is in my DNA. To fight for what’s right for people — for the vulnerable. Right now, all Albertans are going to be vulnerable with the water catastrophe and the forest fires.

As a leader, the people should eat before you do. Leaders sacrifice to make sure that the people are taken care of. That’s not what I see from our leader (Danielle Smith), who’s traveled to Dubai with a circle of hundred or more friends. Meanwhile, here at home, they’re doing encampment sweeps. The disparity between luxury and wealth and people living on the streets is not acceptable in the richest province in the country.

But it’s not just about me. It’s about all the voices at the table. My style of leadership isn’t about it being the Jodi Callahoo Stonehouse show. It’s about a governing group of people who are ready to implement change for the betterment of Alberta. It’s about the entire caucus. We’ve got lawyers and doctors — a robust team of brilliant policymakers with lived experience, and people who fundamentally care about Albertans.

Coming from this incredibly diverse group of people, religions, faiths, and cultures, which is our biggest strength as a party. So lifting that is my style of leadership.

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