There are unsung heroes in Winnipeg’s inner city, especially in the Aboriginal community, and few of them have a list of accomplishments as long and as significant as does Kathy Mallett. Winnipeg’s inner city today is an exciting place, bursting with positive change. Kathy Mallett has been a key person in laying the foundations for these changes.
Kathy first became involved in the early 1970s with a women’s group in Thompson, Manitoba, which was concerned about Aboriginal youth facing discrimination in the local high school. While there she also became concerned about the issue of enfranchisement — Aboriginal women were losing their treaty status when they married non-Treaty persons.
She returned to Winnipeg to attend university. “That was a real eye-opener for me,” she says, primarily because she was introduced to ideas about colonialism and Aboriginal history. In 1980 Kathy was the President of the Indian and Metis Student Association at the University of Manitoba.
When she graduated Kathy began working with the Community Education Development Association (CEDA) at the old Aberdeen junior high school in the North End. It was here that she first became involved in child welfare issues, and in particular the over-representation of Aboriginal children in the child welfare system. From 1983-1985 she was the Coordinator of the Winnipeg Coalition on Native Child Welfare. The Coalition negotiated with the then NDP government of Howard Pawley to create the Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre, and Kathy sat on Ma Mawi’s Board of Directors for the organization’s first eight years. Today, Ma Mawi not only does outstanding preventative work with Aboriginal families, but also employs some 200 staff, almost all of them Aboriginal. Two powerful themes that run through Kathy’s decades of work in the inner city are the safety and welfare of Aboriginal women and children, and the importance of economic development and job creation. Ma Mawi combines these two. Bringing down the old Children’s Aid Society and establishing Ma Mawi is something Kathy is especially proud of. “We brought it down! Those were exciting times,” she says.
Around the same time Kathy was involved in the creation of the Payuk Inter-Tribal Housing Co-op, a 42-unit Aboriginal housing cooperative that included the Nee Gawn Ah Kai Daycare Centre, and she served as Payuk’s President. She was also involved in the 1980s with the creation of Neechi Foods. These important organizational initiatives arose out of training programs designed and run by John Loxley and others in the 1980s.
From 1987-1997 Kathy was the Executive Director of the Original Women’s Network (OWN). Their work focused on violence against women and on Aboriginal children in the child welfare system. OWN ran training and other educational programs for Aboriginal women. Always outspoken, Kathy was sued by the late Chief Louis Stevenson in 1991 for demanding answers regarding the mysterious deaths of Aboriginal children on reserves.
During this time Kathy was also elected as a Trustee in Winnipeg School Division #1, along with Bill Sanderson — they were the first Aboriginal people ever elected to this position.
Kathy was directly involved with the creation of the Aboriginal Centre in the early 1990s, and sat on its Board. In 1998 she created Ganootamage, an alternative justice program that brought victims and offenders together in search of reconciliation. This was an effort aimed at diverting Aboriginal people from prison — it was ahead of its time, says Kathy.
After a short absence to pursue her interest in Aboriginal history, Kathy came back to the inner city in 2009 as Co-Director of CEDA, where she had worked two decades earlier. Asked how things had changed in the inner city since she started at the beginning of the 1980s, Kathy says “there’s a difference, things are happening,” especially the many educational initiatives that have emerged on Selkirk Avenue and elsewhere in the inner city. While Co-Director at CEDA she was involved in the development of CEDA-Pathways to Education, the innovative North End high school support program, and although now retired she continues to work on the redevelopment of the old Merchants Hotel on Selkirk Avenue into Merchants Corner, the large and innovative educational initiative developed by the North End community.
Over her more than three decades of work in Winnipeg’s inner city, Kathy Mallett has been working to lay the foundations for what we can now see as an exciting process of de-colonization. Aboriginal people today are reclaiming their culture and their identity and are working to build strong and healthy communities. Outstanding young Aboriginal people are emerging to play leadership roles in building a new future. There is a tangible excitement in the air in Winnipeg’s inner city. Kathy Mallett, along with others, has worked for more than three decades to lay the foundations for this process.
She is being honoured this year by the Errol Black Chair in Labour Issues. Why is a research chair focused primarily on labour issues honouring an Aboriginal woman who has worked for decades in the inner city? There are many reasons. Some relate to social justice and to labour’s historical commitment to a form of social unionism that works to build stronger and healthier communities for all. There is also self-interest, rooted in the dramatic growth of the Aboriginal proportion of Manitoba’s labour force. The many Aboriginal people entering the paid labour force now and into the future are better off if they are protected by a union and derive the benefits of the “union advantage.” Unions, if they are to be a vibrant force for progressive change, will have to build genuine and positive relationships with the Aboriginal community.
Kathy Mallett has played a leadership role in the creation of many highly effective Aboriginal institutions in Winnipeg’s inner city. She has done so for decades. This has been challenging work, undertaken out of the limelight. The Errol Black Chair in Labour Issues and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives-Manitoba — on whose Board Kathy served some years ago — are proud to honour her and to recognize her remarkable list of achievements in Winnipeg’s inner city.