“I want to change the conversation and I want to change the voices that are speaking.”
By becoming the first Indigenous woman to lead a political party in Alberta, Cheryle Chagnon-Greyeyes has already changed the voice. Last September, Chagnon-Greyeyes was chosen by her membership to lead the Alberta Green Party.
Now, she’s hoping to build on the success the Green Party has already had. In British Columbia, the party’s three elected members have formed a minority government with the NDP.
Chagnon-Greyeyes hopes to appeal to disgruntled Albertans, who want to get away from talk of pipelines to focus on priorities like health and education. She wants to rally environmentalists; promote collaboration and not competition; and encourage more Indigenous people to vote.
Chagnon-Greyeyes was approached last summer to consider running for the leadership of the provincial party. She already had a relationship with national leader Elizabeth May. Chagnon-Greyeyes and her daughter sing and drum when May comes to Calgary for the Stampede.
“I did my research and was pleasantly surprised to find an alignment between the six principles of the international Green Party and the seven sacred teachings of the Cree,” said Chagnon-Greyeyes, a member of the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, of Saskatchewan. “For me, I don’t know any other political party that’s based on ethics like that.”
Chagnon-Greyeyes successfully challenged Brian Deheer for the position. Her victory makes her the fourth successive woman to lead the party.
She wasn’t aware that winning would give her the distinction of being the first Indigenous woman party leader in the province.
“Having an Indigenous leader is a new thing. I think it’s a big deal, because right now I’m straddling that bridge between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people,” she said.
Born on a military base in Germany, Chagnon-Greyeyes, who also served in the military, chose Canadian citizenship. When her mother had her First Nations status acknowledged through Bill C-31, Chagnon-Greyeyes chose to claim her own First Nations status.
Although at the helm of the party, Chagnon-Greyeyes considers herself more a helper than a leader. To that end, she wants to help Albertans who haven’t felt they had a voice to speak up and know they will be listened to.
“The concept of social justice is very important to me,” she said.
Previous to joining the Green Party, Chagnon-Greyeyes was an NDP supporter. But that changed, she says, when Premier Rachel Notley supported pipeline development in the province.
“I felt very betrayed and I don’t think I’m the only one who feels this way. I felt quite hopeless and helpless. I felt very ineffectual,” she said. “When I was asked to run, I thought I better put my money where my mouth is and stand up.”
The Green Party in Alberta has never elected an MLA, but Chagnon-Greyeyes has a “vision” of three seats in the Legislature. She would like to see Green candidates in all 87 ridings, although 50 might be more realistic, she said.
She has begun actively recruiting, including encouraging Indigenous people to consider candidacy. In the 2015 election, the Green Party ran one Indigenous candidate.
Chagnon-Greyeyes is seeking her seat in Calgary-Varsity, an area she’s lived in, off and on, since 1993. For the past 20 years she’s been associated with the University of Calgary, seven years as a student and the last 13 years as administrative coordinator for the Native Centre. She decided last year to retire at the end of January 2019, but when she won the Green Party leadership, employment requirements forced her into taking an unpaid leave of absence from her position.
The Calgary-Varsity seat is now vacant as former Minister of Service Alberta and Status of Women Stephanie McLean stepped down on Jan. 2. McLean had announced last May that she would not be seeking re-election.
Splitting the left-leaning or Indigenous vote and taking support away from the NDP is not a concern for Chagnon-Greyeyes, even if it leads to a win for the right-wing United Conservative Party.
“That doesn’t scare me at all. What’s meant to be will be,” she said. “I believe we need a Green voice and, around the world, it’s developing a much bigger impact in the countries where they’re being voted into power and it’s because of our focus, which is people and the planet.”
Chagnon-Greyeyes’ first official event is Jan. 19 in Calgary-Varsity, where she is hosting a meet the leader event with bannock stew, a fundraiser and silent auction.
The provincial election will take place this spring.