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Project Moon Woman: Officer with Alberta’s Blood Tribe fights human trafficking

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It took a few years on the job for Const. Jennaye Norris to realize the Blood Tribe in southern Alberta has a human trafficking problem.

Norris, 29, has been with the Blood Tribe Police Service for almost nine years. The sprawling First Nation, also known as Kainai Nation, is the largest in size in Canada.

Located about 200 kilometres south of Calgary, it’s home to nearly 13,000 band members who identify as Blackfoot.

Norris said a few years ago while working drug cases she learned about girls and women from the reserve being forced into the sex trade.

“People were starting to give me human trafficking intelligence — we know it’s happening,” Norris said in an interview.

She found out that people from outside the reserve were travelling there to sell drugs, then taking girls and women into nearby Lethbridge and trafficking them. Other times, women were meeting men at bars in cities across the province and beyond.

The men became their “boyfriends,” Norris said. But the women were “actually getting trafficked through the main corridors of Alberta, which is Calgary, Red Deer, Edmonton and then even over to Vancouver.”

Norris pitched to the police service the idea of creating a unit to combat human trafficking on the reserve. It was rejected at first but was recently approved by a new police chief.

Norris is now the coordinator, and one and only member, of the force’s Project Kokomi-Kisomm Aakii, or Project Moon Woman. Its aim is to investigate human trafficking cases while raising awareness and training front-line officers.

“Indigenous women are more vulnerable to get trafficked,” said Norris. “They think the men can give them a better life than what they have and then kind of lure them in that way.”

It was important for the project to have a Blackfoot name, she added, so people will feel comfortable helping with the investigations.

“We’ve been told people from the reserve who have been trafficked just don’t feel comfortable going to city police services. It’s from the past mistrust of the police.”

Norris, who is from Medicine Hat, isn’t Indigenous. But she said as a woman she hopes victims will feel they can talk with her.

So far, Norris said, there haven’t been any human trafficking charges laid on the reserve.

Staff Sgt. Brad Moore with the Calgary Police Child Abuse Unit said human trafficking is an under-reported crime. The city force had 23 reported human trafficking cases last year, up from 21 in 2020.

“The victims in these crimes sometimes don’t even believe they’re victims,” Moore said.

“Some of them come from very troubled backgrounds, from living arrangements, and where they’re going in their minds is sometimes better than where they came from.

“So how do you tell that person who feels better about where they currently are that they’re being victimized, human trafficked or exploited? It’s a tough sell.”

Moore said for those with troubled backgrounds, the trafficker can appear to be heroic.

“Somebody slides in as kind of the Prince Charming, and says, ‘Hey, come hang out with me. I’ll treat you well and buy you some stuff.’ And they treat them very well … and then all of a sudden it’s, ‘Hey, all of this isn’t for free.'”

Moore said trafficking victims are disproportionately Indigenous.

“A lot of these people come from very marginalized communities. The number of Indigenous folks across the country is four to seven per cent of the population, and they make up about 52 per cent of the people being exploited or trafficked.”

On the Stoney Nakoda First Nation west of Calgary, Myrna Teegee said there needs to be more education for young people so they are aware of the risks.

“It’s horrendous and it’s tragic … I don’t think people understand that it needs to be put out into the schools and to let people know before they get out into the world,” said Teegee, a social worker with the Mini Thni Crisis Support Team.

She said it can be a difficult issue to discuss.

“I think most are afraid to speak out because it’s a hush, hush topic.”

Sgt. Andrea Scott with the Winnipeg police said reports of human trafficking there have been on the rise in recent years, but that might be because the public is more aware of the crime.

“Our counter exploitation unit uses a similar approach as the Blood reserve in terms of education,” Scott said.

“Our officers speak at the Salvation Army, Court Diversion Programs for offenders as well as offering education to the hospitality and hotel industry in the city.”

Scott agreed getting victims to come forward can be challenging.

“The trauma victims experience can prove painful to revisit continually through the investigation and court process,” she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 15, 2022.

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Alberta

Two deputy chief medical officers resign from their positions with Alberta Health

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Edmonton – Alberta’s two deputy chief medical officers of health are leaving their roles — less than a month after Dr. Deena Hinshaw was removed as the province’s top doctor.

Health Minister Jason Copping confirmed during question period Wednesday that both of the doctors have submitted letters of resignation.

“They are still continuing to work at this point in time,” he said in the legislature. “We are in the process of actually looking to fill those roles.”

A statement from Alberta Health said Dr. Rosana Salvaterra and Dr. Jing Hu, who are listed as public health physicians on the department’s website, have given notice.

When reached by her department email, Salvaterra responded: “Unfortunately, we are not able to comment.”

She later added that she respects and admires both Dr. Hinshaw and Dr. Hu.

“They are brilliant, hard-working, and compassionate public health physicians and I consider myself fortunate to have had the opportunity to work alongside them for these past 14 months.”

Salvaterra, who has extensive public health experience including as the medical officer of health for Peterborough, Ont., joined the office in October 2021.

Her career in public health includes work in “the COVID-19 response, mental health, the opioid response, women’s health, poverty reduction, health equity, community food security and building stronger relationships with First Nations.”

Hu’s out-of-office message said her “last day at work with Alberta Health was Nov. 18, 2022,” and noted she wouldn’t have access to the department email after that date.

She got extensive training in China and at the University of Calgary before joining the health department in January 2020.

Their resignations came within a month of Hinshaw, who became the face of Alberta’s public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic, being removed from her position.

Hinshaw was replaced by Dr. Mark Joffe, a senior executive member of Alberta Health Services, on an interim basis.

“Dr. Joffe will be supported by medical officers of health within AHS, by other staff in the Office of the Chief Medical Officer of Health, and by the Public Health Division,” said the statement from Alberta Health late Wednesday.

“We expect these changes to have no impact on the department’s and Dr. Joffe’s ability to meet the requirements of the Public Health Act.”

Hinshaw’s dismissal didn’t come as a surprise.

Premier Danielle Smith announced on her first day in office in October that she would be replaced.

Smith has made it clear that she blames both Hinshaw and Alberta Health Services for failing to deliver the best advice and care for Albertans as the hospital system came close to buckling in successive waves of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“A lot of the bad decisions were made by Alberta Health Services on the basis of bad advice from the chief medical officer of health,” Smith told reporters on Oct. 22.

Smith has not placed the blame on front-line doctors and nurses but broadly on AHS senior management. Joffe, while serving as chief medical officer of health, retains his role in AHS senior management as a vice-president responsible for areas in cancer and clinical care.

Hinshaw, an Alberta-trained public health specialist, became a celebrity of sorts in the first wave of the pandemic in the spring of 2020, as she delivered regular, sometimes daily, updates to Albertans on the virus, its spread and methods to contain it.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 7, 2022.

— By Colette Derworiz in Calgary.

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Alberta

Alberta introduces bill for $2.8 billion in inflation-fighting payouts, rollbacks

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Edmonton – The Alberta government has introduced legislation to implement inflation-fighting rebates and payouts announced recently by Premier Danielle Smith.

Affordability Minister Matt Jones says the changes allow for help for families, seniors and the vulnerable soon.

Middle- to lower-income families, those with a household income of less than $180,000 a year, are to get $600 over six months for each child under 18 years of age.

The same income threshold and benefit applies to seniors, and the payout will also go to those on disability supports.

There will be electricity rebates and the 13 per cent provincial tax on gasoline is suspended from January to June.

The total cost of the package is pegged at $2.8 billion.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 7, 2022.

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