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Mother-daughter renaissance college alumni tackle systemic discrimination in Canada

Author: UNB Alumni

Posted on Jan 18, 2021

Category: Inspiring Stories , UNB Fredericton


Josie McKinney (BPHIL’04) came by her dedication to community and Indigenous issues naturally. Her mother, Patsy McKinney (BPHIL’07), has always been a passionate organizer and advocate in the Mi'kmaq and Maliseet communities, and Josie had grown up taking part in daily conversations around the kitchen table in her Harvey, N.B. home about politics and rights issues. “My whole extended family have been leaders in Indigenous issues. My upbringing has been the driving force behind my choices,” she explains.

Those choices led her to become a leader in the criminal justice system, now serving as Nova Scotia’s first Crown attorney dedicated to the prosecution of human trafficking offences. “Nova Scotia has the highest rate of human trafficking in Canada. African Nova Scotians and Indigenous people are overrepresented victims of human trafficking. I have the opportunity to consult with the community and work with sexually exploited women and girls. This work is passion of mine and to be able to take a leadership position on these issues is exciting.”

Back in high school, Josie didn’t really know exactly what direction she should take but knew that she had a mind toward politics and that law would be a path toward that goal. After hearing about the new Renaissance College bachelor’s degree in philosophy and leadership at UNB, she decided she wanted to be part of something unique and exciting like that. “I was in the first cohort at RC, and it made so much sense to combine leadership, community responsibility, problem-based learning and international internships. Outcomes-based learning was very valuable.”

After graduating from UNB in 2004, she chose to attend the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University because of the Indigenous Black and Mi'kmaq Initiative. “It was a life-altering community. The support I received was amazing.” One of Josie’s summer jobs during law school was at a Crown attorney’s office, and during that time it hit her. “I never thought I would actually practice law, but being there – whoa - I just knew that’s what I wanted to do.”

Josie articled with the Nova Scotia Department of Justice and Public Prosecution Service. She then got the opportunity to be part of a pilot project as an Indigenous staff lawyer at the University of Ottawa legal clinic and develop this new position to serve the needs of the underrepresented in the community.

In 2011, Josie was appointed a Crown attorney in the Yarmouth office of Nova Scotia’s Public Prosecution Service, moving to the Halifax office in 2018. She’s also a member of the Public Prosecution Service Sexual Assault Working Group and the Equity and Diversity Committee and is the primary author of the prosecution service's recently issued policy, Fair Treatment of Indigenous Peoples in Criminal Prosecutions in Nova Scotia.

She began her newest role, dedicated to the prosecution of human trafficking offences, in the summer of 2020. “It’s an opportunity to combine all of my interests and experience. I get to weigh different experiences in society and justice and do better for the public interest.”
As she was going through school and building her career, the conversations with her mom about these issues never stopped. It was during this time that Patsy McKinney made a decision that would change her life and help her become even more of a leader within the larger community.

“I remember it was a sunny day in April and Josie suggested that I apply to Renaissance College," Patsy says. "I wasn’t sure at first. Finances were tight and I didn’t even know how to work a computer. But I wrote a letter in my own words to then-Dean Terry Haggerty and he was supportive. The minute I walked through the doors as a student, I knew this was made for me. It was small and beautiful and not intimidating for a mature student.”

Patsy remembers that some of it was very tough. “I failed the math and economics pre-requisite both semesters and I was ready to quit. Josie said something that changed my mind: ‘Are you quitting because you failed or failing because you’re quitting?’ I stayed and made it work and had an amazing experience. I took every political science course I could from David Bedford – an amazing educator. He found a way to bring current issues into the classroom and have amazing conversations. It was a hugely interesting time.”

She says that it’s ironic that the two things that frightened her most about going to RC – group work and public speaking – are the things she does every day now. Patsy is the Executive Director at Under One Sky Head Start and Friendship Centre in Fredericton, which provides programs and services to the Urban Aboriginal Community and offers a safe place to come together to celebrate Indigenous culture in an atmosphere of trust, respect and friendship. The centre is also a provider of Aboriginal Head Start early childhood education – and Patsy served as Chair of the National Aboriginal Head Start Council (NAHSC) for 4 years. She is part of the Executive Committee of the Urban Aboriginal Knowledge Network (UAKN) Atlantic Research Centre, UNB and the UAKN National Network Council. She sits on the Board of the National Association of Friendship Centers (NAFC), is a Life Time Member of the New Brunswick Aboriginal Peoples Council (NBAPC) and is a member of the UNB Mi’kmaq-Wolastoqey Centre Council of Elders. In 2019, she was appointed to the Federal Expert Panel on Early Learning and Childcare Data Research.

“My work directly feeds into how our communities can remedy systemic discrimination. I speak nationally and (before the pandemic) travel constantly to participate in large-scale group work with national agencies. Renaissance College was a big turning point for me.”

Both Josie and Patsy say they’ve worked hard and that timing and luck have influenced both of their paths. “The opportunities came for me at the right times,” Josie reflects. "I was able to build something new in Ottawa, and move into a career as a Crown Attorney at a time when that space had yet to have an Indigenous voice in it.”

Both women remain extremely close and are intent on helping spur action on Indigenous issues in Canada. “Politicians say they want to change the relationship but they don’t actually do anything,” Patsy asserts. “We’ve been talking about these things for 500 years now. We need the action part. Indigenous and other racialized people are overrepresented in prison and unemployment and suicide rates. Systemic racism and poverty and ill-health are killing Indigenous people. We’re still at the bottom of the socio-economic heap.”

Josie adds, “We’re at a critical point right now in peak social awareness. I’m excited by that but we need to take awareness and translate it into structural change. We need to do justice to lives lost. That’s the hard work. To change institutions like the criminal justice system, family court system, education, healthcare…it requires everyone to own responsibility. We need to rewrite policy and change laws and educate people differently.”

Josie says she’s “cautiously hopeful” that change is coming. “I’m starting to see progress. In the last few years in Nova Scotia, we’re seeing a lot of change, which is really exciting. There’s no other way to be except to be hopeful.”