On-campus sexism spurs Winnipeg woman to years of advocacy, legal career

It started with an act of defiance after sexist comments from a leader on campus. Now, after five years of working to stop gender-based violence, a Winnipeg woman is becoming a lawyer so she can fight for justice for murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls.

'We are surrounded by … strong and fierce women': Métis law student Alana Robert wants to advocate for MMIWG

Alana Robert is studying law in Toronto and plans to be a legal advocate for MMIWG. (Thao Lamb)

It started with an act of defiance after sexist comments from a leader on campus.

Now, after five years of working to stop gender-based violence, a Winnipeg woman is becoming a lawyer so she can fight for justice for murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls.

In 2013, Alana Robert was studying at the University of Manitoba when a series of sexist comments emerged from one of the campus' student representatives.

Robert acted immediately. She wanted to do something constructive, so she started a Justice for Women group that would raise awareness about gender-based violence and combat it both locally and internationally.  

That group is still running, but the 23-year-old is now studying in Toronto at York University's Osgoode Hall Law School, and plans to use her years of experience advocating for women as a lawyer, specifically for the MMIWG movemement.

"I think we've seen a lot of momentum in this area with the #MeToo movement and I think a greater willingness, I'm going to say, in the past few months [to acknowledge] that we have a problem and it needs to be addressed," she said.

Robert is ​Métis and said she plans to use her degree to break into spaces where women are underrepresented in law. She also wants to advocate for, and work with, MMIWG families to seek justice.

"When we look at our missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada, we know that we have 1,200 reported cases but advocates say we're closer to 4,000," she said.

"We've seen the recent Tina Fontaine verdict in Winnipeg, where we have an exemplar Indigenous woman as a victim, and we still don't see justice. It really, I think, draws attention and highlights that some greater action is needed."

CBC spoke to Alana Robert on International Women's Day in 2016, in a series of informal discussions with young women and men on the University of Manitoba campus about what the day meant to them — and what identifying as a woman meant in Winnipeg.

"A lot of people still argue with us that gender issues are not a thing, that women are equal to men, but we see that this isn't the case and there's still a lot of work that we can do," Robert said at the time, adding that progress was slow.

CBC reconnected with Robert for International Women's Day this year and now, on her way toward a law degree, she says things seem to be moving more quickly.

"I think we're going in a really positive direction in terms of recognizing that gender-based violence is a prevalent issue in Canada and internationally, and systemic change needs to be done," she said.

"I am so hopeful because we are surrounded by such strong and fierce women and they're doing incredible work, which is so inspiring. We're seeing momentum and change."

'A lot more women coming together'

CBC also talked to Lynnely Lipunga in 2016. At the time, she was 19 years old and studying global political economics at the U of M.

She's now 21 and continues to study in the program, but she says a lot has changed for her.

University of Manitoba student Lynnely Lipunga, 21, says a lot has changed for her since International Women's Day in 2016. (Sonia Wilson/Elements)

Recently, she did a performance for Black History Month, sharing her experience of what it means to be a black woman in Winnipeg.

"I think I've really had a huge change in perspective. I've just kind of seen myself grow, too, as a woman here," she said.

"It was amazing to see afterwards how many people were able to relate to [my performance]. I think for me, it's just been such a great honour to have a voice and be able to voice that, and actually have people support me for it."

Lipunga came to Winnipeg from Malawi in 2014. When she spoke to CBC on International Women's Day two years ago, she said, "it's interesting to see a diverse culture and be able to see myself having more opportunities as a woman, and actually being equally ranked and actually having some sense of value," adding she wanted to see more women rising up.

Now, she says the #MeToo movement is the change she was hoping for.

"We've seen a lot more women coming together and advocating for women's rights," she said. "It's a movement that's spearheaded by women themselves, and this has been very empowering to see — women gathering together and advocating for women."

Still, she'd like to see the energy focused on women's accomplishments and successes during International Women's Day carry throughout the year.

"I'm really hoping to see that not just be an event for Women's Day, but for it to be an event that happens every day, or every other day or every week, so this becomes a part of culture and who we are."