St. Albert celebrates the 2023 International Women’s Day honouring five women whose strength and commitment to community has paved the way for gender equity.
The notable five are Indigenous artist Celina Loyer, Black cultural producer Helen Agbonison, volunteer-activist Judy Evans, former MLA Mary O’Neill, and refugee coordinator Muna Abdulhussain.
St. Albert Interfaith Connections will present the awards at St. Albert Community Hall on Saturday, March 11 at 7:30 p.m.
Leasa Sulz, Interfaith Connections spokesperson, said 15 nominations were submitted.
“It was difficult choosing only five. So many women showed exemplary leadership, empowerment, and talent in important community efforts,” said Sulz.
“The five women we chose had multiple involvements in the community and in how they stood out. They were involved in either historical or current issues. Their contribution was amazing.”
Indigenous and Métis Initiatives
Celina Loyer is Musée Heritage Museum’s Aboriginal programmer tasked with delivering in-house programming and outreach programs to schools, seniors’ centres and community events.
Loyer explained she was gratified for the nomination, yet as a woman she never felt her work was extraordinary.
“For me, it feels like a bigger honour than I would think of getting. I’m a little humbled. Some of the other recipients have done so much more for their community. I’m a little overwhelmed, but everything my parents taught me as child has led me to this place,” said Loyer.
The soft-spoken Callihoo resident comes from a noble lineage. Her father is Gilbert Anderson, a famous Métis fiddle player, and her maternal grandfather was Ralph Steinhauer, Alberta’s Lieutenant Governor from 1975 to 1980.
Her parents, Kathleen Steinhauer and Gilbert Anderson, were renowned for honouring the family’s deep roots to the land, welcoming people into their home and volunteering for projects to bolster Indigenous people’s rights. Loyer carries on the tradition.
“The most important thing I’ve done is raise my five children. Now I have one grandchild and I’m very happy,” Loyer said. “Being able to work at the museum and being given the ability to speak the truth about what I know in relation to Cree and Métis people is important.”
Youth Empowerment and Multicultural Initiatives
Helen Agbonision is a bubbly personality with strong leadership skills, and more energy than the Energizer bunny. Originally from Nigeria, Agbonison now works as a business licensing representative for the City of St. Albert.
As founder of Africans and African Descendants Club of St. Albert, her commitment to Black History Month is unmatched. The most popular event she organizes is Taste of Africa, a colourful blend of food, dance, music, and storytelling.
Inspired to serve the community Agbonison, is an active member of St. Albert Host Lions Club as well as the Philanthropic Education Organization. This international group provides scholarships, grants, loans and awards to women.
She also organizes It Takes a Village events to encourage African youth to volunteer and contribute to their community. And in the summer of 2022, she worked with St. Albert Further Education teaching African youth digital skills.
“I’m thankful for all the family support I received. It would be a huge challenge if I didn’t have a husband and children who help me out in all I do. Together we help the African community and I’m so grateful for their support. If the African community is not seen and heard, it is as if we are not there,” Agbonision said.
Community Service as Unsung Heroine
Now retired, Judy Evans balanced a career in nursing for 43 years while raising a daughter and son. As a nurse, she worked at the University of Alberta Hospital in the emergency ward, with vulnerable populations in East Edmonton, and as a school health consultant.
With more than four decades in nursing, Evans developed praiseworthy skills at managing and coordinating. Adapting those skills to her personal life, the former nurse volunteered with numerous groups including St. Albert Food Bank, Ronald McDonald House programs, and Canadian Red Cross Blood Donor Clinics.
A community booster with a big heart, Evans has worked tirelessly to welcome refugee families displaced by war and is on track to welcome 12 more Syrian refugees in March. Of all her accomplishments, the refugee program is the one she is most proud of.
“It’s more recent and more intimate. You see the difference you make in people’s lives. By coming here, they are just adding to Canadian society. I want to help other people. It helps me grow as a person to meet other people. And this helps the community grow,” Evans said.
An all-around volunteer, she also fundraised for Parkinson’s disease, Heart and Stroke Foundation, Canadian Cancer Society. For 15 years her entire family supported Children Believe, a registered charity that assists children in Third World countries access an education.
“Helping people makes you feel good, and you’ve done something important. There are so many people who need assistance, and you do what you can. If everybody does a little bit, it grows.”
Education and Community Service
A gracious individual from the inside out, Mary O’Neill is a true St. Albert builder. Although O’Neill’s work as a two-term Alberta MLA from 1997 to 2004 raised her profile across the province significantly, much of her most meaningful work was in St. Albert.
Originally from Ontario, O’Neill moved to the city 45 years ago with her husband, Jack, because they appreciated St. Albert’s history stemming from a French-Métis heritage.
A teacher by trade, education and service to the community are paramount to O’Neill. Although a busy high school teacher, O’Neill dedicated many years as a volunteer in the educational sector. She was both a trustee and chairperson of St. Albert School District, served on the University of Alberta Senate and Board of Governors and was part of NAIT’s Governing Board of Directors.
In the mid-80s when French Immersion faced barriers from both the Francophone and English-speaking communities, O’Neill advocated strongly for a full program from kindergarten to Grade 12.
She assisted in the St. Albert Place opening, co-chaired the Lois Hole sculptural tribute, and worked to establish the Ted Hole Park. She remains a fierce champion of St. Albert’s cultural settings, artistic activities, and historical significance.
O’Neill understands women are deeply affected by world conflict and often become its “silent victims.” As a natural leader, she recognizes women’s strengths and encourages them to take leadership roles supporting growth and change.
In a statement to Interfaith Connections, O’Neill wrote, “We live in a world where we need to be concerned with the needs of everyone, not just ourselves. Inclusion makes life better for everyone.”
Multicultural and Education
A refugee from Iraq, Muna Abdulhussain spent three years in a Syrian camp waiting for Canada to process her application. In 2010, she arrived in St. Albert.
A civil engineer in Bagdad, she was unable to work in Canada due to insufficient qualifications. Instead, she was hired at The Bay and currently still works there as part-time lead manager.
Abdulhussain made a career break-through two years ago after obtaining a position as coordinator of the Newcomers Connection Program with St. Albert Further Education. Today, she is not only a valued translator for immigrants from the Middle East. She has also assisted individuals from Cuba, Mexico, Italy, Nigeria, Morocco, Egypt and Lebanon.
She takes pride in knowing that immigrants who arrived with just the clothes on their backs are helped to find a job and a safe place to live.
“Now they come to ask me if they can do anything to help other people. They ask what they can do to help other families, and that makes it easier for me,” Abdulhussain said.
She is quick to point out the award really goes to a team of people.
“The Bay allowed me to have a flexible work schedule. And there were businesses in the community who helped newcomers get their first job – The Bay, Superstore, McDonalds, Youville Seniors Hoem, Chartwell and Revera.”
“This is my dream job. It’s a great program for newcomers. It reduces the stress and mental health problems that come with moving to a new country where you don’t speak the language.”