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'Pretty words, empty promises:' Nunavut MP's farewell highlights systemic racism, failure on reconciliation

Last Updated Jun 16, 2021 at 5:09 am EDT

FILE -- NDP MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq rises in the House of Commons, in Ottawa, Thursday, May 13, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Summary

Nunavut's NDP MP will not be running for reelection, says the feds have been unwilling to act on issues affecting Inuit


Mumilaaq Qaqqaq describes the halls of the House of Commons as "echoing with empty promises"


Qaqqaq remains hopeful others will follow in her footsteps, push the feds further toward meaningful action


OTTAWA (NEWS 1130) — Nunavut MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq has given her farewell address to the House of Commons, saying the federal government refuses to take action on critical issues facing Inuit, and describing her time in the chamber as being spent in “survival mode.”

Qaqqaq was elected in 2019, the first New Democrat to represent the territory. Last month she announced she would not be seeking reelection. Qaqqaq is the only member of Parliament for, geographically speaking, the largest riding in the country. The 27-year-old represents about 40,000 people spread over three time zones and 25 fly-in-only communities.

In her remarks Tuesday, Qaqqaq drew attention to the “huge barriers” that prevent diverse and marginalized people from running for office.

“Young people are told they’re not experienced enough, not ready to lead, women have been told to sit pretty and listen, disabled individuals have been shown they aren’t even worth the conversation and Inuit kill themselves at the highest rate in the country.”

As an Inuk woman, she said she was always painfully aware she was working in a system that was not designed for people like her, and often had to steel herself before going to work.

“Every time I walk on to House of Commons ground, speak in these chambers, I’m reminded every step of the way — I don’t belong here. I have never felt safe or protected in my position, especially within the House of Commons, often having pep talks with myself in the elevator, or taking a moment in the bathroom stall to maintain my composure,” she said.

“Since being elected, I expect to be stopped by security at my workplace. I’ve had security jog after me down hallways, nearly put their hands on me, and racially profile me as a member of parliament. I know what to do in these situations, my life in Canada, and especially through this experience has taught me many things as a brown woman — do not move too quickly or suddenly, do not raise your voice, do not make a scene, maintain eye contact, and don’t hide your hands.”

Beyond this, Qaqqaq says after she was elected, trying to get the issues affecting the territory and the people who live there addressed has been met with “refusal and unwillingness to change”

“As long as these halls echo with empty promises, instead of real action, I will not belong here,” she said.

Quaqqaq said the issues the feds can and should act on include devastatingly high rates of suicide, pervasive violence against women, and high numbers of children and youth being taken into foster care.

“During my time in this chamber, I have heard so many pretty words like reconciliation, and diversity and inclusion. I have been called courageous, brave, and strong by people outside of my party. But let me be honest — brutally honest — nice words, with no action, hurt when they are uttered by those with power,” she said.

“It would be easier for me to be told that I’m wrong and that you disagree than to be told that I am right and I’m courageous, but there is no room in your budget for basic — basic — human rights that so many others take for granted.”

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During the COVID-19 pandemic, she undertook a tour of northern housing conditions, pointing out overcrowding, substandard materials, and the deterioration of many units into “mould boxes.” She has been an outspoken critic of the federal government’s treatment of the North in general and Inuit in particular throughout her time in office.

“Inuit have been telling those with power and ability to make change, to try and survive in their shoes for one day, one week, one month — they couldn’t,” she said Tuesday.

“People in power have choices and they consistently choose priorities that uphold systems of oppression. Maybe it is impossible for ministers to understand what we go through every day but I am urging you, telling you, to listen, believe us, and do something about it. When we tell you to act now, you need to act now.”

Calling explicit attention to the colonial foundations of Canada, Quaqqaq said the work of reconciliation has barely begun.

“I’m a human being who wants to use this institution to help people, but the reality is that this institution and the country has been created off the backs, trauma and displacement of Indigenous people,” she said.

“Our history is stained with blood. Children, youth, adults, and elders’ blood. It’s time to face the scale of justice. On one side we have a mountain of suffering and whenever the government gives us a grain of sand of support, they seem to think that trauma from our past has been rectified that somehow they deserve a pat on the back.”

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Still, she ended her remarks on a hopeful note, encouraging others to continue to fight for change.

“My presence, I hope, is starting to crack the foundations of this very federal institution that started colonizing Inuit barely 70 years ago. I believe that we are living through a shift in this country where Canadians are starting to wake up to the reality,” she said.

“I hope another young, or Inuk, or woman, or all three will follow in my footsteps and continue pushing this institution to support Indigenous peoples in Canada. I have shown the nation and the world that the impossible is possible, that hope can grow where it’s purposely put out … I will always believe politics can look, feel and be different, it can, it has, it started, we will keep it going.”

With files from The Canadian Press