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Miles Morrisseau
Special to Indian Country Today

FISHING LAKE METIS SETTLEMENT, Alberta, Canada — It was not long after his father died that Blake Desjarlais saw something he had never seen before — an empty wood box.

His mother was at work and winter was coming. He jumped into the truck and drove off. He found a tree that he thought “the old man” would have picked and then he turned to the chainsaw. He had never started it before. He was 12 years old.

“I couldn’t get it going for the life of me,” Desjarlais, a citizen of the Metis Nation, told Indian Country Today. “And then I just took an axe that was in the back of my dad’s truck. And I started hacking away at this huge tree.”

Today, 15 years later, is taking that never-quit spirit to Parliament Hill.

One of Canada’s newly elected Members of Parliament, Desjarlais won office in the Sept. 20 election for the New Democratic Party in the voting district of Edmonton-Griesbach, flipping a seat long held by a Conservative Party member in the heart of Canada’s oil country.

And that’s not the half of it. Desjarlais, 27, is Indigenous, two-spirit, and a self-declared “climate champion.”

There hasn’t been an underdog like him since Rocky Balboa.

“I’m deeply honored by the confidence that the voters of Edmonton-Griesbach have shown in me and in the NDP,” he posted on Twitter after the results were tallied. “We offered the people of Edmonton Griesbach a very clear, positive, hopeful choice — a choice for better.”

He is one of 10 Indigenous candidates in Parliament.  Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the so-called “snap election” in hopes of gaining a majority for his Liberal Party. But while the balance of power didn’t shift, the New Democratic Party picked up one additional seat overall, most significantly the Alberta post won by Desjarlais.

“We are so proud of Blake we can’t scream it from the rooftops enough,” said Diahann Polege-Aulotte, administrator of the Fishing Lake Metis Settlement. “He is a success story of big things can come out of little communities.”

Blake Desjarlais, 27, a citizen of the Metis Nation, won election to the Canadian Parliament as a New Democratic Party candidate in the Sept. 20, 2021, snap election. Desjarlais, who is Indigenous, two-spirit and openly declares himself a “climate champion,” won in a traditionally conservative district in Alberta's oil country. (Photo courtesy of the New Democratic Party)

‘The Old World’

It has been a long journey from his home on the Fishing Lake Metis Settlement, 170 miles from the provincial capital.

He was born in Edmonton but grew up in the settlement, one of eight Metis Nation settlements to the north of the city. The communities are an anomaly in Canada, the only site where the Metis peoples have a land base.

When asked about his early life on the settlement, he talks first of being a child.

“I kind of call it “The Old World,” the old kind of ways, you know, everyone spoke Cree, everyone visits with each other,” he said. “I was always joined to the hip of my mom, wherever she went. She’d visit elders. She helped them with tanning hide, or, you know, handing over fish to these people.”

Desjarlais recalls fondly the subsistence lifestyle dependent on the land and on community, and a connection that extended outward and into the past.

Blake Desjarlais, 27, left, a citizen of the Metis Nation, won election to a seat in the Canadian Parliament in the Sept. 20, 2021, snap election. A New Democratic Party member, he won in a traditionally conservative district in the middle of Alberta's oil country. He is Indigenous, two-spirit and openly declares himself a “climate champion.” (Photo courtesy of the New Democratic Party)

“The most remarkable gifts you can have growing up in an Indigenous community, people who met your great-grand, your Chapan, your great-grandparent, and you’d never have known who that person was — they passed away, let’s say, years ago,” he said.

“But hey tell you all about them, or how you look just like them or how you sound like them. And it’s like a community where no matter what house you’re in, it’s your home. So that was what it was like growing up in Fishing.”

Desjarlais grew to recognize that he is two-spirit. He said there were other two-spirit peoples in his extended family and in the community of Fishing Lake.

Mainstream society’s obsession with gender is not something that exists in Cree philosophy.

“Our language is genderless — we don’t say he or him, or she or her, we say, with spirit, or

without spirit,” Desjarlais said. “We had our own words, for man and woman. And sometimes we didn’t even have the word man and woman. And part of that learning came to me by learning the language of Cree.”

The Metis Nation is descended from First Nations and European ancestry, a unique history and culture that emerged a century before the existence of Canada. The settlements are mostly influenced, traditionally and genetically, by their Cree ancestry, though citizens also have French, Scottish and other Indigenous Nations in their ancestry.

The eight settlements north of Edmonton have 1.25 million acres of land that were part of the Metis Betterment Act of 1938 passed by the Province of Alberta. The tribe did not get full control of the territory, however, until taking the Alberta and Canadian governments to the Provincial Supreme Court in 1975, leading to the Metis Settlements Agreement and self-governance.

Four of the original 12 settlements were lost to the nation during that period, including land with oil that has fueled the province and country for decades. Things are changing, though, and the Canadian government has finally acknowledged the settlements and will begin nation-to-nation relations in 2023.

For Desjarlais, the loss of his father taught him at an early age just how much work it took to keep the fires going when times were hard. He recalls that first tree he tried to bring down.

“I just wanted my mom to come home and see there was going to be wood there,” he said. “But it didn’t happen. She drove out on her old Ford Tempo in the middle of a field. She found me hacking away at this tree, which I realized is finally on the ground and came to me. And she opened my hands. And there were all these slivers and blisters and blood all over my hands. I never bothered to even look at my own hands during this whole thing.

“I remember she just smiled and said, ‘You remind me a lot like your Dad.’”

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Desjarlais says that began the second phase of his life when he helped at home and around the community.

Getting into politics

After graduating from the University of Victoria with a bachelor’s degree in social science, political science and government, he went right to work in Edmonton serving as director of public affairs and national operations for the Metis Settlements General Council. The council, which provides advocacy on land and rights issues for the settlements and their members, is based in Edmonton.

In his new home, he became active in the community as well, and when the opportunity to run for office came up with the snap election call, he began what he calls the next phase of his life.

He didn’t consider the odds; he picked up the ax and just started swinging.

Blake Desjarlais, 27, left, a citizen of the Metis Nation, won election to the Canadian Parliament as a New Democratic Party candidate in the Sept. 20, 2021, snap election. Desjarlais, who is Indigenous, two-spirit and openly declares himself a “climate champion,” won in a traditionally conservative district in Alberta's oil country. He is shown here with Jagmeet Singh, a member of Parliament who heads the New Democratic Party. (Photo courtesy of the New Democratic Party)

Though his election symbolizes how much the world is changing, he still did it the old-fashioned way, with community volunteers knocking on doors and listening to what the people had to say. He pounded the pavement and heard the difficult times people of all nations were experiencing.

The district is an ethnically diverse area of the city that also has a significant Indigenous population, and everyone was being hit by something -- a faltering economy, isolation during the pandemic and the real losses that have touched so many.

People were looking for compassion, and Desjarlais believes that being Indigenous gave him an empathy that voters trusted.

“The reality is things aren’t easy right now for many families, not only in Edmonton-Griesbach but across the province,” he said. “We’ve seen lots of families who are not only isolated due to the regulations of COVID-19 over the last over 20 months, but also the deaths. You know, Indigenous communities know firsthand what it’s like to experience deaths -- very common in many Indigenous communities, back-to-back sometimes. And it’s like that for the whole country, especially Alberta, right now.

“If there’s any lessons to be learned, I think, from COVID-19 over the last 20 months, it is we have to be together, we have to stand strong, we have to be united in the face of despair.”

Desjarlais heard as well about the stressed health care system.

“We’re facing the opioid crisis. We had multiple people dying a day to the opioid crisis on top of the pandemic,” he said. “It’s stressing out our health care system … One of the shocking stories I heard .. is that emergency responders don’t have enough people or time to get to the overdoses that are happening in our city. They’re being told on the phone, you’re going to have to wait an hour, two hours.

“We lost so many folks, including my own relatives, and in my home Indigenous community of Fishing Lake, we lost one of our members to COVID-19,” he said. “It was heartbreaking for the community, and so many others. It always leaves a gap.”

A different voice

He is familiar with the oil industry, with drilling and pipelines around the community, and oil leases. Many of his family members have worked in the industry, and he has labored in the Oil Sands.

But he will bring a different voice to the district. As a self-declared “climate champion,” he nonetheless found support within the oil industry workers.

“I am a former resource energy worker,” he said. “I used to work in the Cold Lake Oil Sands. I know what it’s like to be a worker and rely on some of the prosperity that was shared for so long by the oil industry. But the reality today is the oil of today is not the oil of the ‘80s or the ‘70s. That prosperity is just not there.”

On the day of his Zoom interview with Indian Country Today, Desjarlais appeared wearing an orange T-shirt, a symbol recognized around the world for the North American genocide that created the Indian boarding school system in the U.S. and the Indian residential school system in Canada.

The shirts serve as a reminder of all the children who never came home. In Canada, thousands of children’s remains are being uncovered around the now-closed schools and the number continues to grow. Sept. 30 is now officially recognized in Canada as the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

“The value of today is its intention is to create space so that survivors feel seen,” Desjarlais said. “Our focus should be on the survivors of Canada’s horrific residential school and their survivors. You know, the intergenerational folks who survived that pain.”

When asked what he plans to take on when he gets to office, Desjarlais picks a big bully.

“We have a teaching in the Cree tradition, which is, ‘When one family takes too much, winter comes sooner.’ And that’s what’s happening to Canadians right now,” he said. “Winter will come sooner, people will starve, people will be out of a home, families will be destroyed, if we do not force the rich to pay their fair share.”

Growing up poor on the Fishing Lake Metis Settlement in the middle of an oil resource that fed Canadian wealth for decades, Desjarlais believes he has the background needed for the challenge ahead.

“I think growing up there shows you the social inequities that make me so fit, I think, to tackle serious issues in my current role, serious issues like family reunification, things like poverty, homelessness, all the way to things like ensuring that community care becomes a part of communities, not just in Indigenous communities, but across the country,” he said.

“I think there are lessons that can be shared from our communities. We have a lot to teach the country. I think now is the time to do it.”

Polege-Aulotte, the tribal administrator from back home on the Fishing Lake Metis Settlement, said hopes are high for the young MP.

“He is just one of us and one of the members,” she said. “When he comes home, he does exactly what he would have done years ago. Nothing has changed in Blake except for his academic career. And now his political career.”

But she has a word of warning for what’s ahead.

“Be prepared,” she said. “Blake is going to stand up and represent.”

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