Mumilaq Qaqqaq’s first ever speech in the House of Commons drew a standing ovation. When she was interviewed about the reception to her speech, which touched on Nunavut’s high suicide rates among other things, Qaqqaq was quick to emphasize she didn’t want attention focused on herself but on the issues.
“Everybody was talking about how courageous I am and how brave. But that’s not the point. This isn’t about me. This is about everybody in my territory. I’m trying to relay a message —: we’ve been asking for help for so long and where is it?”
The speech in question was given in 2017 — two years before she would become elected as Nunavut’s MP — when she was selected as one of 338 young women from across Canada to speak about her vision for the nation as part of Parliament’s Daughters of the Vote program.
Despite her lack of experience, Qaqqaq’s passion for improving the lives of Inuit and speaking truth to power propelled her to victory in the 2019 federal election with 41 per of the vote, as she defeated former Conservative cabinet minister Leona Aglukkaq and the Liberal’s Megan Pizzo-Lyall.
Even before she was elected, it was clear that Qaqqaq cares deeply about her constituents and the injustices they face. A year and half into her first term, Qaqqaq has been open about the emotional toll her job has taken on her.
Last October, just one year after being elected, Qaqqaq said she would have to take time off because of extreme burnout, depression and anxiety. Although she returned to work in January with a renewed sense of purpose and plans to run in the next election, she is currently in the midst of another brief leave of absence on the advice of her doctor, following an incident in which she called out Liberal MP Yvonne Jones for not willing to publicly share the roots of her Inuit heritage.
There is no way to justify the way Qaqqaq called out Jones. As Qaqqaq admitted in her apology, she was aggressive in her accusations, which were repeated over and over in the course of a 30-minute video she posted to Twitter.
By admonishing Jones, she also waded into an issue that has been a landmine among Indigenous Canadians in recent years: blood quantum.
One need only to Google the names of Joseph Boyden and Michelle Latimer to see the backlash against people trying to profit off spurious claims to Indigenous heritage.
When it comes to the world of politics, the Inuit nation which Jones claims to be a part of has itself been at the centre of controversy. The neighbouring Innu Nation refuses to recognize Jones’ NunatuKavut, which only began identifying itself as a distinct southern Labrador Inuit group in 2010, after previously claiming its membership was Metis.
ITK has also refused recognize the legitimacy of NunatuKavut’s claim to Inuit heritage, even after the federal government approved its status in 2018.
There isn’t enough space here to dig into Labrador’s complicated land claims debacle and its lingering legal challenges.
Suffice to say, even though Qaqqaq may have weighed in on the issue in a clumsy and inappropriate way, Inuit and other Canadian First Nations are currently engaged in very real and ongoing debate over who has the right to claim Indigenous heritage.
But what of Qaqqaq’s post-apology fate?
Of the Facebook comments on the Nunavut News story announcing Qaqqaq’s recent medical leave, most are compassionate and supportive, wishing her well and hoping she comes back feeling stronger and prepared to keep fighting for Nunavummiut.
However, there is also a contingent of people that are calling for her resignation. For the most part their argument seems to be that because she has had to take time off for her mental health, Qaqqaq is too young and not fit for the job.
With all due respect, their anger is misdirected. Since stepping into office Qaqqaq has been a fierce advocate for Nunavummiut. In her first year Qaqqaq undertook an ambitious cross-territory tour to document the abhorrent conditions of Nunavut’s public housing. Despite the emotional toll that trip took on her, Qaqqaq returned to work after taking time off for her mental health and finished the report.
How did the Liberals respond to the revelations in Qaqqaq’s report?
By offering a paltry $25 million toward housing in Nunavut in the 2021 budget. Northern Affairs Minister Dan Vandal can try and sugarcoat these breadcrumbs but $25 million is barely a drop in the bucket when there are currently 3,545 families in need of housing in the territory.
It’s no wonder Qaqqaq is fed up. No matter how outspoken she is on behalf of Inuit, the Liberals continue to ignore their plight.
Indeed, the Trudeau government has made it clear that Indigenous voices are only welcome in his government when they conform to his agenda. Look no further than Jody Wilson-Raybould, whose term as Canada’s first Indigenous attorney general was cut short when she tried to expose Trudeau’s meddling in the SNC-Lavalin scandal.
Inuit or not, as the parliamentary secretary to Vandal, Jones is complicit in this indifference, just as Aglukkaq was under Stephen Harper.
While she made a mistake by unloading on Jones on social media, Qaqqaq is anything but naive, as Jones claimed in her rebuke.
Rather, the fact that she does not trust the Liberals shows she is wiser than most. And her refusal to back down from speaking out against a system that is stacked against Inuit and First Nations who are simply asking for their basic human rights to be acknowledged, shows she is willing to stand up not just for her constituents but all Indigenous Canadians.
Qaqqaq may have slipped up by getting personal with Jones but one need only look at her actions to see who is really fighting for Canada’s Inuit.
–Cody Punter is editor of Kivalliq News.