Taking a Stand
Robert Falcon Ouellette's first nine months as a member of Canada's Parliament.
Last updated 9/10/2016 at 2:12pm
In last year's political landslide in Canada's federal politics, a young Indigenous man was elected to represent the riding of Winnipeg Centre in the House of Commons defeating a long-time member of parliament.
Indian Life editor Jim Uttley sat down with Member of Parliament Robert Falcon Ouellette to discuss his first nine months in office over a cup of tea.
We began our conversation discussing his staff and family. Robert is a family man and it doesn't take long before you can tell how important his family is to him. He also has high praise for his staff and volunteers. "Political parties would not exist without a lot of volunteers," Falcon stated.
As a newcomer to government, the orientation can be difficult. Part of that introduction experience is knowing when "to take a position on a particular issue and when it's best to remain in the background."
I asked him what his first challenge was. "It was the learning curve," he said. "People show up in politics and at first, newcomers don't want to make any waves. They want to be team players. They have a file in front of them and people in their riding are talking about a particular issue but they don't want to really give their opinion on an issue."
When it comes to being a rookie politician and a "Back Bencher" in the House of Commons, "I wanted to find a way to affect legislation and take positions while working in the background," Ouellette stated. "I had pushed pretty strongly in my caucus for funding for the Winnipeg Art Gallery's new Inuit wing. Others wanted some other projects but the Heritage Minister advocated for the gallery and we were able to get $15 million for the Inuit displays. I was pretty excited about that."
When I asked Robert Falcon what his biggest challenge is, he talked about the recent vote on assisted dying legislation.
"I was from the Prairies where politicians usually vote with their party but I just couldn't do it. I voted against my party's position [on this issue]. It was pretty hard."
When the count of those opposed was taken, "I stood up, and people on the other side were cheering and that's not really what you want, but it's something I'm pretty happy with," Falcon stated. "I gave my opinion several times in caucus and during debate. And by taking such a public stand, it helped influence the party in making policy-the direction they could have gone."
He indicated it could have been "a bit more contentious."
Falcon went on to explain: "We have seven teachings in Indigenous traditions and one of them is courage-having courage and using honesty in giving your opinion. There's a lot of pressure from individuals and institutions around you-peer pressure. We often wonder why kids get picked on when they don't follow the others. Adults do that as well. There are people in our society who are willing to strike a different path-to go against the grain."
The position I took made party leaders uncomfortable but they made changes and I was pretty happy with the vote results.
In getting along with ministerial leaders he indicated that he has a pretty strong opinion on some issues and "I don't always agree with the leaders. Sometimes I'm trying to nudge legislation in a particular direction."
Falcon told me there are eight Indigenous MPs in the Liberal caucus. "There are 10 or 11 in the whole House."
On the issue of medically assisted dying, Falcon shared that he does have a personal perspective, especially when it comes to suicide in First Nations Communities.
"For First Nations communities where people struggle with hopelessness and despair, where people are suffering, we want to encourage people to embrace hope and life.
An Elder once said to me, we need to work hard to 'keep out the spirit of suicide.'
"First Nations suicides and medically assisted dying are often side-by-side, and there is something about this contrast that says something about the divide in our country.
So while I recognize the Supreme Court's decision, it is also important for me as an Indigenous person to stand up and say to people in First Nations who are considering suicide that their life is precious, that pain may be temporary, and to hold on to hope.
When it comes to the lives of people struggling with pain, mental illness and hopelessness, we need material change, deep change in people's lives. All of that is possible-not easy, but possible. We must not settle for what is easy, and continue to make new possibilities a reality."
This article was taken from notes from our conversation as well as an article published in Robert Falcon Ouellette's The Falcon (Spring 2016).