Blake Desjarlais says it represents what Alberta is really about and not what the rest of Canada might think.
Believed to be the first member of Parliament with two spirits, the 27-year-old says his Métis ancestry and identity tell a juxtaposed story about the grasslands.
“We have this terrible reputation across the country for being this southern, Texas-like state,” Desjarlais says in a recent interview while sitting in a hotel lobby in the Boyle Street neighborhood of downtown Edmonton.
“(Premier of Alberta) Jason Kenney has done an incredible job damaging our credibility around the world … my family founded this province. We fight for it. We shed blood. We know first and foremost what this province is.”
Desjarlais worked for Metis Settlements Alberta and chaired Alberta’s indigenous climate leadership summits before jumping into federal politics for the first time this year as an NDP candidate. In the September election, he toppled a conservative in Edmonton Griesbach’s race.
Desjarlais says its roots go back centuries in the region, including the Northwest Rebellion in 1885. His ancestors fought alongside the Metis leader, Louis Riel, because they felt Canada was not protecting their distinctive culture.
Born in Edmonton, he says the obstacles he faced as a child forced him to grow up fast and prepared him for politics.
“My brave biological mother, Brenda, was the victim of the scoop of the 1960s and made the difficult decision to ask her sister, Grace, whom she barely knew, to raise her son, while dealing with her own trauma,” says Desjarlais .
“I grew up hating the idea of being … abandoned. But I quickly realized that it was the opposite of what really happened.”
While her mother battled substance abuse and tried to survive as a sex worker, Desjarlais grew up with her aunt and seven other children in the Fishing Lake Métis settlement, northeast of Edmonton.
Indigenous communities have had kin families for centuries, he says.
‘I will never feel ashamed:’ Métis, deputy of the NDP of two spirits wants to change the name of #Alberta. #BlakeDesjarlais #ABPoli
“That’s why Albertans are one of the hardest working people, who can teach the world a lot about building and community unity.”
His riding office is located at 118 Avenue, a popular strip north of downtown where his mother worked in the sex trade.
“(It’s) really like the indigenous street where new Canadians and people of color feel at home, and that’s where my mother felt at home,” she says, adding that she still encounters elderly people in the area. who worked with his mother, who fell. ill and died a decade ago.
The elders tell him stories about how they cared for each other, never knowing what their real names were.
“They had all these nicknames and ways of surviving in this community, and I’m part of it,” Desjarlais says.
“I’m never going to be ashamed of that.”
Since his election victory, Desjarlais says that he has also been thinking about his father, whose name was Chully.
Chully worked as a carpenter and put smiles on people’s faces when he handed them the keys to the new affordable housing units in Alberta. He died when Desjarlais was 12 years old.
That is why Desjarlais wants to continue building.
“There are three types of construction that I want to do,” says Desjarlais.
He wants to build infrastructure to help Alberta grow and create jobs. He wants to build intellectual power by investing in new technology to prevent brain drain in the region.
Lastly, Desjarlais says he wants to build a better brand for Alberta.
He wants it to be a province that embraces the history of its various groups, including some of its early immigrants from Lebanon, he says.
“People of color … their contributions are continually being erased. That’s what I mean by rebranding … how do we really represent who we are as a province? By being honest with ourselves.”
He says he also wants Alberta to be rebranded green.
“There is only a finite amount of resources, so we have to diversify.”
Desjarlais says he is excited about what the future holds.
Although he still has a lot to learn, he says he might consider running for prime minister one day, if enough people ask him to.
“I’m not very ambitious,” he laughs.
“I’m more of an ‘oskapewo’. It’s the Believe word for … someone who helps heal healers.
“I go where they tell me to go.”
This Canadian Press report was first published on October 25, 2021.
This story was produced with financial assistance from Facebook and the Canadian Press News Fellowship.