Pro tip: don’t ask Mumilaaq Qaqqaq what it feels like to be a young woman entering the House of Commons.
This is her first foray into federal politics but the new NDP member of Parliament for the vast northern riding of Nunavut has already developed a strong voice and has taken issue with way some have been focusing on her age — 25 — relative inexperience and gender, rather than the issues she’s heading to Ottawa to champion.
“Are we asking male representatives over 30 about their age and their experience and how it feels to be a man walking into Parliament? I doubt it. I haven’t seen anything of the sort,” she said in a telephone interview from Iqaluit.
“We normalize the idea of what we think a politician should look like, and in reality a politician can look like anything. And so the only way that’s going to become normalized is if somebody like me starts calling it out.”
Qaqqaq won her seat by nearly 1,000 votes over Liberal candidate Megan Pizzo Lyall in the Oct. 21 vote and has been caught in a whirlwind ever since, dealing with a long list of media requests while also trying to learn the ins and outs of being an MP, hiring staff and looking a place to stay in the capital.
Her victory was hailed in her hometown of Baker Lake with a parade and fireworks.
Qaqqaq describes her life since then as a “crazy transition” from campaigning into public office with a lot to absorb. The reality of her new role hasn’t truly sunk in yet, she admits.
“I don’t know if that’s ever going to happen, or if it’s going to be just a gradual step-by-step getting into the role. Maybe it will never really hit me.”
When asked about the issues she hopes to bring to the House of Commons on behalf of her constituents, Qaqqaq became wistful. She says they’re simply issues of basic human rights that her territory has been struggling with for years.
“Over my term, it will be about focusing on increasing housing, tackling the mould crisis, lowering living costs and eliminating boil-water advisories in all of our communities,” she said.
“Hopefully by the time my term is up we can be discussing other issues and not be talking about basic human rights … then we can move on to other things, like increasing child care and education opportunities.”
Despite her no-nonsense tone in public speeches and interviews, Qaqqaq describes herself as a “very silly and goofy person” who enjoys posting to social-media sites like Instagram and Snapchat.
“I’ve gotten a couple of messages about where I’ve been seen or what I’ve been doing, and people are like, ‘You should be a little bit more quiet about those kinds of things because of who you are and the position that you’re in.’ “
But aside from a small adjustment in what she might post online, Qaqqaq says she has no plans to change anything about herself or the way she communicates now that she’s an elected member of Parliament, suggesting instead that others might have to shift their expectations.
She intends to be outspoken about issues facing northern Canadians, describing this as her way of being open and transparent about the realities people in Canada’s territories face.
“I think during my time it’s going to be a lot of raising awareness and educating other people, because realistically not everybody knows that much about the North and what our realities look like up here,” she said.
“In order for me to do my job effectively, in order for me to make any kind of change, I’ve got to be transparent about how we talk about things and how we discuss challenges and issues that all Canadians face and, in particular … the issues that come up when we’re talking about the North.”
There are other things about herself she says she’s also reluctant to change, even small things. For example, she dislikes wearing shoes and usually sits with her legs crossed.
During a recent visit to Ottawa for an orientation, Qaqqaq says she found herself slipping her shoes back on and keeping both feet on the ground.
“At one point I was like, ‘Well that’s just not what I’m used to so I’m just going to do what I would normally do.’ “
The Nunavummiut and Inuit have often had to accommodate to “a southern way of thinking and a southern way of doing things,” she says, but she hopes Canadians will be willing to open their minds to the different ways of life that people from northern communities experience.
She is also proud to be what she believes is the first member of Parliament with traditional face tattoos.
“It’s an opportunity to reclaim who I am as an Inuk, as an Indigenous woman. They were made to be very shameful and taboo, and now it’s not,” she says.
“To be somebody that has face tattoos sitting in Parliament — it’s important for individuals for people of all different ethnicities and all different backgrounds to see themselves represented in all different kinds of things, in politics, in films, in music, in the RCMP, all different kinds of positions.
“In order for that to start happening, we need to start educating other people and raising awareness of these kinds of things.”
Teresa Wright, The Canadian Press