On the first National Day of Truth and Reconciliation, Aaron Paquette is proud of his Metis ancestry.
“I come from a history of people who, despite everything that has happened to them, have kept their sense of humour, kept their sense of community, kept their culture and kept it alive and thriving,” he said.
Four years ago, he was the only Indigenous person elected to Edmonton’s city council.
“The challenge is, when you’re looking at an issue from the outside in, you can lose some of some of the urgency,” Paquette explained.
“One of the things that I’ve been able to do is give that perspective that otherwise wouldn’t be there.”
While he’s hoping to be re-elected, and continue that work, he said he’s tried to teach his colleagues the complexities of issues like homelessness and mental health.
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“Rather than try to lead the charge, I try to build capacity in other counsellors so that they could lift up that standard because you need a lot of different voices to advocate for positive things.”
Enoch’s Chief, Billy Morin, said outgoing Mayor Don Iveson has done a lot of work on reconciliation, including instituting new Indigenous ward names.
“There was some pushback from city people on naming the wards — and they’re really tough to say, I even acknowledge that. Some of the Blackfoot wards are tough to say,” he laughed.
“But now when you go out you see those signs, they’re being embraced. That’s the original language of the land, that’s the identity of this land.”
He said having even a few Indigenous candidates running for council shows progress, but there’s still work to be done.
“Those barriers are still very much there. How do you organize, how do you fundraise? It’s such an intimidating system,”
Paquette agreed, noting his generation is the first in his family in 100 years to not have been taken to residential schools.
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He said that intergenerational trauma has lasting impacts, including on someone’s ability to run for council.
“You may not have the networks of people, the generational wealth. The connections a lot of other candidates might have will be missing,” Paquette said.
For his work, Morin calls Paquette a Metis champion and inspiration.
“Aaron blazed that trail, so who’s next? Hopefully there’s more Indigenous candidates who have something to offer, like Aaron did.”
A Metis woman, Diana Steele, has thrown her name into the race for the mayor’s chair.
“Obviously, the Indigenous have a very difficult history in Canada, and I think it’s time that we do take a seat at the table.”
Steele said her family was stripped of their ancestry decades ago.
“My mom grew up without the Metis culture and has since, for the last 10 years, been searching for her identity and trying to teach herself the culture. And she’s learning the language. She’s learning how to bake. She’s beading.”
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And now, Steele is learning those traditions from her mother.
But she says some have questioned her Metis background.
“When people do challenge me, I find it quite offensive because it was it was a culture that was taken from us. And I’m embracing it now,” she said.
Paquette notes he’s also experienced hate, and says it’s discouraging.
“I have definitely faced my fair share of folks who have doubted my ability based on my cultural and I guess racial background.”
But both Paquette and Steele hope future generations will speak up to claim a seat at the table.
“This generation of Indigenous youth that is coming up are change makers. They’re entrepreneurs, they’re visionaries, they’re tradespeople, they’re professionals,” Paquette said.
“I just want to show that that anything is possible,” Steele said.
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