'I want to leave a mark': Meet NDP Blake Desjarlais, Canada's first openly two-spirit MP
OTTAWA -- For Blake Desjarlais, becoming an MP wasn’t something he thought he’d pursue. But now, after connecting with the NDP ahead of the 2021 federal election, he’s made history as Canada’s first openly two-spirit member of Parliament.
The 27-year-old won his riding of Edmonton Griesbach, Alta. with 40.5 per cent of the vote, unseating Conservative incumbent Kerry Diotte after a tight race to the finish line. Now, he’s got high hopes and aspirations for what he can bring to Ottawa as a young Metis person.
“I want to leave a mark,” he said in a recent interview with CTVNews.ca.
Desjarlais is one of 50 rookie MPs elected in the 2021 federal election. CTVNews.ca is profiling five—one from each party with a seat in the Commons— in the lead-up to the first sitting day of the 44th Parliament.
Fluent in Cree, Desjarlais grew up at the Fishing Lake Metis Settlement in Alberta, one of eight remaining Metis settlements left in Canada.
He lived there with his aunt Grace, who adopted Blake after his biological mother Brenda— a survivor of the '60s Scoop supporting herself as a sex worker in Edmonton—surrendered him.
“She saved my life,” Desjarlais said.
He moved back to Edmonton after high school, to study architecture at MacEwan University. While there, Desjarlais said he faced racism and discrimination for who he was.
It was a decade ago, he said.
“People weren't talking about residential schools like they are today. They weren't talking about some of the issues like systemic racism that are so prevalent in our experience in this world, then,” he said.
So he left, enrolling then at the University of Victoria, where he completed his studies, focusing on Indigenous and political affairs. In 2016, he was appointed the national director for the Metis Settlements General Council, a role in which he was engaged in negotiations with the federal government over the last five years.
“I never really thought I’d see myself running in federal politics,” he said, adding that he had considered maybe running for an Indigenous leadership role, because in past interactions with other parties, he got the impression there was always a feeling of politicians reaching out to Indigenous or queer people in order to help them fulfill their mandates.
“They would often come to us with what they wanted to see us do,” Desjarlais said.
But then he met with the federal NDP and their approach was different, he said.
“They didn't ask the questions of how we could serve their purpose… They just said: ‘We're interested in helping people, we're interested in making sure people who are champions in the community have the tools they need to make sure that they feel represented’… They recognized me as a whole person with expertise in a vast variety of sectors,” said Desjarlais.
During the campaign, he had help from someone who knew well what it was like to run in that riding, and against Diotte: Janis Irwin, an Alberta MLA and federal candidate for the NDP in 2015.
“When I heard that Blake was first interested, I was just really excited,” she told CTVNews.ca
During the 36-day campaign, the appetite for change was strong at the doors, Irwin said. Between weak support for the Liberals, anger at the Conservatives both federally and provincially, and enough of an interest in the People’s Party of Canada to siphon off votes, the New Democrats liked their chances.
That Diotte was one of the 62 Conservative MPs who voted against the proposed conversion therapy ban in the last Parliament may have also been a factor, with Irwin noting there is a “strong, growing queer and trans community,” in the region.
“I don't know if I saw the day where, you know, me, the sole openly queer MLA, would be represented by my MP who's the sole two-spirit federal member… That alone is pretty, pretty incredible,” Irwin said. “Just think about that young, two-spirit kid who sees Blake in a position like that, and how meaningful it is.”
Heading into the new Parliament, Desjarlais is aware of the pressures that may be put on him as a voice for several underrepresented groups, including progressives in Alberta.
“This often blue blanket that Alberta has been covered in has a few holes, and I really hope to try to funnel as much of that other perspective out that hole as I can,” he said.
“I want to play the best role I can do for helping people, and the boundaries of Edmonton-Griesbach aren't exclusive to that help… Even if you're an Indigenous person or person of color, or queer, you can come to us and I'm going to make sure that we help advocate for you too,” he said.
Following the party’s first post-election caucus meeting, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh announced that Desjarlais will be a part of his House leadership team, taking on the role of deputy caucus chair. He said it’s his goal in that position to make his caucus feels their voices, and the voices of their constituents are heard.