‘Use the right words, and paint the right picture’: In conversation with Nunavut MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq

TVO.org speaks with the politician about mental health, media representation — and what it means to be a public figure in a country that tried to destroy the Inuit way of life
By Shelby Lisk - Published on Jan 20, 2021
Mumilaaq Qaqqaq, MP for Nunavut, is advocating for adequate resources for Inuit communities (Photo credit: Saumik Darehshoripour).



OTTAWA — “I couldn’t begin to fathom how many Inuit were clearly struggling, so obviously struggling, and it seemed like the rest of the country was relatively okay with this,” Nunavut NDP MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq said in a video she posted to social media earlier this month, after completing a 21-day housing tour in the territory.

Over the course of those three weeks, she travelled to eight communities to experience first-hand the conditions that Inuit and Nunavummiut were living in. What she saw — including mouldy homes and poor infrastructure that have caused residents severe health problems — left her heart hurting and her soul heavy, she says: “I had been so severely burnt out that there were about to be physical consequences.”

On October 23, Qaqqaq posted to her social media saying that, based on advice from her doctor, she would be taking eight weeks off. On January 4, she returned to work and shared a video in which she explained the circumstances that led to her leave, citing extreme burnout, depression, and anxiety: “My mental health is my responsibility, and I found help when I needed it.”

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In 2019, at the age of 25, Qaqqaq became Nunavut’s youngest MP in history, and the first from the New Democratic Party since Nunavut had become a territory in 1999. Since being elected, she has advocated for access to safe homes, affordable healthy food, and clean drinking water in Nunavut. She has also continued to speak out about rates of depression and suicide and the need for structural change to improve the lives of Inuit and all Nunavummiut.

TVO.org spoke with Mumilaaq Qaqqaq about what she saw during her three-week housing tour in Nunavut, her leave of absence from work, mental health, and her vision of what government could be.

TVO.org: I want to ask you about the housing tour that you took before your leave. Could you talk about what you saw on the tour and how it made you feel?

Mumilaaq Qaqqaq: The purpose of that housing tour was to get a better understanding of the big picture. The federal government has been so horribly underfunding Northern communities, and Inuit [specifically], a group of people that share traditions, cultures — tens of thousands of individuals who had gone through residential school, forced relocation, and dog slaughters, among other things. Never have we seen justice for that.

I was looking at the consequences of it. I was looking at decades of severely underfunded situations that had resulted in people killing themselves, in children forced to live in mouldy homes that resulted in skin irritations, respiratory issues. I met young moms who had babies that have been sick since they were born and for months were unable to reach necessary health care. I heard stories of parents finding their children hanging from the ceiling. I heard stories of murder, trauma, abuse ... even just the infrastructure itself had so many issues. And then all of the immense number of other things that are directly related to housing, directly related to the history of colonization and the history of lack of funding from the federal government.

And I didn't understand how the country seemed relatively okay with this. A bunch of white people, frankly, are making decisions that directly result in death, and they’re standing there telling me that they know, and I've seen the real impacts of it. I couldn't understand how that was okay in humanity and society. I still don't, but it really sent me into a rabbit hole of asking myself how? Why? And just ... how? I couldn't piece it together for a while.

TVO.org: You have spoken a lot about the need for mental-health supports in Inuit communities and the high rates of suicide. What do you think is needed on a broad scale to change those circumstances?

In 2017, Qaqqaq (who then went by Trina) participates in the Daughters of the Vote, a program that brings young women to the House of Commons to speak about their visions for the country and community.

Qaqqaq: On a broad scale, mental-health resources in the territory are close to nonexistent. I can't even say minimal. Whatever is just above zero. The way that systems are set up in Nunavut, such as education, health, and mental health, [you have to] often go through very unnecessarily complicated avenues and processes, which creates some barriers and challenges — but ultimately, again, it’s going back to that lack of funding.

Oftentimes, two or three communities will share a mental-health worker or a counsellor, and this individual will fly between communities, oftentimes burning out very quickly, and people are just kind of left in the dust over and over again and not having consistent mental-health resources available to them. [As an example], when I lived at home in Baker Lake, I tried talking to a mental-health worker. This individual was [an RCMP officer’s wife]. I had waited, I think about a year and a half, to see an individual, and then I was sitting across from this individual, thinking, ‘I'm not talking to RCMP's wife. Why would I? Your husband's taken half my friends, you know?’ So, on a broad level, it's severely underfunded, it's not culturally appropriate, and it doesn't interact well with the complexities of the histories of our communities.

TVO.org: How do you feel about the way the media has been portraying your leave and mental health in general? How could the media do better at reporting on mental health and also reporting on issues that are affecting majority-Inuit communities?

Qaqqaq: It's important because media are storytellers, and you need to be getting the right story. But it's not just about the story; it's going back to that human aspect. It doesn't matter what the story is. It's always going to be written differently, depending on who does it. So, to me, it's really important to use the right words and paint the right picture, and if the picture is being painted in a way that is not matching reality, I'm going to call it out — and the reality is that I was having media articles written about myself and the NDP that simply weren't accurate. I'm not going to let [media] falsely paint a picture to the public. What if that conversation sparked my resignation? 

That's the power of the media at this point. That's what the media doesn't realize and needs to be held accountable for — and to create safe spaces and do better. But when media just comes at me, and I know they want their 15- or 20-second sound bite, I go through my Rolodex of things and I go, okay, that’s what they’re looking for. And that’s what politicians continue to get conditioned to do.

TVO.org: In a video posted to your social media, you said, “Since being elected in 2019, there are two things that have always been important to me. One, politics can look, feel and be different. And two, I want to do my best to remain open and transparent with my constituents.” I want to ask about both of those things. First, what is the world of politics that you envision? What would that look and feel like?

Qaqqaq: I've been watching a lot of different kinds of shows that I see different aspects of society in. Things like Watchmen, The Boys, The Good Lord Bird — shows that really talk to injustices between groups of individuals and to the unnecessary hate [that occurs] because of those differences. This sounds way out there, but I like to think of Avatar; I like to think of Star Wars, when they have council meetings. I like to think of a world where we understand and learn that we are a part of the cycle, not above it. Where we understand that the environment is just as much us as we are it. Why can't we learn how to work with solar and wind? Why can't we understand that it's fine to hunt and fish and gather just like we used to? As long as we understand we are a part of this, we are not above it.

That's my ultimate fantasy — some sort of weird Avatar/Star Wars mix of things living in harmony. But I think in my lifetime, and much more realistically, it looks like individuals that really care that are taking the steps to have important conversations to really talk about human life and to talk about how we interact with the world. I hope that in my lifetime, at least, we can start talking about and looking very seriously at how these colonial processes and systems don't work, and how we change them.

TVO.org: The second thing that you said in your video is that you’ve always done your best to remain open and transparent with your constituents. I sense that is even more important for you as an Indigenous woman, as an Inuk woman, representing your community. Can you talk a little bit about that, especially for non-Indigenous MPs or settler Canadians, who might not understand that relationship and why it’s so important to be transparent with your people?

Qaqqaq: The transparency aspect is so important because we have been lied to for decades, over and over and over. We have had our backs stabbed. You name it, it's happened, and it has happened so severely that Inuit are choosing to take their own lives. I look around in the House of Commons and I'm like, ‘Do you not hear me when I say the suicide [rate for Inuit] is nine times the rate [of non-Indigenous Canadians]?’ People are choosing to kill themselves. If that doesn't tell you turmoil is happening and something is severely wrong, I don't know what will.

The transparency needs to be there because for 50, 60 years, the [federal government] has told us time and time again, ‘We know you need help; we're working on it.' They have told us, my whole life, ‘We know that their situation is messed up.’ They have told Canada that. It's right there on record in the House of Commons, over and over and over again. It's like having a weird parent-type person who you never see directly that decides if you're going to eat or have clean water or have somewhere to sleep, and it doesn't matter how loud you cry or not. That's the position that the federal government has left Nunavut communities in for decades.

a woman sits behind a desk holding a pen
Qaqqaq was sworn in in September. (Twitter/Mumilaaq Qaqqaq)

TVO.org: I’ve been reflecting on how you and I both work in institutions that have historically wronged and harmed our people. I have to work actively, every day, against the grain of the media landscape and against the history of media representation of Indigenous people. You work with an institution that has severely underfunded your communities and systematically tried to take away their way of life. How do you reconcile those two things? How do you go to work every day and look people in the eyes who are making decisions that are literally killing your people? What gives you the strength to continue?

Qaqqaq: I get to go to work and I get to look tall white dudes in the eye, and I get to shake my head and say, ‘What? Let me just be clear on what you're saying and let me repeat what you just said back to you.’ I get to have these kinds of conversations that are needed and make me feel incredibly empowered because we're still here, and I'm going be a thorn in your side as long as I'm here. There's something incredibly satisfying about standing in an institution that was meant to kill you and just being there and saying, 'I'm standing here in a place that was meant to kill my people.’ I've said that. There's something really enriching about looking at all the white people start to maybe realize that they need to think about where their priorities are and what's really important in life, and that this is life and death.

It's not just standing in a room yelling at each other. It's decisions that affect people on the ground every single day. I get to interview people that have immense amounts of experiences and knowledge that I just want to soak up all day and learn from. I get to work with youth. I get to find balance in, yes, all the horrible aspects of [this] work and the institution and just in general, what it means to be a public figure in a place that was meant to not have you even exist — but I get to find balance on the other side. First off, I'm still here. Second, I'm not going anywhere. Third, there's going to be more that look [like me] and come from the same places I do, so buckle up.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

This is one of a series of stories about Indigenous issues brought to you in partnership with Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication.

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