Two-Spirit NDP MP Blake Desjarlais has just finished his first year as an elected official, and it’s been a steep learning curve in a tumultuous year in Canadian politics, starting with the so-called “freedom convoy” and subsequent occupation of Wellington Street in front of the Parliament buildings in Ottawa.
“I didn’t come to Parliament at all during that time,” Desjarlais says. “I see racism every single day in my life. I don’t have to put myself in front of it.”
Desjarlais grew up as a self-described “bush kid” after managing to avoid a childhood in the child and family services system thanks to family members at the Fishing Lake Métis Settlement in Alberta, which he says broke a cycle of violence. After moving to Edmonton to go to school, Desjarlais worked as the national director for the Métis Settlements of Alberta and established their national office in Ottawa during the implementation of the Supreme Court of Canada decision in Daniels v. Canada on the federal government’s obligations to off-reserve Indigenous people and Métis.
“I was the negotiating partner on the other side of the Liberals on behalf of the Métis, and we came to a few agreements outside of the court, but I quickly realized that the government wasn’t as interested in implementing those things as I was, and you now know how I took up that challenge,” Desjarlais says.
He says that it was a more productive year than he thought it would be, because Canadians gave the NDP an opportunity to work with the government in a minority parliament.
“For New Democrats, just being 25 [elected MPs], it’s a tremendous opportunity to be sent to Parliament and forcing the government to have to listen to people like me,” Desjarlais says. “It’s not every day where Dominic LeBlanc, the infrastructure minister, is forced to say ‘Blake, what do you think about this?’ It’s not an everyday moment in the status quo power vacuum of Canada.
“I talk to my colleagues who have sat there for a long time, and each of them says that we dine out sometimes on little victories, but we’ve never had victories like this before—victories like dental care, like making sure that child care [is enshrined] in legislation,” Desjarlais says. “Real, tangible things that are going to help people that I know, people that everyone knows, people who actually need to survive in this country, and that feels really rewarding and really good.”
Desjarlais says in spite of the victories, there have also been some fairly scary developments around the country, citing that he sees the problem of racism getting worse, such as with the occupation in Ottawa.
“We’re starting to see that sort of mentality exported over social media, and it makes me really nervous for young people,” Desjarlais says.
Desjarlais has also been undertaking antiracism work as the NDP’s diversity and inclusion critic, and sees a particular problem of violence facing Black women who wear a hijab.
“In my riding, a 14-year-old girl had a knife pulled on her trying to walk home from school,” Desjarlais says. “This is something that is being continuously pushed under the rug, and we really do need a strategy to address hatred and racism in Canada.”
As part of his duties as an MP, Desjarlais was assigned to the public accounts committee, which is an underrated committee that ensures the government follows up on the recommendations of the Auditor General.
“One of the most important voices in holding the government accountable is the Auditor General,” Desjarlais says, “a non-partisan independent [officer of Parliament] tasked with understanding the efficacy of government policy as it relates to outcomes, is an incredibly important role that Canadians must understand.”
Desjarlais raises the Auditor General’s recent report on pandemic benefits such as the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and the Canadian Emergency Wage Subsidy, and the issues around recovering funds that were obtained improperly.
“The Conservatives are pushing for, and they’ve been very adamant about this, that the government create a witch hunt of people who received CERB in order to deflect from the kind of accountability that should be coming from companies who have taken the support,” Desjarlais says. “That’s one of my concerns going into the New Year—that our committee, through the Conservatives, are going to go after little old ladies who were over $200 on their CRA account and still received CERB, and making them pay that back. But I’m saying that the resources of the CRA are limited, so we should send those investigators after the biggest abusers like companies making record profits who took the wage subsidy.”
Desjarlais has also been named the co-chair of the new Canadian Pride Caucus, which he says has been a pretty exciting experience so far.
“We have no guiding work other than the commitment we all share that the LGBTQ2S+ community deserves to see parliamentarians working together, because LGBTQ2S+ folks are multi-partisan,” Desjarlais says. “It’s important when we see the rise in especially anti-trans rhetoric that we do something about it, and that’s my biggest concern, and I’m hopefully going to get support from my colleagues in the Pride Caucus to really unite on the important principles of trans safety.”
Desjarlais notes attempts by some in society trying to divide the LGB community from the trans community, claiming that the trans community undermines them, a sentiment Desjarlais rejects.
“Members of our community know that it was largely people of colour and trans activists who manifested the kind of rights and strengths that we have today,” Desjarlais says. “They are part of our story and part of our community, and to diminish trans folks like we’re seeing across the country will diminish our whole community.”
Before the Pride Caucus officially came together, Desjarlais helped to host a group of queer New Zealand MPs at Parliament last year, which was also part of his attempts to build links internationally, particularly with Indigenous people in other countries who have faced colonization.
“In the process of doing that, I got this phone call from the high commissioner of New Zealand who says there’s a New Zealand delegation, their Rainbow Caucus, which is half Indigenous, who wants to come, and I thought about you because you said you wanted to connect,” Desjarlais recounts. “They asked if I could help them find a space in Ottawa and to invite colleagues to it. So, I sponsored a space with the New Zealand High Commission, and we were able to host an event, and we were able to invite as many groups as we could, like Enchanté Network and Dignity Network.”
Desjarlais says it allowed them to talk about how New Zealand’s Rainbow Caucus works and the importance of being able to work collaboratively across partisan lines, which helped Desjarlais and Senator René Cormier solidify their idea for the Canadian Pride Caucus.
Desjarlais says he looks up to Cormier as a “wise elder,” because in Desjarlais’s tradition, they really respect people who have been “around the block.” He adds that the reception was able to show MPs and senators what their Rainbow Caucus looks like, and that it is possible.
Desjarlais has otherwise spent time working with fellow MP Randall Garrison to push for items in the government’s 2SLGBTQI+ Action Plan, and in particular tried to push for more HIV funding as part of it. That didn’t happen at the time, though the federal government did make additional investments later in the year.
“HIV funding is such an easy win,” Desjarlais says. “We are so close to not having this terrible disease destroy our community again … I was born after this crisis, I got to live in a moment of prosperity as a Two-Spirit person, not having to live with the terrible fear of this disease, but so many folks remind me of the late seventies and early eighties, and the pain and the people we lost. The fact that we haven’t beat this disease hurts me. It’s frustrating.”
Desjarlais said he tried to get more funding for trans health and education, and more work related to Two-Spirit people as part of reconciliation, but those didn’t make it into the Action Plan.
“My work remains, and thinking about how we have to get across the finish line on so much more of [the Action Plan], and a budget is coming up,” Desjarlais says. “I really hope that HIV funding is at least in the budget.”
Desjarlais has also been pushing for debt relief for student loans, and was pleased to see that the federal government has decided to put an end to interest on Canada Student Loans, but he is pushing for a reduction of the principle of these loans, pointing to the plan that U.S. president Joe Biden’s administration put forward in the United States. He also plans to push for more climate prevention funds for First Nations communities, citing the current level as being insufficient.
Desjarlais also wants to use his position as an Alberta MP to hold oil and gas companies accountable for their actions, particularly companies who have simply decided not to pay municipal taxes on land they are occupying, which is causing shortfalls for those local governments.
“These companies are not only raking in record profits, they are also outright ignoring municipal tax laws,” Desjarlais says. “If you or I did that, bought a house and decided we’re not paying taxes, we would go to jail, but these guys get to do that.”