No matter how you look at it, Blake Desjarlais’ victory in Edmonton Griesbach during the 2021 federal election is historic.
The openly Two-Spirit member of the Fishing Lake Métis Settlement in northern Alberta triumphed under the NDP banner amid a sea of Conservative blue. Desjarlais unseated Kerry Diotte, a longtime Tory MP who voted against the bill to ban conversion therapy ban earlier this year. After polling behind Diotte for much of the campaign, Desjarlais was victorious on election night, besting his Conservative rival by 1,468 votes.
Desjarlais heads to Ottawa as one of only two NDP MPs from Alberta, one of eight queer MPs in Canada and as the very first openly Two-Spirit person ever elected to Parliament.
It’s a big deal—and those may sound like big shoes to fill. But the 27-year-old descendant of residential school survivors says he is ready to put in the work and show the next generation of queer and Two-Spirit youth how badly their voices are needed.
Xtra reached Desjarlais by phone on Thursday to speak about his historic win, the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation and the future of queer and Indigenous youth in Canada.
First of all, congratulations on a successful campaign and victory. How has this past week been?
The past week has been interesting, particularly because I went home to the Fishing Lake Métis Settlement. We had a week since Monday to really wrap our heads around the election and what it really meant for me and for many people in our community. So I went to give thanks and reflection and prayers to the land and to the people who really got me to become this person.
I believe that things happen, in many ways, because good people come together and have the determination to make sure it’s done, and that’s what’s happened here. And I just have so much thanks to give to everyone who participated in this campaign. I don’t see this as a victory of the individual but the victory is the whole—many communities won when we found out what had happened. Many communities, the Métis community, Indigenous communities, the LGBTQ+ community, the Two-Spirit community, people of colour, you know—it’s just a fantastic thing. And it’s fantastic to be a part of and I’m just so honoured and excited to be able to stand up for the issues that matter most to us.
What are your first priorities heading into Parliament?
I’ve always wanted to be of service to the public, it’s something I’ve done my whole life and something I’m so excited to do. I met with individuals across Edmonton Griesbach, door-knocking on thousands of individual doors, meeting people on the streets and many people from all walks of life, whether they’re super wealthy or had nothing. And all of them gave me a bit of their truth and gave me a piece of themselves. And that piece that they gave me left an impression that we really have to tackle things in a holistic way.
Holistic solutions to things like poverty are what I’m interested in immediately. Our community can’t wait. We live in one of the poorest communities in Alberta—we have the highest child poverty rate in Alberta, for example, children literally go without food. One door I knocked on, a woman told us that if she didn[t get help right away, she was going to turn the vehicle on in her garage and kill herself.
These are real people, people who deserve compassion, deserve dignity and deserve a voice. And it’s their stories I hope to lift up in Parliament, in order to help demonstrate to folks that we have a real job in the House of Commons and the job of the government is to make sure that people and human dignity prevail in the face of things like greed, in the face of corporate power. Everyday people deserve a government that’s compassionate and cares about them, and that’s a mission I believe in wholeheartedly and one that I want to make sure to deliver the best I can.
It’s not lost on me that we’re talking today on Sep. 30, the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation. You’re one of 12 Indigenous MPs elected and one of eight queer MPs. What do you want to see from the Liberal government in terms of action on Indigenous issues?
On the Indigenous front particularly, there have been so many promises. And when you break a promise, it hits deep into the chord of mistrust into the deep wounds Indigenous people have from the last 150 odd years of colonization in North America. It reminds us of the inauthenticity of the government’s words when they fail to act.
In particular, I’m upset in Alberta about [Premier] Jason Kenney: he’s one of many premiers who stands there and talks about how important it is to plant a tree in the back of the legislature for truth and reconciliation. But when it comes to actually making sure, a very easy and tangible thing can be done to make space and time, he won’t do it. For example, declaring a statutory holiday that everyone can participate in, not just the super rich who have the day off or those who can afford to go to a ceremony or watch a dance.
There should be time and space for this remembrance. We remember veterans so well in our country, there are memorials across Canada to remember those who sacrificed. But when it comes to Indigenous children, and the innocence of the lives lost—including my uncles and my dad who went to that school, including my grandmother who went to that school—there just seems to be such a different story. It doesn’t seem like [the government] wants it to be about us, they want it to be about them. They want to be about how great our government is, as opposed to how much healing is needed. And I think that’s what’s needing to be said right now, on behalf of Indigenous people, especially on a day like today. It needs to be about us and our families, and what it means to understand the trauma and weight and sadness and fear. I think that this is the time where we come together as people, as nations, and reflect on what’s been lost, and that the truth is something we can’t forget either.
And what about queer and trans folks?
There are many more victims than just the Indigenous people when we look in the mirror and see our history is very bloody and not so far behind us. When it comes to the Two-Spirit, to LGBTQ+ and the trans people of colour communities, I think that there’s a very similar story that is a parallel to the mistreatment of Indigenous people. Many people who are part of our LGBTQ2S+ community have also experienced this great mistrust, this promise without action.
The blood ban, for example, is something [Prime Minister Justin] Trudeau convinced all of us he was going to lift. I can’t give blood. My family relies on Canadian Blood Services and I can’t be a part of it, and I’m angry every day that there’s this barbaric law that stops us from helping our loved ones. Or the conversion therapy ban—the incumbent [Diotte] I kicked out, I’m so grateful because we removed one of the MPs who voted against criminalizing conversion therapy, an evil system, akin to the residential school system in some sense in that it aims to annhilate one’s identity, annihilate who they are and put them into a caste and system where they never belonged.
And so I do think that moving into this 44th Parliament, these are some of the priorities that must be met by the government. And if they don’t, they will have to be accountable. We have to do our best to rally and unite Canadians around these promises that have been made, but not fulfilled, and bring attention to them.
Identities like being queer or being Two-Spirit are so unique to each individual person. They’re these labels that people share, but they also are so individual. What does being queer and being Two-Spirit mean to you?
I think it’s important to reflect on the history of Two-Spirit identity. It’s relatively new in Canada, but also ancient in its own sense. It is an English word used in the late 1980s and early ’90s by Indigenous queer activists to distance ourselves from the LGBTQ+ movement, which largely erased our Indigenous reality and our identity. And this word helped to do that: the Two-Spirit phrase helps to distinguish what it means to be Indigenous and queer in some sense.
For me, it’s a spiritual connection that being queer doesn’t fully encompass within the system. Particularly because it comes in the birth of this rejection of the binary. In Indigenous society, we have to imagine what it looked like before the imposition of this binary, before the imposition of good and bad, man and woman, down and up—these very difficult and often mutually exclusive binaries.
I think a better word is how I would identify and look at my understanding of Two-Spirit is the Cree word for it. Every nation has their own identifiers and even different amounts of genders, you know, and tastawiyiniwak (in-between people) is a Cree word that I just love.
Because not only is it our own word for who I am in our own society, I hope it also empowers other Indigenous people to look at their own identity and their own queerness as something really beautiful and special and sacred. And in fact, it’s a gift that they must share. Two-Spirit people are healers, who bring people together. Others are people who are diplomats who can bring healing to this world, in a time when it’s needed most. And that’s why I love the word tastawiyiniwak, meaning “people in-between,” because it helps me to show others that there was a value here. It can truly heal many many many wounds from a diverse range of communities, because of the unique gift of being an in-between person.
So much of the reaction I’ve seen from elsewhere in Canada to you getting elected in Alberta of all places has been surprise. I’m non-binary and I grew up just outside of Red Deer, so I know that there’s a very thriving queer and trans community in Alberta, but I think a lot of folks—especially in urban centres— doubt that. What’s your reaction to how your win’s been received?
The sad part is so many Indigenous queer and Two-Spirit people in Alberta exist, and we’ve contributed—and we continue to contribute—so greatly to our country and to the social movement to ensure we have a truly welcoming and diverse and safe place.
And Alberta is not lacking in that. If anything, we have more of it because of the opposition we face. You have to be in some ways harder, and in some ways even harsher, to those who oppose who we are. But it also makes us stronger. And that’s why I know that it’s not a surprise to me that the people of Edmonton Greisbach elected a Two-Spirit person. One of my constituents is Marni Panas, for example—one of the best trans people that Alberta Health Services has in their senior management, and a good friend of mine. We have these warriors like James Makokis, who was the first Two-Spirit person to be on The Amazing Race, and he’s a Two-Spirit doctor who came from Alberta.
We’re a beautiful province of many talents, skills, strengths, and many of those strains come from Two-Spirit and queer folks. This is only the beginning for us; there are many more glass ceilings we’re going to break, and I’m just so excited to be a part of it, and to be a part of the community that does so much for me.
My election wouldn’t be possible without generations of queer Albertans. This would not have been possible without that labour. It comes from decades and decades of work by so many awesome queer and Two-Spirit people across our province, and I’m just really honoured to be one piece of the beautiful mosaic that is this beadwork of unity among queer in Two-Spirit folks who’ve made our province better.
I definitely noticed how involved vocal NDP MLA—or should I say “ML-Gay”—Janis Irwin has been in your campaign.
I have only great things to say about Janis. She helped me so much—not only just facing the terrible people in the streets who would say mean things, but also because I’m Indigenous I’m not used to, you know, the “Westminster” federal service-of-the-crown stuff. She was really good at showing me that there’s no perfect image of what an MP should be, nor should there be. I am the MP that looks this way, and is this way, because that’s what the people elected the MP for Edmonton Griesbach to look like, and that’s okay. That’s actually beautiful. So I thank her for those messages.
Do you have any messages you want to pass on to others, especially young queer or Two-Spirit people who are looking to get into federal government or even just become more visible and put their voices forward?
We need you so bad. Our society has never needed young queer folks more than it does now. We’re living in a society of great division, great fear and a loss of hope. And if we know anything about the queer community, it’s that we know that we know how to party and how to bring hope, love and compassion to the table. That compassion and love for human dignity and love for human diversity is needed so badly in Canada and across the world right now. And I encourage all of them to know that in the Two-Spirit tradition we believe that we are sacred beings. And we have these skills gifted to us by the Creator, and I encourage all to use them.
You are your ancestors’ wildest dreams come true. And we need you.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.