By: Crystal Lewis, 2019-2020 GreenPAC Parliamentary Intern
My journey on Parliament Hill was an extraordinary adventure and opportunity. As an intern who worked in Mumilaaq Qaqqaq’s office and who self-identifies as Indigenous, I am grateful for my experience, my journey and for all the lessons I learned about myself, living away from home and life on Parliament Hill.
As a 26 year-old British Columbian moving out of province for the first time, finding my way through Ottawa was a learning curve. In fact, making our drive from BC was a victory itself, though that is another story… as is the racial profiling I experienced during my first week in Ottawa at a local Walmart, which made me feel truly defeated, invisible and unheard by store staff.
While navigating this new place, I was also still working through grief and loss. A year ago I had lost my mother, my sister and my uncle in a twelve month span. My mom and my sister were two of my biggest inspirations. My mom taught me to break cycles and my sister taught me to be the change. After losing them, I experienced ongoing grief and burn out. I mention all this to say that I was far from perfect going into this internship and often struggled to be my best self. Through it all, I found support from not only the team at GreenPAC but also my MP and her office staff, who I am so grateful I could get to know and work with. Here are some of the things I learned while working for MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq:
1. What life is like on Parliament Hill – In 2019, after my last run for Squamish Nation Chief and Council, I was asked to run in my first federal election by the NDP. Due to my family circumstances, I chose not to go through with it. It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make in my life but I knew I had to take care of myself first. After making my decision to step away, I started to second guess myself… Then came the internship. The internship allowed me to keep working towards my goals and gain further experience. Better yet, I was working with Mumilaaq Qaqqaq, who ran in her first election and made it in with flying colours. Mumilaaq is the same age as me and, honestly, I couldn’t have asked for a better mentor. Working for Mumilaaq gave me insight on what it was like to be an Indigenous MP on Parliament Hill and what it takes to be a good leader, which brings me to my next point.
2. Insights on leadership – To be a good leader, you need to stay true to yourself and stick to what you believe is right. Day after day, I saw Mumilaaq do this: in an environment that can be so critical and easy to lose yourself, she always remained her authentic self. She would wear traditional attire into Parliament and speak openly from her mind and her heart. She never apologized for being who she was and always maintained her boundaries. More importantly, she had the best interest of First Nations in her heart. Therefore, she never held back from speaking her truth or being a voice for the people. Mumilaaq also always encouraged her staff to take care of themselves by making their health a priority. I believe that if you take care of your staff and trust them to do a good job, your team will always come out on top.
3. Conversations that need to be had – I had a range of experiences in the office, but one of my favourites was assisting Mumilaaq (her idea) in creating a project based on building awareness about First Nations, which involved engaging Indigenous people involved in the arts, fashion, sports and more in meaningful discussions. I believe conversations around intergenerational trauma and how it still affects us today, along with so many other challenges that we face and overcome, are important. I believe these conversations need to be had. We need to continue to share these stories and educate people on underlying factors that they might not be aware of. We need to empower one another and create a safe space for people to feel heard. For this reason, this project really aligned with my own values on addressing social justice issues and inspiring people to get through these difficult times.
4. We are all learning – This is perhaps the most valuable insight I took away from my time with my MP. Even though it might seem like we have it all together and know what we are doing, we are constantly learning and growing. During my first week in office, I told Mumilaaq that I was nervous – I was nervous of disappointing her or not doing a good job at this internship. She told me, “I am learning too,” reminding me that this was just as new an experience for her as it was for me. She took me under her wing and, from that moment on, Mumilaaq always had my deepest gratitude and respect. In some ways it reminded me of when I was 19, running in my very first election for Squamish Nation Chief and Council. I had no idea what I was doing! But through it, I found myself a best friend who happened to be my long lost second cousin from Washington State. I wasn’t alone anymore. I had someone right there, who was also my age and running for her first time, learning and growing with me.
So, in short, enjoy the journey because who knows what will happen in two years’ time. The greatest lessons come from the journey, the people you meet and the challenges you face. There is so much to learn outside of textbooks and institutions. Watch as the world unfolds before you and stay true to yourself. Stay true to who you are. Trust the process because you will always find your answers along the way. During the hardest times, we find our miracles and discover that rock bottom can be our foundation to grow.
Thank you for making my experience memorable and for always supporting me, Mumilaaq and GreenPAC! And to Mumilaaq, thank you for being an amazing mentor and leader and for all that you do – it was an honour working with you.