Ottawa: the next generation
When Mumilaaq Qaqqaq was sworn in as Nunavut’s newest Member of Parliament in November, she did it in seal skin and intricately beaded earrings created by Nunavut artists—albeit in NDP orange.
“I like wearing my party’s colours, although orange isn’t necessarily my favourite colour,” she jokes over the phone from Ottawa, just days after the ceremony. The earrings were created by Alethea Arnaquq-Baril and her white top, trimmed with orange ribbons and a seal skin collar, was made by Emily Joansie (otherwise known as Arnannuk, the name she designs under).
A parade in Qaqqaq’s home community of Baker Lake celebrated her win over Liberal opponent Megan Pizzo-Lyall and Conservative Leona Aglukkaq with 41 per cent of the vote. A newcomer to politics, she takes over for Hunter Tootoo. Since then, she’s been big news: take your pick as to why. Whether it’s her age—at 26 she’s one of the youngest MPs Canada has ever seen—her politics or who she is, with her traditionally inspired face tattoos and statements of bringing a strong northern voice to the House of Commons, she’s one of the most talked about MPs across the country.
“I am different, I embrace that. My office is going to look different for a number of reasons and that’s fine!” she says. “Let’s start normalizing other things that we see on the Hill. Everyone’s walking around in suits and a lot of the people on the Hill are white men, and I’m not. We need to embrace diversity throughout the country, and we need to create inclusion in all different kinds of way across Canada.”
A year ago Qaqqaq was living in Iqaluit, working as a wellness program specialist with the Quality of Life Secretariat. Today, she’s one of the most recognizable faces on Parliament Hill. “I went to the mall yesterday and left after I was stopped three different times to take pictures,” she says. “I am already recognizable. Sometimes it’s not always because I’m an MP, sometimes it is the face tattoos.”
Since she won her election, her tattoos, as well as her age have become routine questions as she’s been introduced to southern journalists, many of whom are reporting on Nunavut for the first time.
“I just make them uncomfortable with how they phrase questions and what kind of questions they’re asking. Especially when it comes to age, it’s like, well, are you asking all white males over the age of 30 how it feels to be a 30-something-year-old walking into the House of Commons? I doubt it. Are you asking them about what they’re wearing? I doubt it,” she says. “It implies that it must be more intimidating because of my gender.”
She’s steering conversations towards bigger topics—like housing, food insecurity, lack of clean water, and other issues important to Nunavummiut. She describes what she plans for the next few years as a starting point before delving into deeper discussions like creating mental health services that make sense for her territory, and increasing child care, health services, and post-secondary opportunities for Northerners. “All the kinds of things you would think we would be talking about anywhere in Canada, and unfortunately I’m talking about basic human rights in the territory,” Qaqqaq says.
But she doesn’t plan to do it by blending in. “It’s really important for us to see who we are as individuals reflected in things like leadership positions, in teaching, in the arts, to be able to promote the idea that we can do whatever we set our minds to,” Qaqqaq says.
When she was sworn in, Qaqqaq invited students from Nunavut Sivuniksavut to the ceremony. But almost more importantly, her parents were by her side. “My parents have moved mountains for me and my brother our entire lives, and now it’s time for me to try and do the same thing for other people.”
Since her election, in articles in social media posts, in memes she’s been held up as an inspiration for other youth, especially Indigenous young people. Qaqqaq sees herself as part of a change in politics, as more and more young people get involved.
“I see it as good that people see me as an inspiration, that’s not necessarily how I see myself. I’m an individual trying to help other individuals. My whole thing is you can do anything you set your mind to, and screw what anyone else says or thinks about that.”