Alexis Wawanoloath is a political pioneer. At the tender age of 24, Wawanoloath is one of the youngest members to be elected in the March 26 provincial election… and he is the first Aboriginal to win office as a member of the Parti Québécois.
Wawanoloath’s election represents a change in the Abitibi-Est riding that has been under Liberal rule for the past four years. He took the riding with 8,262 votes to 7,545 for the Liberal incumbent Pierre Corbeil. He was helped out by the ADQ candidate, Gilles Gagnon, who drew 5,060 votes, many of them away from Corbeil.
Wawanoloath had an early interest in politics thanks to his father’s influence. He was a self-proclaimed federalist early on, but later changed course and eventually became a sovereigntist at age 15.
He worked his way up the political ranks by serving on numerous boards, eventually becoming the Youth Representative with the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador. He had to resign his post as Vice President of the Native Friendship Centre in Val d’Or after he was elected in the Abitibi-Est riding for the Parti Québécois in last month’s provincial election.
His story and his lineage are a mirror of Quebec society. His mother comes from the Abenaki community of Odanak, while his father is a Québécois from Val d’Or. And that enables him to see two sides of the proverbial coin.
“I think and understand both sides and I think I can be a good bridge for both sides too,” he surmised.
And he couldn’t be any happier.
“In the past the PQ have done quite a lot for First Nations through negotiations and agreements like the Paix des Braves,” he told the Nation. “They recognize First Nations and the specific needs. Maybe it’s not perfect, but the PQ’s results are better than other parties,” he said.
One of the ways for Aboriginals to become self-sufficient and to grow, according to Wawanoloath, is to walk side-by-side with a separate Quebec.
“Sovereignty is a good idea because Quebec, as well as all First Nations, want to be autonomous and successful,” he said. “All the money is in Ottawa and all the expenses are with the province. It’s something disturbing for me to always ask for money from the federal government.”
He also has a background working with youth. He studied early childhood education that focused on Aboriginal kids at the Abitibi Temiscamingue Cegep. His age is also seen as a plus in getting the youth to believe in him.
Once the election was over, the self-assured and newlyminted politician took a breath.
“I feel very honoured. A lot of whites I met were proud to be in the first riding to elect a Native person. And a lot of Native people told me that my election gave them hope. It showed that we are in a place where it’s possible to live together.”
His platform outlined the social and economic change needed to boost his riding and the sagging economies of towns that used to rely heavily on mining. His openness to the youth and to everyone in the riding, separatist or not, is what he believes helped him get in.
“I want to give the people a voice, where they can talk and express their opinions,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a Liberal or PQ or if you voted for the Green Party, I want to hear from everyone. I invite everyone to speak, because I represent everyone.”
He also used to work as a social worker at two schools that had large First Nation populations. His mandate was to combat stereotypes and to educate his students about the diversity that makes up the demographics in Quebec. He stressed that he would like to continue working with the schools to help prevent students from forming racist stereotypes about Aboriginals at an early age. But he does not only want to limit his speeches to youth.
“I want to teach my colleagues about Native peoples. I would also like to introduce a program where people learn about how we lived in the past and the different things we’ve been through to get here today. I want the people to understand the Aboriginal position and I think that will help to eliminate a lot of the ignorance and racism.”
Building the economy through knowledge is something Wawanoloath firmly believes is the key to a better society.
“Education is a big issue for everyone. Each society that is successful economically always puts a lot of faith in the children. First Nations issues will get bigger in the future because of the fast growth of the population, so it will be a bigger challenge.”
The old saying of the right place and the right time held true politically for Wawanoloath as well.
“In December 2005 I was involved in the Abitibi Temiscamingue Youth Forum. I talked to the MP at the time for the Bloc Québécois, Yvon Levesque, and the director of the last federal campaign. They met me and learned more about my aspirations as a sovereigntist,” he said.
“From there, I got on the executive committee for the federal Abitibi-Bay James-Nunavik-Eeyou riding and that’s when I met Alain Lapointe, who was the president of the Parti-Quebecois executive committee. I got to thinking that running for office was something I could seriously think about doing. I started to think of what I could bring to thetable as an Aboriginal,” he continued.
“Alain Lapointe invited me to the general assembly of the Parti Québécois in Abitibi. I mentioned to him that I would be interested in running in the next election. He turned to me and said that he would leave his position as president so I could take his place. That’s when I became the president of the executive committee in Abitibi and I decided to run in the election after a year at that position.”
He gave the credit for his election win to those around him. “One of the main reasons I won is I had a great team,” said Wawanoloath, who had his father by his side during the campaign, promoting his son and his ideals to voters in the area and taking care of financial aspects.
His father had such an influence in getting him interested in politics that also rubbed off on his younger brother, who is currently studying political science at the local university.
Wawanoloath’s mother also influenced her boys in a big way. So much so that her eldest son fancies himself a feminist.
“It’s important for everyone to have the same rights, no matter what your colour or gender. A lot has been done for women, but we have to do more for them to gain equality.”
He also said that he is a social democrat. “I was poor and I know what it means to be poor and I know what it means to go hungry and you have nothing to eat. I know what it feels like when you can’t pay your rent or other bills. Because I lived that, I understand how important it is for everyone to be equal.”
His battle with his dual identities led him to believe in the sovereigntist ideals.
“When I was younger I was caught between my French side and my Native side. I was a federalist because I thought when you’re Native, you must be federalist. When I was 15 I started to think that it was strange to be a federalist and I wanted to strive for better things for Aboriginals. The fight is the same for Quebec and for the many Aboriginal nations in the province. The fight for independence and control over our economies is the same fight for each nation.”
He thinks the key to a victory if the PQ comes to power again, is educating Aboriginals about the realities of a separate Quebec.
“I think before the next referendum we have to make it clear to First Nations what they will gain. The problem in the last referendum is lack of information to Aboriginals We have to explain what everyone has to gain. It’s important to show how a sovereign Quebec will accommodate everyone.”
Although he was unsure of what would happen if First Nations communities wished to remain in Canada even ifthey knew more about breaking up the country, Wawanoloath had an example.
“Iceland decided to be independent and Newfoundland decided to be part of Canada through three referendums. Iceland protects its resources, but Newfoundland’s main economy of fishing is not protected as well under Canada.”“Iceland, through its independence, has now become the biggest producer of bananas in Europe and has a thriving economy.”
His vision does not only include separatism, however. He is devising a plan that would see community consultations held each month. He’s hoping that by having open forums regularly he will get a feeling for some of the topics that are important to Abitibi residents, Native and non-native alike.
Although the word separatist has many connotations, Wawanoloath cautioned against people who label him as a traitor.
“We will always have a good association with Canada,” he said. “We have a common history. I’m not a sovereigntist because I don’t like Canadians. I’m a sovereigntist because I think it’s what will be better for Quebec citizens. I think it will be important to have a good relationship and a good association with Canadians. It’s a logical thing. We’ll always be commercial partners.”