Jaime Battiste made history Monday when he became the first Mi’kmaq politician to represent Nova Scotia in the House of Commons.
The 40-year-old legal expert and Indigenous activist, elected as a Liberal in Cape Breton, seems poised to make a name for himself in federal politics – even though his campaign was briefly sidetracked earlier this month by some ugly social media posts from his past.
Battiste, who is well known in Nova Scotia for his work on improving education for Mi’kmaq youth, said he hopes his electoral breakthrough will serve as an example for Indigenous youth.
“When I was growing up on a reserve, there was a greater chance that I would have died a violent death or committed suicide than get a nomination to run for a federal party,” he said in an interview Monday from Sydney.
“To actually win – the obstacles that you have to overcome, the barriers, the challenges of growing up on a First Nation community – you have to overcome all of these barriers … I hope that youth now look around our community and say that if one of us can do this, then we can do it as well.”
Battiste was born in Sydney and grew up on Cape Breton’s Chapel Island 5 reserve, now known as the Potlotek First Nation. He graduated from Dalhousie University’s law school in 2004 and has served as chairman of the Assembly of First Nations Youth Council and a regional chief with the Assembly of First Nations.
His parents, Marie Battiste and James (Sakej) Henderson, are both professors at the University of Saskatchewan: Battiste specializes in Aboriginal learning, decolonization, violence prevention and historical studies of Indigenous education; Henderson is an international human rights lawyer and one of the drafters of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Battiste is also known for his work with the Mi’kmaq education authority, which has helped boost the graduation rate among Mi’kmaq high school students from 30 per cent 20 years ago to 90 per cent in 2016-2017 – the highest on-reserve graduation rate in the country.
“Mi’kmaq have made great strides in education,” said Battiste, who now lives on the Eskasoni First Nation. “I was very proud of the work that we did on treaty education.”
Battiste said he is now working on a national treaty education plan, which was part of the federal Liberal platform.
“More Canadians need to be aware of Indigenous history and Indigenous knowledge,” he said.
Despite his impressive resume, Battiste’s bid for public office was almost derailed when the Toronto Sun published a series of racist, sexist and homophobic tweets the newspaper attributed to him.
The posts, all about seven or eight years old, included a reference to Battiste’s desire to find a woman to take care of his “cleaning, folding, cooking.”
Another tweet mocked the broken English of Chinese waiters in a scene from the film “A Christmas Story.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau described the posts as unacceptable and Battiste issued an apology about his “crude jokes.”
When asked about the tweets on Tuesday, Battiste drew a deep breath and described how the backlash caused him deep emotional pain.
“When I was 18 years old, I got hit by a truck from behind while walking on the road,” he said. “That was the second-most painful hit I took in my life. To have these … tweets that I made in the past surfacing now, and painting me in a picture of who I am today – it was very difficult.”
He said he hoped voters would understand he is not the same person he was back then.
“Every day, you wake up with that thought in your head: ‘Why did I say those things?’ There’s no excusing them. I apologized for saying them. And I told people this is not who I am today … I believe I’ve grown a lot since those days.”
When he issued his initial apology, Battiste said the tweets were made during a difficult time in his life, but he declined to elaborate on Monday.
“I don’t really want to go into that detail,” he said. “We all suffer from depression and heartbreaks from relationships.”
Sydney-Victoria was considered a safe Liberal riding for years, but that was before the incumbent, veteran politician Mark Eyking, decided to step down from public life earlier this year. Eyking had held the riding for almost 20 years.
On election night, Battiste fought a see-saw battle with Eddie Orrell, a well-known former provincial Tory. Victory for Battiste, in the form of a 1,000-vote margin, came more than three hours after the polls closed.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 22, 2019.