A Vancouver lawyer who worked on the National Inquiry on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls is hoping to bring more Métis representation to Parliament Hill, despite experiencing vitriol on the campaign trail.
Breen Ouellette and his team have been subjected to violent threats while campaigning, adding to the risk already involved in campaigning in a state of emergency. Ouellette said he has been verbally attacked with threats of violence by anti-maskers and COVID-19 deniers. On two occasions, Ouellette said the heated arguments resulted in physical intimidation by protestors.
Ouellette said one anti-masker told him he hopes he dies from COVID-19. He said the vitriol his team has experienced would be “incredibly shocking and demotivating” to new volunteers working with campaigns.
Ouellette has volunteered with the NDP since 2004, when he was inspired by the party’s candidate in his riding, who was a Cree woman. Seeing the NDP welcome an Indigenous woman with open arms demonstrated to Ouellette “that’s the party I’ve got to get behind.”
Ouellette went canvassing for his candidate and placed the largest sign possible on his front lawn. On election night, someone poured gasoline over the sign and set it ablaze. Rather than feel frightened or intimidated, Ouellette said the experience reaffirmed his choice to support the NDP.
Now Ouellette is on the campaign trail himself, vying for a seat in Parliament representing Vancouver Centre. He ran under the NDP banner in 2019, falling short to the veteran Liberal challenger Hedy Fry. A lot has changed since the 2019 election, and Ouellette hopes voters are also ready for a change.
He said he doesn’t feel safe campaigning during a fourth wave, though he’s quick to add a pandemic election wasn’t his choice.
During his time on the National Inquiry, Ouellette conducted over 60 hours of public and in-camera testimonies of witnesses.
“What I’ve learned from the National Inquiry is that Canada has been industrializing the oppression of Indigenous Peoples,” Ouellette said. “Nowhere is more obvious than when you review the child welfare system.”
“The way that provinces are financially motivated to take Indigenous children into foster care is frightening,” Ouellette said, adding “it’s indicative of the overall system of apartheid.”
Canada’s ongoing practice of racially segregating Indigenous peoples is what’s motivating Ouellette to become an MP. He hopes to hold Canada accountable by repealing Section 91(24) of the 1867 Constitution Act, which states that “the federal government has exclusive authority over “Indians and Lands reserved for the Indians.”
“The modern interpretation of Indians means that it applies to me as a Métis person, it applies to Indians — as they’re still known under the racist Indian Act — and it applies to Inuit,” Ouellette said.
“That means that Canada’s highest law, our constitution, treats Indians as a pseudo property,” he added. “And that should be absolutely abhorrent to any fair minded Canadian that believes in human rights for all.”
Ouellette pointed to the abstention of 65 Liberal MPs from a motion to investigate and end punitive litigation tactics against Indigenous children in court, and against residential school survivors in court. That vote took place in June after the discovery of unmarked mass graves in Kamloops.
“They chose to sit silent on such an important issue of human rights and equality injustice in Canada,” Ouellette said. “To me, that omission, that failure to vote, also constitutes an act of apartheid in Canada, because they have the power to change it and they’re choosing to do nothing.”
One constituent asked Ouellette how the federal government would address non-disclosure agreements forced upon victims of sexualized violence, something he saw first hand in the National inquiry.
While MLAs in Eastern Canada have sought legislation at the provincial level, Ouellette believes the federal government should ban non-disclosure agreements for survivors of sexual assault. He said those types of agreements “stymie the criminal law,” making it harder for survivors to get true justice and closure.
Ouellette encourages voters to review the hours of testimony from the National Inquiry, calling the footage “an incredible gift…that has gone largely ignored by Canadians.”
“Maybe it’s because it’s too difficult for them to confront. But I would hope that people would review that video,” Ouellette said. “They’ll learn a little bit about me, but they’ll learn a lot about what’s been happening in Canada, in their names, that I think would outrage many people in this country.”
Stephen Wentzell is rabble.ca‘s national politics reporter, a cat-dad to Benson, and a Real Housewives fanatic. Based in Halifax, he writes solutions-based, people-centred stories.
Image: Breen Ouellette/Facebook
Editor’s note, Sept. 1, 2021: A previous version of this story stated Ouellette had conducted over 60 hours of in-camera testimonies of witnesses during his time working on the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. In fact, he conducted over 60 hours of public and in-camera testimonies. The story has been updated.