The physically largest electoral district represented by a single legislator on the face of the planet is Nunavut, a vast region of northern Canada that stretches across three time zones and extends from islands in Hudson Bay all the way to an Arctic community (Alert, population: 62) that is ranked as the world’s northernmost permanently inhabited place. The Nunavut electoral district covers more square miles than Germany, France, and Italy combined, and it is three times the size of Texas—a state that sends 36 members to the US House of Representatives.
Nunavut’s population is small. But because Canadian political and election reforms have guaranteed the overwhelmingly indigenous population of the territory the authority to elect a member of the country’s House of Commons, the far north has the opportunity to send a mighty signal to Canada and the world at a time when climate change and the rise in advocacy on behalf of long-neglected and disenfranchised peoples are turning attention to Arctic regions.
Last Tuesday, Nunavut seized that opportunity when it elected Mumilaaq Qaqqaq, a 25-year-old Inuk woman who promises to challenge a government that has “left us on the back burner too long.” The success of this candidate from Canada’s social democratic New Democratic Party, who promises a fight to “dismantle systemic racism from the top down and bottom up,” is surely a victory for “not me, us” movement politics. “This isn’t about me,” Qaqqaq says. “This is about everybody in my territory.”
But it also says something about the determination of a new generation of first-time contenders to speak in bolder, deeper language about issues that have for too long been neglected.
Qaqqaq first drew national attention in Canada, and beyond its borders, two years ago when she participated in a Daughters of the Vote program that brought young women to the Canadian House of Commons. Speaking of the high rate of suicide in the far north, she demanded to know, “Where is the support from leaders with power and ability to make change? Where are our nonindigenous allies?” Challenging the “many stereotypes we live with,” she told the CBC, “Canada as a whole is put on this glorious platform about how we’re such a great country and so diverse and so inclusive, but when you look at indigenous peoples and their communities and their histories and culture, how much do other people really know?”
This frustration made Qaqqaq an activist but it did not incline her toward electoral politics until a few weeks ago, when she accepted the NDP nomination to run against candidates with significantly more electoral history—including Conservative Party candidate Leona Aglukkaq, a former cabinet minister. Mounting a campaign with volunteers and using social media to appeal for funds to pay for airfare between distant towns, the first-time candidate captured the imagination of the region with posters that highlighted her traditionally inspired facial tattoos. Campaign videos featured images of handmade signs and music from Twin Flames, a Canadian band that incorporates First Nations and Inuit music into its songs.
—Mumilaaq (@MumilaaqQaqqaq) October 19, 2019
On election day, Qaqqaq beat her closest rival by 10 percent of the vote, making her the first NDP candidate to take the seat since Nunavut was established as a distinct territory in 1999. Now she heads to Ottawa as a parliamentarian on a mission to address the climate crisis, food insecurity, access to housing, inadequate services, and the infrastructure needs of a region. Qaqqaq campaigned on a promise to work for “federal laws that are in harmony with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” arguing that “these kinds of things include the right to self-determination, the right to maintain and strengthen our distinct political, legal, economic, social and cultural institutions. Imagine if these kinds of things were put into law how powerful that could be for us in Nunavut and for our people.”
Indigenous peoples in many countries, including the United States, have similar hopes and demands. But, while Tuesday’s Canadian elections saw at least 10 indigenous candidates elected to the House of Commons, the much more populous United States has only four Native Americans serving in Congress. And the first two Native American women in the US House—Democrats Deb Haaland of New Mexico and Sharice Davids of Kansas—were elected just last year.
In the 1990s, after decades of struggle, the old Northwest Territory was divided to allow for the creation of Nunavut as a distinct Canadian territory and the fifth-largest country subdivision in the world. The map was drawn wisely, joining indigenous communities that were separated by land and water but that shared values and needs. Their total population was small, but the establishment of Nunavut, with a population that is roughly 85 percent Inuit, created new opportunities for self-government in the territory and representation at the national level.
Qaqqaq’s win raises a question for US politics: Is it possible to restructure political subdivisions in the United States, or perhaps its politics in a way that might increase Native American representation at the federal level? That debate began in Washington and across the country this year, with the decision by the Cherokee Nation to name its first delegate to the US Congress. The 1835 Treaty of New Echota granted the Cherokee people congressional representation, stating that the Cherokee Nation is “entitled” to name a delegate “whenever Congress shall make provision for the same.” But it does not spell out how that will work.
In September 2019, the Cherokee Nation selected a representative, Kim Teehee, to serve as its congressional delegate. The naming of a delegate, as Roll Call notes, “placed Teehee at the center of a historic reckoning of the way Congress treats Native Americans, while raising questions about what representation in Washington really means.”
The questions raised by Teehee’s appointment give Native Americans and democracy advocates of every background an opportunity to talk about how to extend and expand representation of indigenous peoples, and of all peoples. That conversation can consider Canada’s approach and the approaches of other countries. It can explore fundamental questions of election reform and even constitutional reform, of broken treaties and unrealized promises, of sovereignty and self-determination. It does not need to be driven by narrow assumptions. Rather, it should explore the prospect of a politics that is open enough, possible enough, to make real the hope of genuine representation. Let’s reflect on the question of what structural changes would be necessary to make it possible for vast stretches of these United States to elect a 25-year-old indigenous activist who is prepared to speak immense truth to immense power. And, yes, let’s recognize the genius of Mumilaaq Qaqqaq’s declaration that “having me in the House Of Commons means that things will not be left unsaid or undone. It’s time to stop making excuses.”