Canada has ‘two official’ languages, but neither one is one of the original languages of this land. As an Indigenous parliamentarian who speaks Cree, the author believed it was important to be able to make substantive statements in parliament in this language. This language informed the principle of his worldview and the worldview of some of his constituents. In 2017, the existing standing orders and policies of the House of Commons prevented his address in Cree from being translated to his fellow MPs. Despite receiving advice to use one of Canada’s two official languages, the author decided to continue with his speech as planned. Subsequently, he raised a prima facie case that his rights as a parliamentarian had been violated and worked with the Regulations Committee (PROC) to change the standing orders. In this article, he explains his thoughts about this issue and reveals how he came to a decision to challenge the status quo in an effort to be true to himself and his people.
Robert-Falcon Ouellette, MP
When the great mystery breathed life into
creation, man and all animals were created.
When this occurred, there was treaty between
all living things – that they would live in a manner
which recognized their mutual sacrifice and benefits. To
make these treaties they communicated in a common
language and were reciprocally understood; the otter
could speak with the birds, the moose with fish and
man with all animals. To speak and to be understood is
central to treaty. It is central to the ideals of relationship.
After 153 years, the Canadian House of Commons
now allows for the translation of the original languages
of Canada. The ability to speak a language and be
understood is central to the ideals of democracy. If
we speak and no one is able to understand us then
we are effectively silenced and have no influence over
the manner in which others impact us or the ability to
influence others. There is no relationship.
Nemacomacuntik Tansai Nemeyatanye atawapamtikok.
These words have power. These words tell a story
and make a statement of values. It is a statement of
worldview. A worldview is the principles of a people; it
allows us to make sense of the world around us. We create
a community of traditions and customs from myths,
legends, stories, family, community and examples set
by communal leaders. A worldview allows a people
who self-identify to create a system of logic; it allows
objects to fit within a paradigm, generates behaviour
and helps a people to interpret their experiences. I start
almost all my speeches in parliament and in front of
large crowds with this simple phrase.
Robert-Falcon Ouellette before his speech on
January 28, 2019.
When I was first elected in 2015 I had a number of
objectives; a vision of what I would do as an MP. I
wanted to make a difference, to improve the lives of
my fellow citizens of Winnipeg, to have influence. I
also knew that I did not want to be catalogued as ‘just
that Indigenous guy’ or ‘just that Indigenous MP.’ I
thought long and hard about where and how I could
best have influence. I asked and was placed on the
finance committee. I wanted to advocate for all my
fellow citizens in Parliament, to be their voice. Not all
the citizens in Winnipeg Centre are Indigenous. We
have Filipino people, Muslims, environmentalists,
Mennonites, the homeless, poor people, the middle
class, activists and, yes, also Indigenous peoples.
This is my baggage. It was also the path to using my
language, the Cree language in Parliament. In 2017 there
was violence in a number of Indigenous communities
against Indigenous girls, and young women. I felt that
since I was a leader I needed to take a stand against
this violence and address the violence in a manner
that would be noticed. The only problem was that we
often hear from the political class that society should
stop violence, and among Indigenous peoples, stop the
lateral violence among our peoples. Elders, teachers,
politicians, and activists will frequently say ‘No to the
violence’, yet the violence continues.
I felt the way to reach young people would be to do
a speech in Cree, talk about the violence and our need
to be kind to each other, and renew our treaty within
our communities. I prepared my text, including an
English version. I called the Whips office and arranged
a moment to give the speech during Member’s
Statements before Question Period.
I was surprised to learn that even though I had
given the parliamentary interpretation services ample
warning and provided an English version of my text
there would be no interpretation services offered. The
standing orders and existing policies did not permit
the use of another language in the House of Commons.
I would be required to give my speech in English or
in French; I would need to use one of Canada’s two
‘official’ languages. The staff from the Whip’s office
contacted me and asked that I use English or French;
my staff asked that I use English or French. I feel I was
asked to use English and French because people were
afraid of what the reaction might be. I was told that the
Speaker would not allow me to finish my speech, as
it was against the rules. I was told that the opposition
would use this incident to play games in Parliament to
upset the government. I was told to speak white.
On the night of May 3, 2017, I lay awake in my
apartment thinking about what I should do. I
thought about the possible consequences of going
against the wishes of the Whip’s office. I had already
been punished with curtailed speaking rights in the
House and no travel with parliamentary committees
in the previous year for trying to represent my
citizens. By the morning, I prayed, smudged,
conducted a pipe ceremony and I thought about the
words of an Elder named George who said to me
when I was running for office that ‘My words are
my honour and my words are the people.’
On May 4, 2017 I started giving my speech in
Cree, I said:
anohcihkî nîswâw âcimowina kipêhtênaw
ita oskâya-iyiniw-iskwêwak ê-nipahihck
âhpô ê-kî-sôhki-wîsakatahohcik. êkosi
kî-itahkamikan mêkwâc ayisiyiniwak
ê-kanawâpahkêcik mîna ê-masinipihcikêcik.
êkosi tâpitaw kâ-âh-ispayik. kitanâkatawêyihtamahk
kiyânaw ayisiyiniw kâititoyahk.
niya niwîcikâpawîstên ôma
môswa-ayân atoskâtamâkêwin (Moose
Hide Campaign) êkwa ispayin tawihtamahk
ta-kistêyimâyahkik kahkiyaw iskwêwak.
nikâwîsak, nisikosak, nitawêmâwak, nitânis,
mîna nitôtêmak miyosiwak; sôhkitêhêwak,
kistêyimowak, tâpwêyihtâkosiwak, sôhkiatoskêwak.
oyasiwêwin, êkosi namôya
sêmâk kita-kitimahihcik, namôya sêmâk kanisiwanâcihihcik.
Recently in the Prairies, two high profile
violent events occurred where young
indigenous women were killed and severely
hurt. These events occurred while people
stood by and recorded these incidents. The
freedom of the violence calls into question our
own humanity. I am a supporter of the Moose
Hide Campaign and it is time that we raise
indigenous women above our current beliefs.
My aunts, cousins, daughter, and friends
are beautiful. They are courageous, humble,
intelligent, loving, respectful, honest, hardworking.
They deserve additional protection
of our laws so people think twice before they
It was one of the hardest moments in my life. I
would leave the translation and interpretation up
to the creator; I had no control over others, only my
actions. As I gave my speech in Cree I could hear my
fellow MPs laughing. They were expecting a speech in
English or French, so they were naturally wondering
what I was talking about. It was a very serious topic
and it deserved attention. After I spoke, I was asked
by my good colleagues what I had said, as no one had
understood. I questioned later if I had actually spoken;
if the words which left my mouth really mattered. I
was upset because the people of Winnipeg Centre and
Indigenous peoples from across Canada had not sent
me to Ottawa to be silent, but rather to ensure a different
voice was heard and to present a different worldview. I
had been silenced by the institution.
Later as I went about my weekend, my anger grew
towards the injustice. Other Elders had previously
asked me to ensure that our ceremonies would be in the
House of Commons, that our drum would be heard. Yet
my voice had been silenced. I felt that my parliamentary
privileges had been ignored and trampled upon. I
decided this needed to change, but I needed to use the
institution and make a point of privilege. I went to see
the Chief of Staff for the Whip, who then sent me to
the House Leader’s office. They preferred that I would
not make my point of privilege as they were having
difficult negotiations on legislation and they were afraid
it would derail important government legislation.
Every few days I would return and ask when I could
make my point. It should be remembered that points
of privilege must be made as soon as possible, closest
to the moment when a violation occurred. I persisted
and I kept asking and eventually, on June 8, 2017, I was
told I could make my case of prima facie. It was almost
a month later.
The institution of Parliament is formidable. Individual
MPs have very little weight; you must fight to be heard.
It is stressful because of the multiple roadblocks placed
in your path. Even the simple act of smudging in my
office has been a difficult effort; there have been many
back-and-forths between the Chief Fire Warden and
me. It is hard to be an MP and it is particularly hard
to be an Indigenous MP. There are great expectations
placed on your shoulders and you are placed within a
large institution which has its own worldview. It can
consume you. This battle in the House of Commons was
a basic human rights fight. It is harder than you think to
battle every day on a physical and emotional level. Yet,
here I am, and here the House of Commons still stands.
The institution has grown in stature through the effort
of reconciliation of worldviews.
When translation was eventually permitted for the
first time on January 28, 2019, I said in the media:
“This is something I’ve been fighting for now for two
years almost, and to have the opportunity of having
Indigenous languages translated I think is a significant
and very symbolic and important measure [towards]
including Indigenous Canadians; to tell Indigenous
Canadians that they are full citizens.”
The rest is now part of the history of Canada. This case
led to a study by the Regulations (PROC) Committee
and the hard work by colleagues on all sides to change
the standing orders. It was not a battle that I undertook
alone. I would like to thank David Graham, a Jewish
MP from Quebec who never let the committee stop the
important work it was doing and MP Chris Bittle who
pushed our House Leader to ensure that parliamentary
procedure was respected and that the standing orders
were changed. A great thank you to Professor Karen
Drake for the arguments and writings which allowed
the case of prima facie to be made. On a personal note,
this has been a very proud moment in my life, but also
my most difficult. It is extremely stressful, pushing
against large institutions, feeling alone, and being the
point of the arrow.