A conversation with MLA Carole James

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On June 6th, British Columbians elected a record number of Indigenous MLAs into the B.C. legislature: Melanie Mark (NDP, who was notably the first Indigenous woman to serve in the B.C. legislature), Carole James (NDP), Ellis Ross (Liberal), and Adam Olsen (Green).

I had the opportunity to speak with James, the twelve-year MLA for Victoria-Beacon Hill, about why this victory was so important.

This interview has been edited for length.

The Martlet: How would you personally explain the significance of having Indigenous representation in the B.C. legislature? 

Carole James: I think it’s not a choice — it’s critical . . . I believe the strongest representation is representation from your community. And we have not had significant Aboriginal representation in the B.C. legislature, so I think if you’re going to govern on behalf of the people of British Columbia, your government should reflect the people of British Columbia — and it hasn’t in the legislature’s history. So I think it’s critical, and I’m really pleased to see the representation in the legislature. A long way to go, but we’re making small steps.

Did you have any political role models, specifically Indigenous role models, growing up? 

I didn’t. My situation was unique in some respects because I grew up without my dad — my birth father . . . [who] is Metis — so I didn’t learn about my heritage until I had left high school and was doing a little bit of exploration. But I think similarly, I had very strong, activist parents – my stepfather and my mom were activists in the community . . . So I lived in a very diverse household that modeled what I believe in, which is that we need diversity in the legislature. We need the range of voices — not always the traditional voices, but in fact, all voices, to be represented.

And I had very strong women role models . . . so I saw what a difference role models could make. For Indigenous people to see First Nations represented in the legislature, to see them represented in all parts of our province, is critical, because that’s often for young people, the modelling of what they see is what they reflect as their options and possibilities in life. And so that’s why I’m such a believer in making sure that we have those role models there.

Given Canada’s nature as a settler state, how do you think we can get more Indigenous youth engaged with provincial or federal politics in the future? 

I often go and speak about leadership and I always say, ‘there are so many places to provide leadership.’ We need Indigenous people as candidates, we need them as campaign managers, we need them as leaders in their community organizations and in their nations. And I think part of encouraging people is having those role models. And I know someone like Melanie Mark has made such a difference in our legislature. You know, I have people say that to me, to see Melanie there, a proud Nisga’a woman, makes such a difference to get people to see that reflected, to know that’s a possibility. So I think we all need to encourage that discussion in school . . . and I’m hopeful that you’ll see through the Truth and Reconciliation recommendations more Indigenous history taught in our schools, so that people understand and have a better understanding of the history and the strength of Indigenous people. I think that it’s important to give young people the opportunity to see what’s there and what’s possible for them. So I think that will make a difference, as well, but I think it’s also the mentoring, the support. And as I said, that doesn’t mean simply people getting into politics. It means getting involved in every aspect of our community and every aspect of leadership — and that really does take all of us and encouragement by all of us.

In terms of gender parity in politics, the end goal is usually 50 per cent women and 50 per cent men. Is there an ideal number of Indigenous MLAs you would like to see? 

I don’t see it as a numbers game — I think it’s critical to certainly have more Indigenous people in the legislature than we have. You know, we are still at very small numbers, and when you look at all of the issues that are facing us and our province, the biggest issues facing everyone — Indigenous and non-Indigenous — are the Indigenous issues . . . The issues of land, the issues of resources. And so I believe we certainly need more Indigenous MLAs in the legislature, but I think the other piece we need to look at is how we build that government-to-government relationship.

So regardless of who’s in the legislature and who’s government, there needs to be a better way of working with Indigenous communities. And although we may not have as many Indigenous MLAs in the legislature, if all MLAs saw Indigenous issues as their issues as well, and built the government-to-government relationships with First Nations, then you build an understanding. And we don’t have that right now.

So I think it’s two-fold. It’s getting people to the legislature, but I think it’s also recognizing that it’s not just Indigenous people who should be paying attention to Indigenous issues (laughs). It’s not only their responsibility. It’s all of our responsibility to take on the issues of Indigenous communities and nations in our province, and we all have a responsibility to do that.

I always get worried [when] I hear out in the community people saying, ‘you need an Indigenous person to deal with Indigenous issues.’ And I think that just takes away the responsibility from all of us. We all have a responsibility.

Can you comment on the results of the election more generally?

We are in a unique time in British Columbia . . . And I think it’ll play out over the next couple of weeks, but it’s a huge opportunity that we see in this province . . . to be able to show that people can work across party lines in the legislature on behalf of the public . . . and reflect the issues that they want us to work on. So I think it’s an incredibly amazing opportunity, an exciting time . . . And you know, it could set the stage for electoral reform, for better relationships with Indigenous people and the broader community, and that’s certainly my hope. That’s certainly my goal.

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