Meet Blake Desjarlais, the Métis NDP candidate who just ended a Conservative stronghold in Edmonton Griesbach

Rookie MP-elect Blake Desjarlais reflects on the campaign, his upbringing on the Fishing Lake Métis Settlement and how the prejudice he faced as a teenager is driving his desire for a more just society.

NDP candidate bested Conservative incumbent by 1,468 votes

Blake Desjarlais says he will be the first two-spirit MP in the House of Commons. The NDP candidate unseated Conservative incumbent Kerry Diotte in Edmonton Griesbach in Monday's vote. (Nathan Gross/CBC)

Blake Desjarlais had already won Monday night but the victory wasn't real for him right away. 

The 27-year-old NDP candidate had unseated Conservative Kerry Diotte in the riding of Edmonton Griesbach, the first time someone who wasn't Conservative had won the riding. 

But on Wednesday, after all mail-in and special ballots were counted, it became official. 

After reserving comment until the official results were in, Desjarlais sat down for back-to-back, one-on-one media interviews on Thursday in his campaign office on 118th Avenue in Edmonton. 

"I just kept thinking in the back of my head, 'We're so close,'" Desjarlais said of the hours of waiting, where he thought about the people he met during weeks of door-knocking. 

"And throughout that time, I had an opportunity to reflect and think, 'How did they vote after that?'… It was a unique kind of torture, but we survived it and we're here and I'm excited."

Desjarlais is Métis, fluent in Cree and will be the first two-spirit member of parliament.

Prejudice sparked interest in social justice issues

His birth mother, Brenda, was a victim of the Sixties Scoop, a time the Canadian government took Indigenous children away from their parents and placed them in the homes of white families. Brenda ended up in multiple foster homes, Desjarlais said. 

As an adult, Brenda struggled with substance use. Desjarlais said she supported herself by working as a sex worker on the 118th Avenue strip, where his campaign office is located today. 

Brenda became pregnant so she reached out to her sister Grace for help, an act Desjarlais described as "very hard and courageous." 

Grace travelled to Edmonton by bus and was there when Desjarlais was born at the University of Alberta Hospital. She adopted him after winning a legal battle with the child welfare system. She brought Desjarlais back to Fishing Lake Métis Settlement, about 278 kilometres northeast of Edmonton. 

"Something rare happened, something that most Indigenous children [don't] ever have the opportunity, which is to survive and to go back home, to have their language, to have onto them their inheritance, the cultural one, spiritual one," Desjarlais said. 

Desjarlais returned to Edmonton at 16 to attend high school, where he says he faced prejudice and saw the structural biases within the education system. 

WATCH | Meet Canada's first two-spirit MP:

Canada's first two-spirit MP

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Edmonton Griesbach MP-elect Blake Desjarlais speaks about his background and upbringing and how it led to his interest in social justice. 1:07

"Death threats, teachers telling you you have the history wrong, people telling you your language is dead, that you're a conquered people," he said. 

"It hurts. And it's what sparked my interest for social justice, sparked my interest for seeing people where they're at the most vulnerable, trying to make sure that we have dialogue between often difference of opinion." 

After receiving a Bachelor of Arts in Social Science, Political Science and Government from the University of Victoria, Desjarlais worked as a project co-ordinator in the institution's office of Indigenous Affairs. His current position is director of public affairs and national operations with the Métis Settlements General Council. 

Ground game

The federal riding of Edmonton Griesbach is a puzzle the federal NDP has tried to solve. The riding has the counterintuitive voting patterns of many Edmonton electoral districts. Voters choose NDP MLAs for the provincial legislature, but steadfastly elect Conservative members of Parliament. 

Janis Irwin, now the MLA for Edmonton-Highlands-Norwood, finished second to Diotte in 2015 by 2,800 votes. Mark Cherrington, the 2019 nominee, fell about 12,000 votes short.  

Irwin, now a campaign veteran, helped Desjarlais with the door-to-door canvassing for the 2021 effort. 

Desjarlais was joined on the campaign trail by Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley (second from left) and Edmonton-Highlands-Norwood MLA Janis Irwin (second from right). (Blake Desjarlais/Instagram)

Desjarlais said the ground game is what put his campaign over the top. They focused on the areas north of Yellowhead Trail, which includes neighbourhoods like Calder, Rosslyn and Delwood that are home to many new Canadians. 

"We knocked on thousands of doors. We made tens of thousands of phone calls," he said. "We met with hundreds and hundreds of organizations."

Desjarlais is excited to join Edmonton Strathcona's Heather MacPherson as one of the NDP's two Alberta MPs. 

He feels both a sense of pride and humility that Edmonton Griesbach voters chose him to represent them in Ottawa. 

"It feels like a tremendous honour and gift that I will never take for granted," he said. "And I hope folks can trust that. "