Political foes meet for budget estimates, end up sharing stories about their mothers

NDP MLA Nahanni Fontaine and Premier Brian Pallister doffed their political coats and shared intimate details of their lives and families at a budget Estimates committee meeting.

Premier's mother, grandmother made him a feminist; Fontaine's mother died of heroin overdose

The NDP's Nahanni Fontaine, far left, and Premier Brian Pallister, far right, met Friday to discuss budget estimates and ended up talking about their families. (Sean Kavanagh/CBC)

An extraordinary thing happened today at a budget committee meeting at the Manitoba Legislature during what is normally a very dry procedure.

St. Johns NDP MLA Nahanni Fontaine and Premier Brian Pallister doffed the political coats they normally wear and shared half an hour of  intimate details of their lives and families.

The some-times gut-wrenching specifics from both of them took the discourse above the natural posture of political adversaries and humanized the pair, and the meeting, in a most surprising way.

Fontaine was there to grill the premier on a mandate letter to the minister responsible for the status of women, but struck a personal tone almost right from the start.

"This is almost one-on-one," Fontaine told Pallister. "It's an intimate opportunity." 

And Pallister agreed. "It is a real opportunity," he said, "to put our ideas together as opposed to partisan politics."

Fontaine leaned across the wide meeting table and told him she was fascinated with people's stories and set the mood by asking Pallister if he might share how his parents met?

And the premier blinked, smiled and "I ask that very question of people I just met."

Pallister related stories of his mother and grandmother, growing up in rural Manitoba and the hardships they faced raising their families, struggling to get an education, and to make ends meet.

"I was raised by two women who would never have called themselves feminists, but they were," Pallister told Fontaine.

The premier's voice broke as he related how his mother helped look after her own brothers and sisters at a very young age, eventually got to Winnipeg and worked as a nanny to put herself through Kelvin High School. 

She would become a teacher and taught at a number or rural schools across the province.

Pallister's memories eventually took him to the answer to Fontaine's question.

'It could have been called harassment'

His father spied his mother walking on the street in Portage la Prairie while he drove through town from the Pallister family farm, some 24 kilometers away.

"Dad drove by in a truck. And then drove by again. And again," Pallister told Fontaine. "In other times it could have been called harassment," he quipped.

The couple would see each other that night at a local dance.

Pallister told Fontaine an anecdote about when he was starting out in the insurance business and sold his mother a policy. It was only then he discovered his mother was three years older than his father.

"We never knew. She never told anyone," Pallister said.

Nahanni Fontaine responded by saying "Meegwetch (thank you in Ojibway) for sharing" and then began offering some extraordinarily honest and vivid details of her own family background.

Mother was 'beautiful, fragile, like a child' 

Fontaine spoke of her great-grandmother, who gave birth to 18 children; her grandmother, who was pulled out of residential school in Grade 3 and was sexually abused as a girl. And her own mother, who was raped at 12 and ran away at 13.

"Men would stop and stare at her. She was so fragile. Like a child," Fontaine said

The heavy furniture of the meeting room, portraits of notable Manitoba politicians and aides buzzing in and out did little to intimidate Fontaine as she continued her story.

Her mother, she told Pallister, was sexually exploited, "all across Canada," ending up on the west coast, addicted to heroin.

The drugs would kill her mother, Fontaine said. She died of an overdose on the floor of a bathroom in a train station in Vancouver.

"My mother is only one story of thousands of Indigenous women and girls," she said, her tone rising to the cause she's championed for years.

This is the thing I'd like to see more of in our provincial legislature.- Premier Brian Pallister

Fontaine's own story wove into the narrative she described to Pallister. She told him of how her mother met her father when she was 16 and had her at 17.

"My childhood was one of abuse," Fontaine told the premier, "physical, mental and sexual ... I saw intimately the abuse Indigenous women have suffered."

Fontaine concluded her story by broadening the theme of her own past with that of the plight of so many others.

"Thousands have not survived it...not only not survived it but had savage last moments," she told Pallister.

Fontaine told Pallister she has tried to be "that voice for women that do not have a voice. " She told him, "you and I have to better understand each other."

"Thank you. That's helped," Pallister said.

He told his political adversary he looked forward to getting to know her and said, "the more we know each other the better job we can do." 

"This," Pallister said, "is the thing I'd like to see more of in our provincial legislature."

Exchange a 'beautiful moment'

CBC News spoke to both politicians after the meeting.

Fontaine said it is always important to share her story, to help empower other victims to come forward and to help them get over the difficulties they face in telling their own past.

She said for both herself and for Pallister, sharing personal stories was important. She called it a "beautiful moment that he shared a piece of himself."

"Just because his childhood wasn't the same as mine doesn't mean his experiences are any less. What I gained from today and what I really appreciated was how much he loves his mom and how his love for his mom is important to his sense of himself as a son, as a husband, and as a man," Fontaine said.

Pallister, for his part, acknowledged the trauma and heartache that Fontaine had experienced.

"We shared the experiences of living without much materially. My family has experienced loss, but not [to] the degree of violence that Nahanni shared in her family's background. It's shocking and I'll reflect on it on the weekend and on an ongoing basis," Pallister said.

Pallister said even though his mother and grandmother wouldn't have called themselves feminists, said by being raised by them has likely made him a feminist.

Fontaine said she hopes the conversation they had today prompts the premier to say, "We are missing some stuff here," when it comes to women.