Senator breaks tradition, opens local office in Membertou

Well-wishers spilled out onto the sidewalk on Friday as Canadian senator Dan Christmas opened an office in Membertou, N.S.

Canada's first Mi'kmaw senator, Dan Christmas, is making the upper chamber more accessible

Sen. Dan Christmas is proud of the sign outside his new office on Churchill Drive in Membertou, N.S. It's in the Mi'kmaw language, but there's no mistaking what it says. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

The sign over an office in a strip mall in Membertou, N.S., is written in Mi'kmaw, but there's no doubt it belongs to a Canadian senator.

Dan Christmas, the first Mi'kmaw member of Canada's upper chamber, officially opened an office on the Membertou First Nation this week.

The former senior adviser and long-time band councillor was named to the senate as an independent member representing Nova Scotia just over 18 months ago.

Being a lifelong leader in Indigenous rights and development gives Christmas an interesting perspective now that he's a member of the Canadian government, he said.

In a lot of ways I just feel like an ambassador of the Mi'kmaw nation in Ottawa.- Sen. Dan Christmas

"Even governments that are from different places, they always send ambassadors to other countries and other governments, and in a lot of ways I just feel like an ambassador of the Mi'kmaw nation in Ottawa," Christmas said.

"So yes, I am a part of the government of Canada in Ottawa, but at the same time I'm still Mi'kmaw and I still live in a Mi'kmaw community, and my whole career has been about Indigenous peoples and Indigenous rights, so I feel like a knowledgeable voice now on Parliament Hill that can speak about issues.

A busy opening

"Not only Mi'kmaw issues, but hopefully about issues of Cape Breton as well."

Christmas's senate office on Churchill Drive was packed with well-wishers on Friday, some of whom spilled out onto the sidewalk.

Unlike federal members of parliament, Canadian senators typically don't have constituency offices.

The senate meets for up to 28 weeks a year in Ottawa, said Christmas, so he used part of his senate budget to open the local office and hire a full-time assistant to be available to the public year-round.

"When people from Cape Breton are up in Ottawa, they will make it a point to call me, and I'll get a chance to meet with them in Ottawa, but ... obviously they don't have to go to Ottawa to see me," Christmas said.

"They can come here to Membertou to see me, as well, so that's one of the ideas behind the office."

Christmas for mayor?

In a recent survey by a Cape Breton social development agency, Christmas was included in a group of five names being polled as possible mayoral candidates for the regional municipality.

Christmas said he wasn't surprised by the poll, but he intends to be a senator until the mandatory retirement age of 75.

"I really like this platform of leadership, and I have no intentions of either running in First Nation or municipal politics," he said. "I'm committed to being a senator for the next 13 years and I'm looking forward to it."

Sen. Dan Christmas enjoys a few laughs with Membertou Chief Terry Paul at the official opening of Christmas's new office. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

Membertou Chief Terry Paul said everyone loves the senator, and it's an honour to have a Canadian senate office on reserve.

"This is an amazing day, and I know Danny still has his heart here in Membertou, that's for sure," Paul said. "But his heart is for all the people in the country here."

About the Author

Tom Ayers

Reporter/Editor

Tom Ayers has been a reporter and editor for 32 years. He has spent the last 14 years covering Cape Breton and Nova Scotia stories. You can reach him at tom.ayers@cbc.ca.