Emotional Tom Mulcair says he is 'locked in' to First Nations promises

Amid all the heavy scripting of the campaign, today brought a rare moment of realism, as NDP Leader Tom Mulcair's handlers were forced to cede control of the moment and let what would happen, happen.

NDP pledges $4.8 billion over 8 years for aboriginal education

Tom Mulcair outlines NDP commitment to First Nations, Inuit and Métis

7 years ago
Duration 3:31
NDP leader Tom Mulcair outlines NDP commitment to First Nations, Inuit and Métis

The practice of politics, at its root, is about connecting with people — sharing ideas and understanding how others think about an issue, and having one's own ideas understood in the same way.

Tom Mulcair appeared to have that kind of moment Wednesday in Edmonton, where he spoke to an election forum organized by the Assembly of First Nations.

The NDP leader gave a speech in which he unveiled his platform for indigenous communities in Canada. It went well, but it was really just a speech.

The moment of connection happened after Mulcair opened the floor to questions from the crowd and began to hear directly from the people his policies would affect.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair chats with Cree elder Cecil Nepoose at an Assembly of First Nations meeting on Wednesday in Edmonton. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Amid all the heavy scripting of the campaign, it was a rare moment of realism. Mulcair's handlers were forced to cede control of the moment and let what would happen, happen.

It was in this question and answer session, extended once, and then twice, wreaking havoc on his campaign schedule, that Mulcair made his connection.

His voice caught in his throat, his eyes misted, and "Angry Tom" as he's been called, was nowhere to be seen. This was Emotional Tom, who felt moved by the experience of being smudged and prayed over by Cree elders in the moments before his speech.

It was here, in this moment, that Mulcair said he was "locked in" to the people in that room, and committed to fulfilling his promises.

John Shirt, a Cree man, had just taken up position behind one of three microphones. He spoke first in Cree, and then in English, concluding with a caution: "The old people warned us. Don't ever trust the white man."

Shirt invited Mulcair to win his vote by coming to pray and learn his people's traditions.

Mulcair might have sensed there was a connection available here — an opportunity to be understood as a fellow human.

"It is a humbling experience listening to you speak today about the successive failures and the betrayals and why you were told correctly not to trust people like me," he said.

"Before I came in here today, I had a prayer ceremony with a lot of your elders, and smudging. And that for me," Mulcair said, pausing as if to regain control of his cracking voice, "locks me in to you." 

He paused again, and his eyes appeared to mist. "We're going to get it done."

"Thank you," he added, with his voice cracking.

'Nation to nation' relationship

Mulcair was happy to talk about the moment later, beaming widely and joking he'd long been accused of not showing enough emotion. He spoke about a sunrise ceremony he attended on Victoria Island, in the middle of the Ottawa River, getting up before dawn, to attend with local First Nations members "simply because I wanted to show respect."

The NDP leader brought up the name of his wife, Catherine Pinhas, who he said had accompanied him on a tour across the country in 2013 when he heard from many First Nations members.

"Boy do you listen, and do you learn," he said. "I come at this with the deep conviction that we can repair that relationship with our First Peoples, and it starts by recognizing that it has to be nation to nation."

"This is about the three Rs: respect. reconciliation and recognition, and that is what has to change. And I guess you could add a fourth R, which is relationship," he added.

"The relationship itself is broken."


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Account Holder

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?