During the final season of the popular television program, North of 60, one of the young actors on the show died by suicide. It had a profound effect on the cast and crew, including Tina Keeper.
When the series wrapped, Keeper wanted to try and work on the issue and create effective suicide prevention programming.
At the time, she says the federal government was interested in paying for research projects that recommended programming for suicide prevention. But, she says, Ottawa wasn’t interested in following through on providing money for the programs. Something Keeper says continues to this day.
Back then, work was also beginning on Jordan’s Principle, named after Jordan River Anderson, who died at the age of five. Anderson was from Norway House Cree Nation, the same First Nation as Keeper.
Keeper decided to run for the federal Liberal party in the riding of Churchill and was elected to the House of Commons in 2006.
“You really think changes are going to happen like things are not going to get worse. From the time I was a young person, I thought things are going to get better and then they didn’t, and everything has become harder, I think,” says Keeper.
“I think what I didn’t know, and I don’t think Canada knew it either about this fallout from residential schools, the fallout from the ‘60s Scoop, the fallout from all of these colonial practices that have been devastating for our country.
“And so now, when you look at politics, whether it’s federal or provincial, you see so many Indigenous people running. There’s a lot Canada has to reconcile and right now we’re in a difficult time.”
Only a handful of Indigenous people had ever been elected to the House of Commons, at that time.
Keeper says there was a “patronizing energy” in Ottawa.
“That is part of being public, being part of an arena, the House of Commons, you’re with people that, because they’ve won an election, they’re led to believe that they’re very special and maybe feel that they can say whatever to anybody,” says Keeper in part two of her interview on Face to Face.
“But I always turned it around on people. Or if people were downright racist, I would just say go away, walk away. I would literally tell people how to behave.”
In recent years, Indigenous women in politics have been speaking out about the racism, sexism, and overall toxicity of public service.
By the time she entered politics, Keeper says she had the tools available to her to deal with some of that toxicity because she had already been in the public eye for 15 years.
“I did have the ability to just tell people, don’t pat me, don’t touch me. I’m not going to address your questions about my culture because I would never come and ask you about your culture. And then people would say, ‘I’m not being aggressive’ well I think you are but I’m just going to stop this conversation,” says Keeper.
During her two years as a member of Parliament, Keeper introduced a private member’s bill on Jordan’s Principle to address First Nations children’s healthcare in Canada and another on the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
In the 2008 federal election, Keeper lost to the NDP’s Niki Ashton, who has held the riding, ever since.
Keeper, who is extremely busy with projects in development along with acting and producing, says she isn’t ruling out another stab at politics.
“I would love to re-enter politics again, in some level. I’m not sure where, how, when, yet. I did really enjoy serving. I really did. I really loved the opportunity you have to hear the issues from the people and meet with them.
“You feel really blessed with their trust and I really enjoyed that part of the work,” says Keeper.