Politics was not Edmonton city councillor, Aaron Paquette’s first passion. Growing up poor, he used to empty the clothes from the dresser drawers to have something to draw on because his family didn’t have the money for paper.
Art was a way for Paquette to express himself. It made him feel safe and secure. Decades later, he would become one of the premiere Indigenous artists in Canada with his work on display around the world.
Art also had a prominent role in the Idle No More movement and some of that work was Paquette’s.
“I think it was a really wonderful and profound moment in history and it really galvanized a lot of folks and what happened there has informed everything that still goes on today,” says Paquette on the latest episode of Face to Face. “I think it also showed a way of protest that you don’t see a lot in the world and that protest was that we don’t have to harm each other to make our point. We can bring people in and that was the whole goal of it.
“And I think we successfully managed to do that in really remarkable ways and I think instill a lot of pride in youth to see the folks that they see on the news, look like them and the message they delivered was one you could always be proud of no matter what for generations to come.”
Transitioning from the grassroots movement to running for federal politics was not easy, says Paquette, who is Cree and Métis.
While his 2015 run for the federal NDP was unsuccessful, his bid for Edmonton city councillor two years later was. Since 2017, Paquette has represented Ward Dene in the Alberta capital.
“I think it’s safer to say that politics always had an interest in me. Just as politics has an interest in all Indigenous people, from the moment we’re born, they can decide who we can be. The Indian Act is one of the only race-based legislations on the planet and so I think Indigenous people, whether they like it or not are already thrust into politics from the moment they take their first breath,” says Paquette.
Paquette believes helping the people struggling the most means everyone will be better off. However, the treatment of some of Edmonton’s most vulnerable citizens has been criticized in recent weeks.
The Edmonton police service recently cleared out more than a half dozen homeless encampments during a period of extreme cold. According to the mayor of Edmonton, Amarjeet Sohi, the number of people living on the streets in the capital city has doubled since the pandemic.
“When Covid hit, obviously people lost jobs, there were a lot of different financial challenges that people had, some people fell deeper into addictions because they couldn’t get the support in real time that they needed and so we saw this explosion of numbers,” says Paquette. “What we do know is 55 to 60 per cent of those folks are Indigenous and then we also have 40,000 homes in Edmonton that are on the verge of crisis.
“If they have a bad month, a lot of those folks will find themselves homeless and one in three of those homes are also Indigenous.”
Just days after the final encampment was cleared, the City of Edmonton declared a housing and homeless emergency. The province of Alberta also announced $13 million for a new support centre that Paquette believes has been a big help. The ideal situation says Paquette is there is no need for encampments but the reality is they will likely continue to pop up.
The city is looking at Indigenous-led encampments.
“If there have to be encampments, what does that look like? One thing that we’re working on in the city of Edmonton is, can we work with Indigenous communities so that it’s Indigenous-led and the city and province support it with garbage pick, with help, with warmth and food and all of these things in order for people to be able to survive and not just survive but also thrive and get them into healthier pathways.
“Have Elders on site and have appropriate ceremony and cultural aspects to it,” says Paquette.