A woman of spirit and conviction

Here in Yellowknife, you know you’re worlds away from the pretentious formality of Ottawa’s House of Commons when the Honourable Ethel Blondin-Andrew starts showing you how to call muskrat. “My dad taught me,” says the member of parliament for the Western Arctic and minister of state for northern development. “If you see a muskrat in the lake and you want it to come, you’ve got to go –” here she puckers her lips and makes a truly remarkable series of rapid, high-pitched squeaks “– and it comes to you.” She wipes a thumb across her mouth. “It’s better when I’m not wearing lipstick.”

You can take the girl out of the North, but you can’t take the North out of the girl. Nor would she want you to. As the first aboriginal woman elected to Parliament in 1988, Blondin-Andrew, 54, has roots in the Northwest Territories that go deep. So deep, that for 17 years now, she’s been making the 10,000-kilometre round trip between Ottawa and Yellowknife almost every weekend to reconnect with family, friends, her constituency and her culture. Never a Friday afternoon goes by that she doesn’t get excited at the prospect of the trip back to the North. “When I land in Yellowknife,” she says, “it’sike homecoming.”

Like the territory itself, Blondin-Andrew is open, expansive and unpretentious. Louise Boettger, her constituency assistant in the Yellowknife office, says, “In Ottawa, everybody bows and scrapes, and it’s ‘Minister this’ and ‘MP that.’ But around here, she’s just Ethel.” Her eldest son, Troy, says, “Whenever I’m with my mother and we’re going to the movies or out for dinner, I always try to get her to leave half an hour ahead of time because on the way she’ll meet at least 20 people she knows. She’s become accustomed to life in Ottawa but she’s most at home back in the North.”

If aboriginals identify themselves with the land, then Blondin-Andrew is the Northwest Territories. Her success has been painfully hard-won against almost insurmountable obstacles — a journey which exactly mirrors that of the land she loves. Northwest Territories, despite its own checkered past, is currently Canada’s “It” location with two large diamond mines attracting bright young geologists and engineers from more than 100 countries. A future Mackenzie Valley Pipeline will bring even more jobs and wealth. Yellowknife’s median family income has soared to $111,000 — almost twice the national average. Every driveway, it seems, sports the toys of the wealthy: a luxury car, a big boat or a shiny Harley. A smallish bungalow in Yellowknife can set you back $400,000; a simple lunch of fresh pickerel (just caught in Great Slave Lake right outside the restaurant’s door) served on a rough wooden table will run you more than $30.

But then there’s the flip side of the territory — the sheer isolation of the other 32 communities, 22 of which are fly-in only. Most have populations that number only in the hundreds, making higher education and steady employment elusive goals. High dropout rates, teen pregnancies, alcohol abuse and domestic violence are all too common. Then there are the health problems that especially target aboriginal populations – diabetes and tuberculosis.

And Blondin-Andrew knows all about it because she’s lived it all first-hand. In fact, there’s scarcely a problem of the North that she hasn’t experienced herself. Alcohol? She’s a child of alcoholics. Education? She ran away from residential school and by age 11 wasn’t going to school at all. Teen pregnancy? She first got pregnant at 17, and she has three children by three different fathers. Spousal abuse? She had her second husband charged with assault; after his jail sentence, they are still together. Health problems? She’s had life-threatening tuberculosis and spinal meningitis, she’s currently coping with diabetes and arthritis, and she’s a breast cancer survivor.

Against all odds, Blondin-Andrew has achieved professional and personal success. A Liberal, she has won five elections. Despite her constituency’s distance from Ottawa, she’s among the top 20 MPs for attendance and she hasn’t missed a single vote this year. Her marriage is strong, and her children are thriving: Troy, 36, is an IT consultant in Australia; Tanya, 34, is a geomatic engineering technologist in Alberta; Tim, 32, is an economist who recently finished a job in Belgium.

Blondin-Andrew is rightly proud of her children’s high achievements. But she says, “I was telling them just the other day, ‘I know you guys think you’re very cosmopolitan. But you’re only one generation out of the bush.'”

Next page: raised in a bush camp

Ethel Blondin-Andrew was raised in the tiny bush camp of Fort Norman, now called Tulita (“where the waters meet”) at the junction of the Great Bear and Mackenzie rivers. Her ancestors were Mountain Dene Indians. Blondin-Andrew, born in 1951 to a teenage girl who was unprepared to raise a child, was adopted by her mother’s older sister. In effect, Ethel’s aunt and uncle became her parents, but the whole family stayed close. “All my life, I’ve had two mothers,” she says. Her adoptive father, a lifelong Liberal, was an avid reader and gifted fiddler.

Most of the adults, including her parents, were drinkers, and the children were raised with a great deal of freedom but, somehow, the hard work of hunting, trapping and foraging always got done. Blondin-Andrew’s childhood friend, Sarah Cleary, who now works as a constituency assistant, says, “We didn’t have any modern conveniences. We had to get our own wood for heat. We had to haul water from the lake to make tea. That’s how we learned determination. That’s how you become a survivor.”

At age eight, Blondin-Andrew was sent to Grollier Hall, a now-infamous residential school in Inuvik, 400 kilometres from her family. “It was totally restrictive and sometimes quite cruel,” she recalls. “There were two older nuns looking after 65 little girls. They used to put us out on a skating rink at 1 o’clock on a Saturday and they wouldn’t let us in till 4, even if it was 30 or 40 below. We would skate until our feet were just totally frozen solid.”

If the children spoke too loudly in the hallway, they were deprived of their one privilege — a movie on Sunday night. The day Blondin-Andrew lost her movie privileges was the day she ran away, escaping to a cousin’s home in the Inuvik neighbourhood of Tent Town. She had a wonderful time, enjoying duck soup and bannock, until the school ordered her brother to track her down and bring her back.

When Blondin-Andrew had been at the school three years, she told the nuns that she wanted to visit her adoptive mother, who was in the Inuvik hospital. It was frigidly cold, and someone had taken Blondin-Andrew’s mittens, but the nuns told her to go barehanded. In her uniform of jumper and tights topped by a little red jacket, she set out, her hands in her sleeves. By the time she arrived at the hospital, her fingers were red, raw and frozen to the bone. “My mother cried when she saw me. Dad said, ‘If that’s the way they’re going to look after our children, we can raise them better on the land.'”

Reunited, the family lived in a bush camp below Norman Wells, an oil town. They later moved to the community of Fort Franklin, now called Deline, on Great Bear Lake. At the time, it was one of the coldest settlements in the world with no central heating or electricity. While the men hunted moose, caribou and beaver, Blondin-Andrew helped her mother set snares, hang meat to dry, pick berries and forage for firewood. It was a good life — until 12-year-old Blondin-Andrew developed a lump on her back and began to suffer from blackouts. Three of her vertebrae started to protrude and became infected, and she was having trouble walking. Today, such an ill child would be immediately evacuated by helicopter. But then, with no vehicles, no snowmobiles and no phones, the community had to wait all winter until the doctor’s next scheduled fly-in visit. By the time he arrived, the infection had travelled to her brain stem.

Eventually taken to an Edmonton hospital, Blondin-Andrew was diagnosed with tuberculosis and a severe meningococcal infection. A surgeon from England flew over to do a new spine-rebuilding procedure: he removed the three protruding vertebrae, then took out two ribs and some bone meal from her hip to reconstruct her spine. She was in hospital for 14 months, most of it in isolation. It sounds like a nightmarish existence, but Blondin-Andrew actually enjoyed being pampered with regular meals and a warm bed. She completed her grade seven by correspondence. Amazingly, her back healed well enough to allow her not only to walk again but to run and play soccer. But when she returned to Deline as a teenager, she found it extremely difficult after the relative comfort and security of the hospital to go back to a subsistence life on the land. She got a reprieve when she, along with her friend Sarah Cleary, were chosen to attend a leadership program at Grandin College in Fort Smith, N.W.T.

At age 17, Blondin-Andrew was working at a summer camp, which she enjoyed. “I really enjoyed it. Let’s put it that way,” she says wryly. “I got pregnant.” As was common in the 1960s, the father disappeared from the picture, and she was sent to a home for unwed mothers — Martha House in Regina. While awaiting her due date, she took high-school correspondence courses and babysat for children whose father was the doctor for the Saskatchewan Roughriders. “I learned how non-aboriginal people live — very high-style,” she says. Becoming friends with the family, she was struck by the socio-economic difference that formal education could make.

After giving birth to Troy, Blondin-Andrew took her baby boy back to her family in Deline. “I was dirt-poor,” she says, “but I was not going to give my baby away. I was adopted, and I wasn’t going to adopt out my baby.” At the same time, she wanted to continue her education by going back to Grandin College. “My mother said, ‘I’ll look after your baby if you trust me.’ I was worried because my parents drank. But I knew I needed an education to be able to afford to look after my son. So I said okay, and she looked after him for 14 months. She did a wonderful job. She gave me a new lease on life.”

The following year, Blondin-Andrew began a teacher education program. “By that time, I was pregnant again,” she says. “It wasn’t planned. My mom took my second baby and looked after her.” The next year, she met her first husband, married him and, with both children in tow, moved to Edmonton to continue her education — and got pregnant again. “That damn kid was born right before my exams!” she says, laughing. “He’s never done anything I’ve ever told him.” Although she hadn’t finished university, she had earned a teacher’s certificate. So now, at 23 with two toddlers and a baby, she moved with her husband to Tuktoyaktuk to teach elementary school. For three summers, she returned to the University of Alberta to finish a bachelor of education.

Then her marriage broke up. And after other stormy relationships, she found herself a single mother. But as one of the first accredited aboriginal teachers in the North, she was highly employable. Fluent in the Dene language of North Slavey (and able to understand South Slavey), she became a language specialist for the territory’s department of education. After working as a college instructor, she entered public service, eventually becoming assistant deputy minister of culture in the territory’s department of culture and communications. But instead of simply implementing policy, she kept criticizing it until her boss said, “If you want to pronounce on policy, be a politician.”

She did. She won her first election in 1988 and headed to Ottawa, where she proved herself a fast learner. Understanding the importance of raising awareness of aboriginal issues, she gave her maiden House of Commons speech in the Dene language, supplying her own interpreter.

In the 17 years since then, Blondin-Andrew has made her mark in a number of areas. She has served as secretary of state for training and youth, minister of state for children and youth and is now minister of state for northern development. Among her proudest accomplishments are several land claim settlements, national training programs to increase aboriginal employment, tobacco cessation programs and raising awareness of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. Since alcohol has been such a destructive force in her own family and among aboriginals in general, she chose to stop drinking soon after entering politics. “It’s hard work, you know,” she admits. “I like my red wine.”

When she married her second husband, Leon Andrew, he had a drinking problem and promised he’d get treatment. He didn’t. He was abusing not only alcohol, he was also abusing her. In 1993, she took the bold step of having him charged with assault. It was a controversial move that caused some to call her a victim, others a role model. She rejects both labels. “I did it because I wanted to save our marriage. I wanted my husband to get treatment. I felt there was a much better person there than I was seeing. To not do so would be to live a lie and maybe allow things to really get out of hand. What if he unintentionally hurt me? Or killed me?” Amazingly, following his conviction, six-month sentence and treatment, the couple resumed living together. She says, “He’s awesome. He’s solid. He’s the person he should be because he’s not using alcohol.”

For his part, Andrew, 58, who has known his wife since they were kids in Tulita, is grateful that she forced him to face charges. “It got me thinking – this was alcohol-related, and I should leave alcohol alone. The thing that mattered to me was that we got along. I love her.” When they’re apart – which is most of every week – they speak on the phone almost daily. “We go through a lot of calling cards,” he says.

Controversy struck again in 1996 when Blondin-Andrew was accused of using a government credit card to rent a car on holidays and put a down payment on a fur coat. Now, she says, “I didn’t know how the accounting system worked. Everywhere you go, people ask you for a credit card number. I gave them the only credit card number I had.” She had no personal credit card? “I had been in a very disastrous relationship where I ended up with, like, $60,000 of debt. And I rebuilt myself from zero. The government didn’t pay for anything, I paid for everything, every stinkin’ penny.” Her carefully saved receipts proved her right, and she was cleared of any wrongdoing.

Three years ago, she was at the centre of trouble again. The mother of a teenage girl who was allegedly sexually assaulted by then Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s son, Michel, claimed that Blondin-Andrew tried to pressure the family out of pressing charges and offered to pay for a native healing circle. “She’s wrong,” says Blondin-Andrew. “I am appalled by that actually.” She does admit that her boss asked her to offer some “help,” but she says, “I’m obligated as an MP to help everybody.” Although charges went ahead, Michel Chrétien was later acquitted.

Five years ago, Blondin-Andrew was diagnosed with breast cancer. Following the surgery, she was thrilled to learn she didn’t require chemotherapy – “‘Cause I’m really vain, right? I didn’t want to lose my hair” – but she had 16 aggressive radiation treatments over three weeks. From her purse, she pulls out a faded schedule of radiation appointments. “I always carry it, just to remind myself that I have to be careful.”

A few months later, when she began to feel unusually tired, she was worried the cancer had returned. She was wrong; she had developed Type 2 diabetes, which affects the aboriginal population at three times the national average. Looking at the diagnosis as an opportunity to change her unhealthy habits, she cut out trans fats, upped her fibre intake, battled her lifelong candy addiction and started exercising. She usually works out five times a week, using an elliptical trainer, a treadmill, a bike and weights for strength-training. In fact, her personal assistant, Martin Tremblay, is also her personal trainer and makes sure she schedules time in her 15-hour days for her workouts. So far, she has managed to control her diabetes without needing to take insulin.

“I’m healthier than most people who haven’t had any health challenges,” she says, adding that she draws her strength from her native spirituality. “I’m Catholic, but my spirituality is not religious necessarily. It’s from the Creator and the spirit of my people. One is institutional and the other is universal.”

Despite her health problems, Blondin-Andrew says that her 50s are her best years so far. “I feel that once you turn 50 you’re entitled to your opinion. When I say something, I’m more sure about it than when I was in my 40s or 30s. And if I’m wrong, I’m willing to live with the consequences.”

Even after five electoral wins, Blondin-Andrew knows that victory in the next election is far from assured. She squeaked through the 2004 election by a mere 53 ballots. Maybe it was the Liberals’ controversial gun control legislation, hardly popular in a region where hunting is a way of life. Or maybe it was simply voter fatigue, where people tire of seeing the same face.

Regardless, Blondin-Andrew is determined to win a sixth election. And if she’s defeated? It won’t be a defeat, she says, but an opportunity to go in a new, uncharted direction. “Everybody falls sometimes,” she says. “But only champions get up.”