MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq On Burnout & Taking On Canada’s Broken Promises

Photo Courtesy: Aaron Watson.
No one tells you how to prep to be a member of Parliament, you just get kind of thrown into the fire. But for me, a 25-year-old rookie from the central Nunavut community of Baker Lake, I was thrown into the fire at the national and international level. I was doing interviews with Greenland and Germany and the U.S. I was sitting right behind NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh. I was at the forefront of a lot of tough situations. It wasn’t like I couldn’t handle them, but I felt like I’ve aged 10 years in the last year. Then I went on a housing tour of Nunavut in August.
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I’d wanted to do this tour since I was elected in 2019 to bring to light the real-life experiences of people around the territory. Most Canadians have seen the reports — suicide rates 10 times the national average, the highest homicide rates in the country, the water security and housing crises — but have no idea what that actually means for people on the ground: Inuit forced into devastating situations by the monster of colonization that push us again and again to abuse and death. Of course, none of this was news to me.
Over three exhausting weeks, I visited nine communities in the Kitikmeot and Kivalliq regions, following every COVID safety protocol along the way. How do I explain hearing stories like finding your 11-year-old hanging from the ceiling? What do I tell the woman who came to me with 20 letters from social services telling her to leave her home because her son won’t stop beating her and yet she won’t file charges? How would you speak to a mom whose disabled 13-year-old child was forcibly taken into foster care because her mouldy home was deemed unfit? Throughout the territory, everyone is affected by suicide. My home has never had any form of abuse. I was extremely privileged in that sense. But I grew up around a lot of violence. You see the RCMP in the coroner’s truck across the street and you know what that usually means. That's the amount of turmoil in our communities, the mass amount of injustice and inequality, which has resulted in death. 
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The people who can make change don’t seem to give two bleeps about it. For decades, it’s been broken promise after broken promise, lie after lie, “we're going to fix this” after “we’re going to fix this.” But then, nothing. A bunch of white people in government who could never ever comprehend what it’s like to experience life as a person of colour are making mass decisions for mass minority groups. 
The tour was my breaking point. It all really hit me — all that death, all the funerals, all the graves, all the shouting, all the turmoil, all the abuse, all the violence — at the hands of the federal government.

The tour was my breaking point. It all really hit me — all that death, all the funerals, all the graves, all the shouting, all the turmoil, all the abuse, all the violence — at the hands of the federal government.

I returned to my place in Ottawa for two weeks of isolation before heading back to the territory to finish the tour and I was absolutely riddled with anxiety. I couldn't understand how everyone is okay with letting people live this way. I was losing sleep. I wasn’t eating. I couldn’t figure out how to battle this monster, to break the cycle. I ended up in the emergency room.
I was diagnosed with severe burnout, severe anxiety, and severe depression. My doctor prescribed at least two months off from work and was very insistent that it could be more. Which was hard to hear because I can be stubborn — you know the saying "bite off more than you can chew?" I run after the friggin’ caribou and jump onto its back and try to kill it myself. I always go way, way, way above than what is reasonable to accomplish. When I was elected as an MP, I was psychotic with work. Twelve to 14 hours most days. I worked holidays. I worked weekends. I worked evenings. 
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Fortunately, I do have a counsellor, who I’ve been seeing since I worked in suicide prevention with the government of Nunavut. It was a bit of a back and forth to get the House of Commons to agree to cover a trauma-trained counsellor. Those services might work for 40-year-old white dudes, but not for someone like me. I’m also considering antidepressants. That’s the other part that can be scary and confusing, because there’s so much stigma around mental health and even more so medication.
There’s no way I would have made it this far without the support of my parents — whether it was running for the NDP or what I’ve been going through recently. When I told them about my mental health, it wasn't even a discussion or a question. It was, “How do we help and what do you need?” They’re waiting to get vaccinated to come and see me.
Taking care of your mental health might mean going out skiing every day, mine might look like lying down with a therapist once a week for an hour. My personal thing is balance, and I just ask that people look in the mirror and do the same for themselves, whatever that is. If I’m riled up for an hour during Question Period, I need an hour for myself that’s non-work related. Balance looks different for everyone. I'm not a fan of makeup. I don’t have patience and I don’t like the feeling of it on my face. But I think that self-love is important. So, I sit in front of the mirror and I braid my hair. Because feeling good about yourself: that’s self-care. So is watching Coronation Street and eating sushi on a Friday night.
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The reason I’ve been so public about my mental health is because transparency is the most important thing for my constituents. We have had nothing but the opposite of that. (Also, to take a few months off and not talk about it and rumours will start flying — and Conservatives and Liberals love to play those games.) There’s also still a huge stigma around mental health, especially in the north where the lack of self-determination and not having the right to our language and culture and traditions have contributed to trauma. I think everybody in the territory needs some sort of mental health resource
I also want to show that I am not just saying what I want you to hear to get votes. I hope such transparency sets up people’s expectations for their representation across leadership — if I don’t accomplish anything in office at least I’m setting the bar flippin’ high for the next person. At least I’m showing Inuit that you can say what needs to be said and not to let other people tell you otherwise.
If you are experiencing anxiety and are in need of crisis support, please call Crisis Services Canada at 1-833-456-4566 at any time or text 45645 between 4 p.m. and 12 a.m. ET. Residents of Quebec, please call 1-866-277-3553.
As told to Carli Whitwell. This interview has been condensed from its original transcription.

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