Porcupine (00:00): Her mother was murdered when Lesa Semmler was eight. Now a politician and an advocate for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, Lesa explains why having a place to go can save a life and is vital for reconciliation.
Porcupine: How do porcupines hug? Very carefully. Such is the story of reconciliation, at least so far. I’m Merrell-Ann Phare. I’m Michael Miltenberger. This is Porcupine.
We want to start this podcast with a special apology to our listeners for the audio quality from Michael’s part of the interview. He was calling in, of course, from the Northwest Territories. And it was a really rough night on the internet that night. And so, we thank you for your patience with this episode.
Porcupine: We’re here today, talking to you with Lesa Semmler, she’s a Member of the Legislative Assembly for Inuvik Twin Lakes in the Northwest Territories. And she’s also a well-known and respected advocate for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. We caught Lesa in the middle of her really busy time when the legislature in the Northwest Territories is in session. So, Lesa, how are you holding up?
Lesa Semmler (01:34): It’s been a long two weeks so far, but I heard that it used to be six weeks straight. So, I’m glad that I’m able to spend some time at home and reconnect with my constituents. And my husband is at home waiting for me.
Tell us about your journey.
Porcupine (01:54): What was in your life leading up to your election when you decided that you wanted to become MLA?
Lesa Semmler (02:02): I think it actually was a bunch of smaller key moments that just kept…the way I explained it in the past is just was a multiple of little things that kind of finally just blew up. And I figured the only way that I can try and help to make some change is to run as an MLA and be able to get into that legislation that will help make some of these changes and be able to provide the voice of somebody who was born and raised in…not lived in Yellowknife. And, you know, has not always had the easiest life to get to where they’re at. I never wanted to be a politician. I don’t really consider myself a politician. I consider myself an advocate for, you know, for my constituents and a voice for them. And somebody who’s going to go out and fight for them.
What made you speak out and take a strong role advocating for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls?
Porcupine (03:06): We wanted to talk to you in particular about your very strong role as an advocate for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. And we know that this is a very personal issue for you and that your mother lost her life when she was murdered when you were eight. And you didn’t talk about those issues for a really long time, I think maybe not at all in your life. And I was wondering what made you decide to speak out?
Lesa Semmler: I didn’t talk about them for a long time because I didn’t ever want to be labeled or to be looked at like I was using my loss to gain, you know. I wanted to make sure that everything that I did, I did from working hard to get to where I’m getting to, where I’m…where I want to be. And then…it just came to the surface when they had a call-out and one of the people from the Indigenous organization had just sent me the link and asked me, you know. They knew that I had lost my mother and they thought I went with the pre inquiry that was going to be in Yellowknife. I think that was January 2016. I attended this. And that’s kind of when I realized that I wasn’t alone. There were so many other stories in that room and not similar…like some were similar to mine and some were, you know, there were different families that were telling their stories about their loss, you know, daughters and sisters and grandmothers and aunts.
And I was just felt like I… the emotion just kind of came over and I thought we’ve been sitting here in silence. We have not been talking about this. We have not been doing anything to stop this. And that’s kind of when it just kicked into gear is like, we need to do something about this, and this is not okay. And we, you know, we are not going to be silent anymore. And so that was the pre inquiry.
Later that fall was when the inquiry was actually given a goal, the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Inquiry. So, when that started…it was emotional. It was exciting. It was empowering to know that just in such a short time that I felt that, this happened. Yeah. And then I was asked to be part of the National Family Advisory to the Commissioners once they were…once they were chosen.
If you can remember the TRC, I think having these witness statements throughout the inquiry were very important. It was more of getting our stories out there that these things are happening. This has happened. These things are not okay. You know, this is not going to be forgotten or erased. It’s going to be something that’s going to be there so that we never forget. So, we don’t, you know, so we… when we make these changes, we don’t go backwards because if we go backwards, these are going to be here to remind us why we didn’t do them this way. We don’t do things this way.
We need to provide safety and security for women and girls, especially when they know it’s time to leave their living situation.
Porcupine (06:20): So when you gave testimony in the hearing, you said, I think we really need to look at how we provide safe security for our women and girls. We need to be able to provide that support for women when they’re most ready to leave. Can you explain what you meant by this?
Lesa Semmler: Women are the most vulnerable when they know there’s an issue, they know they need to leave. And I’m sure my mother knew that it was time to leave, but where was she to go? Where was she to get support to help her go safely? You know…and I can remember, like I said, I remember leaving. I don’t remember how we left. And it was the next morning when my mother went back to pick up our stuff, without anybody, alone. Cause we were going to leave. We were going to jump on a plane. We were going to go to Yellowknife. That was the plan. But I just think that there should have been more support. And I think as we speak about it now, you know…in some communities there may be more support. But the thing is that they’re not in every community.
So, what happens to those women where there’s no victim services and there’s no woman’s shelter. And the only person that you can reach out to is the RCMP. But when you call in, you’re in crisis, the Yellowknife detachment answers. I just need you to come and help me right now. And I don’t have time to tell you who I am, what my name is. And no, we don’t have house numbers. They don’t have any support services in the small communities. So, they stay. And the fear of the issue, the shame, nobody wants to talk about being abused. Nobody wants to tell everybody that they’re, you know… what’s going on. Those are the issues that I said that there’s no real support for women when they’re most vulnerable. When it’s time, it’s like an addict saying I’m ready to go for treatment. And then you tell them, well, you gotta wait 30 days and you got to detox, but there’s nowhere to detox and you can’t get admitted to detox because there’s no beds. You know, those are barriers.
Porcupine (08:40): So having somewhere to go, when a woman is able to escape, her abuser is obviously critical. And you’ve called for more public housing. You’ve said, though, that you’ve been told by governments that we are landlords. We are not a social program. What does that mean?
Lesa Semmler: Most of our residents, especially outside of Yellowknife, in the regional centres, probably a large amount of…a large amount of my constituents live in housing authority units. So, they’re low cost income units. And there’s a lot of social issues. We bring them up to the minister and her staff. And then what we got back was ‘we’re not a social program.’ You know, the housing authority is there too… it’s a corporation. You know, they build houses and they consider them almost like a mortgage corporation.
There are barriers within the system for women who are trying to escape violence, you have to wait a year before you can get into a housing unit or you may even be put on the list.
And then there’s some barriers for income support that won’t pay your rent because you’re not on the list.
Porcupine (09:50): If I interpret you correctly, are you saying that we in fact…social housing is a solution to having places women can go when they need to escape. Is that what you’re saying?
Lesa Semmler: Well, I think the way that… I think what I’m saying is we’ve created all these policies and barriers. Like we’re a landlord like any other market rent. When we know that the people that are in our units are low income. A lot of them have different traumas there. The residential school trauma, some of them are living. You know, we have women that are living in family violence, you know, children that are not eating, you know? And then there’s just so many issues that there’s this disconnect between the system that we have built around us. That’s just…all it’s basically saying that everything that we do in the way that we live as Indigenous Peoples is not okay. And we need to get into this system, and we need to get with the program or else we’re going to take your children. We’re not going to educate your children very well. We’re not going to give you good health care and support, and you’re not going to have good housing.
Why did you not want to be a minister at the time of your election?
Porcupine (11:09): So after you won your election, all of the MLAs then decided, as they do in the North, that’s the typical way, who’s going to be on cabinet. And at that time, you said that you did not want to be a minister. You publicly stated that. Why did you choose that?
Lesa Semmler: So as a MLA, as a legislator, I chose to remain as a regular member. When I campaigned, they asked me if I was to get elected, to remain a regular MLA. I explained to them during one of my open houses, during the campaign, if I remain a regular MLA, that it would be…I would not be assigned a portfolio. I don’t get to bring forward legislation. I can provide private members bills, but it can include money. So, you know, it can change some policy, but I can’t do anything that’s going to cost money. Somebody has to be a regular member. Somebody has to be on this side of the table. Somebody has to be there to go to…that’s going to be around.
What do you want to change?
Porcupine (12:22): What do you hope to be able to change with them though? Like when you talk to the ministers, what are you trying to get them to do?
Lesa Semmler: So I think some of the things like if I… like there’s a lot of stuff within education. And I think a lot of times it’s teacher wellness. And so, there’s those types of things because our teachers need to be… but they also need to understand where our students are coming from. You know, that one child that comes in the class, you know, that’s giving you a hard time. You don’t know what they’re going through at home. You don’t know what they’re living. You don’t know what they’ve lived through. You don’t know the traumas that they have. You don’t know that there’s nothing in their fridge, but they made it to school, and they don’t need you to give them attitude because they’re five minutes late. They made it there. For me, it’s talking to the departments about being culturally aware, to having that understanding of Indigenous Peoples in the North and what their story has been.
And knowing that Yellowknife has different homes than when you go out to, for instance, going into Sachs Harbour and Inuvik is different than Yellowknife homes. You know? So, I think within all departments, you need to look at who, your clientele, who you’re serving as public servants and make sure that our most vulnerable are being heard. And those needs are being met. I guess, as an MLA it’s just trying to work with all of them to just really know what’s going on in the communities because…and I still find that sometimes it’s like, wow, I didn’t realize that’s going on.
Indigenous Peoples have been stripped of their identity for years and they deserve to have their basic needs met.
Porcupine (13:59): Do you think reconciliation means providing houses for women and children at risk? Just to be really practical about it?
Lesa Semmler (14:06): I think our basic needs will help with reconciliation. I think Indigenous Peoples have been stripped of their identity of who they are for years. And they deserve to be…at least their basic needs to be met and add an equivalent level that they can be successful.
Porcupine: Has COVID-19 made it…like shine a light on just how vulnerable Indigenous Peoples are when it comes to housing like that. What have you seen?
Lesa Semmler: We saw what COVID did to scare people, to show the world, you know, that they were afraid, but we’ve had the TB epidemic. We’ve had, you know, we have the MMIWG crisis. We have women being abused and dying, you know, that are higher than any other people in Canada. We have all these other things, but they want to just throw little tiny bits of money from Ottawa at us. They just want to give government a little bit of money. And so, we stay in poverty.
What would be the first thing you would change to make housing better?
Porcupine (15:16): So Northwest Territories is a consensus government. It’s basic math. When you get there, you need 10 votes to do anything. So, keeping that number in mind can you tell me on the housing side, since the government owns and controls the Housing Corporation, if you had 10 votes what would be the first thing you would change to make housing better?
Lesa Semmler (15:39): The first thing I would change to make housing better, I think it would be…there’s so many things. I think having enough housing units, you know. We’ve got this huge wait list and we don’t have enough units to house. The people that live in the North like to live here.
Porcupine: In 2019, the missing and murdered Indigenous women commissioned the inquiry. They gave out the report. The report also spent quite a bit of time maintaining… disputing this really racist statement that was going around at that time that 70% of murdered Indigenous women are killed by Indigenous men. And there’s this… I think that what people talked about at that time was that… first they disputed it. It’s a false statistic. It was untrue, that statistic. But it allowed people to continue to kind of perpetuate this myth that Indigenous Peoples are doing it to themselves and say it doesn’t have anything to do with colonialism, that there’s no connection. It’s not…it’s just, you know, that’s just the way it is. What’s your reaction to that?
Lesa Semmler (16:51): You know, the final statement of genocide, you know…it’s a killing of a group of people. And if you go back in our history, they’ve been killing, trying to kill us from the start. They’ve been trying to wipe away who we are as people from the start. It’s not that we’re doing it to ourselves. This was done to our families. This was done to our men. Our men have been stripped of their dignity of who they are as providers, as warriors, as the chiefs and the leaders and of the people who we look to for direction. That was because:
This colonialized system wanted everyone to fall in line and look to them.
That is what happened. And then people were pulled off their homes. They were the hunters, they were the providers. And they were stripped of all of that and told to fit into this society. Communities were promised, you’d have a better life and jobs and there’s no jobs and they live in poverty and they’re miserable.
Porcupine (18:09): So what advice would you give to a woman who’s trying to stop the cycle of abuse that she may be in.
Lesa Semmler: Every situation is different. The family violence can stem from many different reasons. The first thing is to know that they’re not alone and there are people willing to help. You know, it is a hard road and sometimes it’s not so easy to leave. And if I can go back to my own experience with my mother, I wish she didn’t go back. I don’t know what was so important that she had to go back for. She could be here today, if she didn’t go back. When women are in these types of situations having somebody there, having support, having someone to be able to talk to about your situation, to know you’re not alone to get out. If you’re being hurt, it’s not okay. We all love our men. You know, and women have said that it’s…I love them. And I want them to get help, but sometimes we have to leave in order for them to realize that they need help. But a lot of times women just have nowhere to go.
Porcupine (19:15): What role does men’s healing have, do you think in moving in reconciliation in moving forward?
Lesa Semmler: No, I think there’s gotta be more support for men to do… be able to make these changes and for women to be able to have the support, to maybe start those changes as well for, you know, within their family. So, they could do it in a safe way and not have to be worried about their children being taken away or being home.
Our policies need to change to reach our action plans and ensure our communities are getting what they need.
Porcupine (19:42): Lesa, you’ve been critical of the lack of progress made by both Canada and the government in the Northern territories on implementing the recommendations or calls for justice. What are you going to be pushing for as MLA?
Lesa Semmler: I think what I’m looking for in a plan, and I’ve said it before is it’s a systemic… system-wide changes that when we look at creating policies…and I think this new gender base unit is looking at gender equity, when we create policy, when we spend, when we look at our population on the needs and each department has a place to play in this to make sure that there’s policies in place.
So, I think… with our action plan, it’s looking at departments and looking at the calls for justice and seeing where they fit into that department and what policy needs to change in order to make sure that that action plan, like that calls for justice is being looked at. Because there’s calls to Indigenous governments, there’s calls to the federal government, there’s calls to territorial provincial, and then there’s calls to the rest of the North, like the rest of Canada and the rest of the world.
Like don’t deny us of what happened to us. You know, we’re not blaming you today. We’re blaming the system that we’re living in, and the people that made those decisions years ago that help us get to where we need to be to be safe. But listen to us and don’t do things without us and don’t make decisions without us.
What are you planning on focusing on during the rest of your term?
Porcupine (21:11): All right, Lesa, when I was MLA I had a countdown app. A legislator, an MLA has 1,460 days, which is four years, starting from the day the polls are closed and the votes are counted. You’re down to about 965 days today. I was wondering if you could just give us a couple of the key things that you’re going to be focusing on that time, in the rest of your term to see what you could get accomplished. What were those couple of things that you’re really paying attention to?
Lesa Semmler (21:47): I think having more Indigenous Peoples within our public service. Having a representative public service will help change those systemic barriers that we hit all the time. Cause it’s been 40 years and we’ve had a whole bunch of policies and we’ve had a whole bunch of different reports done, but we haven’t had a lot of action. The other one would be, we need houses, we need houses. We need houses. We have the $60 million co-investment fund. And I think what we need to do is we really need housing. We need to work with NGOs or whoever to make sure that this $60 million gets put into enough housing, into our homes. So that way we’re going on a trend that’s going to eventually get everyone in a home with a roof over their head. So, we don’t have people homeless because that’s the first start of us to start healing is to get our basic needs met. And we can’t start to heal until we have our basic needs met and shelter is vital.
What was it like being raised by your great grandmother?
Porcupine (22:53): After you lost your mother, you were raised by another very strong woman. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Lesa Semmler (22:59): I was also raised by my great grandmother who was very vocal, who stood up for what she believed. I think being raised by my great-grandmother, who was a negotiator for… she was born just outside of Old Crow to a Gwich’in mother. And her father was an immigrant from Sweden. But she lived, after she went to residential school, she lived with her father in Cape Krustenstern, which is just around Kugluktuk and lived there, and then lived with the Inuit. So, when she met her husband and they moved, ended up in the Delta, and then eventually in Inuvik. She was a negotiator for the Inuvialuit and to this day, some people still think she’s Inuvialuit but she’s, you know, she was born from… and then she was born in Old Crow, just outside of Old Crow. I look at her and where she came from and the things that she lived through and the hard life and what she instilled in me, like education and culture were both important. I lived on the land with her, but I had to go to school cause you needed an education. And I think when growing up, having those role models…so that’s kinda how I feel. Like I don’t consider myself better than anyone. I don’t consider myself that…you know, I’ve been lucky along the way. I’ve had people there for me that I didn’t end up in child welfare after my mother was, you know, murdered. I had people support me along my journey.
Pirate or Ninja?
Porcupine (24:47): So our final question, would you rather be a pirate or a Ninja?
Lesa Semmler (24:53): Oh, sometimes I feel like a Ninja. You want to sneak through and give a good kick once in a while.
Porcupine (25:05): Lesa, you’re an absolute inspiration to women everywhere. It’s been just wonderful to talk to you and thank you for spending so much time with us today when you are so busy doing your important work.
Porcupine: Thank you very much for your time. You’ve done very well over the years, it is good to see. You are a credit to the Northwest Territories.