Porcupine (00:00): Senator Dan Christmas helped transform his community, Membertou First Nation, from rags to riches. He’ll share why creating an environment where a business can thrive is key to reconciliation.
How do porcupines hug—very carefully. And such as the story of reconciliation, at least so far. I’m Merrell-Ann Phare. I’m Michael Miltenberger. This is Porcupine.
We’d like to welcome Senator Dan Christmas to Porcupine today. We’re kicking off season two. And so we’re just absolutely thrilled that you’re able to come and talk to us Senator Christmas.
Dan Christmas (00:50): Well, thank you, Merrell-Ann and Mike. I’m very pleased to be here.
Porcupine: Can we call you Dan?
Dan Christmas: Yes. By all means.
The economic story of Membertou First Nation:
Porcupine (00:58): Great Dan. So I know that you’re a grad of Cape Breton University and that you also worked as the band manager for a year, First Nation Membertou, for a while. And you went away to work for the Tribal Council, but then you came back to Membertou at a critical time in First Nations history. Can you explain a little bit about that?
Dan Christmas (01:22): Well, that’s a bit of a wonder, even to me. If you asked me five years ago, will there ever be a Senator from Membertou in Canada, I would have said you’re crazy. But, my journey has been, I suppose a very convoluted one in one sentence. But, now that I look back, it seems to me that somebody’s hand was on me, preparing me from one step to the other. Membertou was when I joined the staff again.
It was in an economic turmoil. It was in great financial debt.
Myself and a lawyer named Bernt Christmas, who was also from Membertou, joined the staff. And we were given the task of revitalizing the community. I don’t think I ever worked so hard in my life, but after an intensive 20-year period, we turned around the economy of Membertou and made it one of the more successful First Nations in this country.
How does one become a Senator these days?
Dan Christmas (02:28): I got a call one day from AFN Regional Chief Morley GooGoo and Morley kept telling me that there were two spots on the Senate of Canada for Nova Scotia. He wanted to know if I was interested. And I thought to that point in time, the Prime Minister picks people. I didn’t even know you could apply. And so when I came back home, I talked to my wife and she originally said no. But in her family there was another Indigenous Senator Sandra Lovelace Nicholas. So she knew what it meant. She understood what the problem was. So I went through the process. It took months and months and months. I thought I was screened out. And finally on a late October evening, I got a call. And when I answered it, the person on the other end said, I’m Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.’ And the—I almost said something you can’t say in public.
Porcupine (03:27): So first I’m just amazed the Prime Minister actually phones you directly. But I also heard through the grapevine that when you became a Senator, you actually chose your mom over the prime minister. So I just want to know what’s all that about.
Dan Christmas (03:45): He asked me not to tell anyone until the formal announcement the next day, so of course I profusely promised I wouldn’t say a word. But that evening, I was at a birthday party that my mom was hosting for my sister and the house was full. My mom has a small house, but we have a big family. And so when I came back into the room, I knew I had to tell my wife. So I went over to her and I told her, and she was in tears. And I remember thinking to myself, if I leave this house without telling my mom, she would be greatly hurt.
Porcupine (04:23): Well, the Prime Minister must understand who’s more important, Prime Minister or your mother. I mean, come on, right.
Dan Christmas: You’re right. Yes. I would choose my mom.
On being a Senator:
Dan Christmas (04:39): I remember seeing a high school teacher once in a local mall. He was shopping and I bumped into him—and he was by far my favourite teacher. He was so kind to me. And, I remember him grabbing me by the shoulder. He said, ‘Dan, someday you are going to be an ambassador for your people.’ And I didn’t know what he meant or what he was talking about, but that always stood in my mind that wherever I go, I’m representing the Mi’kmaw, I’m representing Membertou. I’m an Indigenous person. I have to represent our people the best way I can. So I see my role in the Senate as being an ambassador for my people.
I don’t see myself as a part of the Canadian government. I see myself as a Mi’kmaw person representing our nation within the confines of parliament.
Dan Christmas (05:40): And so I see my role as that as trying to be a bridge builder, trying to bring understanding , trying to make sure that the Indigenous point of view is well expressed. Making sure as best as I can that we are not treated unfairly that Mi’kmaw Indigenous people are treated properly. And I’ve always cherished my role as an ambassador. It’s an amazing story.
You’re First Nations—you describe it as rags to riches. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Dan Christmas (06:25): Well it’s really a rags to riches story of my First Nation community Membertou. We’re an urban First Nation. We’re just, I think, three kilometres from downtown Sydney). It was part of a lot of other municipalities called the Cape Breton Regional Municipality. So going back 25 years ago, it was less than seven, 800 people, but even though we were an urban First Nation, we were really struggling with unemployment, with poverty, with deficits. And I distinctly remember in 1994 that I think our community hit the lowest. We were literally bankrupt. We had two failed business ventures and were at a point where we were even having trouble just covering social assistance cheques for welfare recipients. And that was the low point. I mean, there was very little employment, even though we’re an urban First Nation. I can count on two hands how many people were working at the time. We had no real businesses. I think 99.9% of our budget was all federal transfers.
From that point on, I think the community had its back to the wall. Chief Terry, who is still a Chief today, serving 36 consecutive years, decided at that point that things had to change. There was no other way.
So how would you describe your relationship with the white community at that time?
Dan Christmas: Oh, we were a forgotten community. You have to also remember that back in the early 1900s, our community was forcibly removed from the downtown part of Sydney. They thought they relocated us backwoods up in the hill. So we’re just basically out of mind. And so, Chief Terry hired Bernd Christmas, my old lawyer who grew up in Membertou, but made his law career in Toronto and Bay street. Actually a commercial lawyer. They hired Bernd as our CEO and for the first few years we were just trying to stop the bleeding, just try and get ourselves out of debt.
Dan Christmas (09:02): And it was just from a lot of cutting, just trying to save money. And there from 2000, and we started pursuing a certification in ISO international standards organization, a quality management certification, Bernd believed that we had to prove that we were good and competent and strong when it comes to management and the financial care of the community.
We were good. We had lots of good people, but no one would believe us.
And so he pursued ISO certification. And once we got certified under our quality of management standard, we finally had that piece of paper that told the world that we’re more than competent—because not everyone gets ISO certification.
Porcupine (09:48): No, I’ve heard it’s incredibly challenging to do that. In fact, I don’t know of another community that has that.
The impact of getting ISO certification:
Dan Christmas (09:56): The only purpose was to demonstrate to the world then that we had a high level of proficiency within the community. And you’re right, Merrell-Ann, this is a painful process. I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody. I’ve told people it was like somebody flipping a light switch.
All of a sudden the banks would talk to us. Government would talk to us a little different.
The private sector would actually want to talk to us two or three days after we made the public announcement, but he got a call from Lockheed Martin, the big aircraft industry leader. And they wanted to partner with Membertou. But that was just a sign of how dramatically things changed. Shortly after we signed an agreement with the province on gaming, we signed an agreement with the federal government on fishing, and we just started on a roll.
Dan Christmas (10:50): After that, we got into retail, we got into tourism, we got into hospitality, we got into real estate. And as you probably know now, Membertou just bought the biggest fish seafood company in Canada and Clearwater fine foods for a billion dollars.
We’ve come from a very, very poor, have-not First Nation into a very, very well off First Nation in a short period of 20 years.
And now, almost all of our revenues now are self-generated and the government portion of our budget is very small. And that’s only going to continue to grow into the future. So the transformation in our community has been phenomenal. It’s just been…even myself who, as a resident and someone who was involved, I still shake my head in disbelief that we could have, we could have started the change. That was so amazing. So that’s one of the things I’ll go to my grave as being one of the proudest things we’ve ever been part of.
Tackling economic problems in rural Halifax:
Porcupine (12:05): Dan with your strong economic pedigree, you were appointed to a panel by the government of Nova Scotia to take a look at some of the economic problems. What were some of those problems that were challenging Nova Scotia?
Dan Christmas (12:18): The problem was that the Halifax area, which is the capital of Nova Scotia, that central part of this province, was growing. It was booming. People were migrating to Halifax, but the rest of the province in rural areas was declining, and declining rapidly. There was a population drain. People were moving to Halifax and a lot of the traditional industries were starting to restart. We knew we were starting to flounder and rural areas started to look really, really weak. And so the first part of our terms of reference was to travel the entire province and talk to Nova Scotians about ways to revitalize the economy and the province.
But then we were disturbed by some of the things that we were hearing in the communities.
Dan Christmas (13:14): So I’ll give you an example. I remember one time going to this, I won’t say what name, but we went to this community, and we would consider it a shell community, meaning that the older people remained and the younger people had left. In the day we had meetings with Chambers of Commerce, with business people, with municipal councils. But in the evening, we met with the community directly. I remember walking into the hall and, if you’re a person of colour, you’ll know when something’s not right. So I remember sitting in that hall realizing I’m the only person of colour in that room.
And my Spider-Man sense says that this is not good. And so I was even thinking of telling a facilitator, don’t ask certain questions because you may not get a good answer.
Porcupine (14:03): Just a second. Before you go on, Dan, did you ask the facilitator to change?
Dan Christmas (14:09): I didn’t do that. And so we finally got to that part of the meeting and the facilitator asked a question, ‘Do you think immigration is a solution to your population decline?’ And all of a sudden it was dead silence.
You could hear a pin drop.
Then a few moments went by and somebody in the back finally stood up and told the facilitator, ‘Well, that won’t work here.’ I think my jaw hit the table. I thought everyone could hear it because it seemed to me that the community would rather die than grow by having immigrants in our community.
Porcupine (14:55): Well, that doesn’t leave you much choice.
Dan Christmas (14:58): Well, we had to change course. We ditched our original intention of submitting a report to government with a list of recommendations. We created a ten-year vision of what a prosperous Nova Scotia would’ve looked like. If Nova Scotia was going to survive, it needed to increase its workforce. And to do that, you had to be more inclusive. We set out 12 game-changers—attitudinal changes that had to happen before anything else happened. You had to deal with the racism, you had to deal with the discrimination, you had to deal with how you saw each other in the province.
Porcupine (15:48): There are still problems to this very day between the Mi’kmaw and the non-native fishers. We see it in the news, the right to access to a modern, commercial fishery. Does that worry you at all?
Dan Christmas (16:01): We see the racially charged incidents, the violence and the crime. Obviously those are there, but public opinion polls in Nova Scotia show the vast majority of Nova Scotians—a number that I’ve seen is 70%—are in support to make money. So there’s a small minority of people who are causing all the grief from the province. And this is showing in vast numbers that the vast majority of Nova Scotia’s do not support or condone the racism and violence that was expressed in this province. In fact, I would say they’re very, very embarrassed. They recognize that to make a difference in our economy…and Membertou is the biggest employer here in my region, and many, many people work for Membertou. So if you go against or fight in a racist way, you may be hurting your own selves. And so yes, it’s hard to hear the racist comments. It’s heartbreaking, but it’s also good to know that so many Nova Scotians do not support that.
NIMBY vs BANANA:
Porcupine (17:14): You’ve described the opposition within Nova Scotia as being inclusive, and how necessary it is in order to actually develop the economy in Nova Scotia. What did you learn about how people feel about the actual type of economic development?
Dan Christmas (17:31): A barrier we found was this attitude of being against development. People knew what NIMBY meant, not in my backyard. So if we have a business or an industry, something wanting to build something in Nova Scotia, you get the NIMBYs, right? If they oppose that in their backyard, but what we saw from every corner of the province, that there was this prevalent attitude that they didn’t want to see any development at all, nothing we thought that maybe had transformed itself into BANANA here in Nova Scotia. BANANA is: build absolutely nothing anywhere near anybody.
What does a reconciliation approach to development look like?
Dan Christmas (18:31): For a Mi’kmaw person this was pretty easy because there’s a Mi’kmaw word for it. It’s called the Dougal limp, and roughly translated, it means sustainable development. So it’s a natural law that’s been built into us as Mi’kmaw people that you only take from the environment what you need, and you need to be able to treat the environment in a way that it will be sustainable for your children and children’s children. And the common phrase that we use is seven generations. So for us Mi’kmaw people, it’s already a built-in. It’s been there for centuries and centuries and centuries. That’s how we survived here in what we call Nova Scotia. That’s who we were. We used our natural resources in a way that provided for us, but also in a way that makes sure that future generations also had something to thrive on as well.
TRC Call to Action 57:
Porcupine (19:34): I would like to talk to you specifically about reconciliation and one of the calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. You’ve talked about this one before. Can you explain why Call to Action 57 is important?
Dan Christmas (19:46): CTA 57 in my mind is one of the most important CTAs in the TRC. I remember Senator Sinclair’s words: Education got us into this mess and education will get us out. And CTA 57 was all about providing education for our public servants, be they in federal government or provincial governments or territorial governments or municipal governments. He saw the need for public servants to have a basic understanding of who First Nations were, who Métis were, and who Inuit were. And they had to know the journey that we’ve been on if they were going to understand the present day. So I was very pleased to see, for instance, the Law Society of Alberta recently made it mandatory for its lawyers to receive training about Indigenous people.
Us vs them mentality:
Porcupine (20:48): It seems like there’s an us versus them mentality. Sometimes a fear that if Indigenous people do well, that means they win and we lose.
The gorilla story:
Dan Christmas (20:56): Oh, I agree. I mean, I think you hit the word, fear. There is so much fear about Indigenous people. It reminds me of that old story about this gorilla or an ape who’s got his hand stuck in a hole in the tree. He’s holding onto some goodies and he won’t let go, but he can’t pull out his hand from the hole. And if he only let go, he could have taken his hand out.
Porcupine: And if he keeps his hand closed he can’t get any of the goodie.
Dan Christmas (21:35): And so the fear of losing something that you want to keep is what’s holding a lot of Canadians’ hands stuck in that hole. It seems that there’s a dark cloud over natural resources in Canada because people believe that First Nations don’t want to develop natural resources, which is false. I can say strongly, that’s a lie. The only thing that First Nations people and Métis in any way ask is [that] they should do it responsibly; that you do it in a way that you don’t poison your own children.
Is governance reform the solution?
Dan Christmas (22:21): Oh, definitely. I mean, there has to be equality, and right now, federal and provincial governments do not treat Indigenous governance as equals. It seems to us that the Indigenous people are given a side table. They can look after some of these issues and that’s fine, but we aren’t big boys to federal and provincial people. And we’ll look after this country and we’ll look after your interests as well. I mean, that’s colonial assault, paternalistic. I mean, Indigenous people have the same right to govern as federal and provincial entities, and more so because we also have Aboriginal and treaty rights. It has a special, unique connection to all the land and resources in this country. And if you hope to develop this nation without us at the table, then good luck to you because you’ll always face this cloud of uncertainty.
Bring us to the table, make us partners.
Let’s clear up this uncertainty, let’s develop arrangements and agreements and yes, even modern day, but bring us to the table and help this nation as a whole come together and develop together. So that’s the fork in the road, continue with the status quo and we’ll fight this uncertainty for decades, or bring Indigenous people to the table and let’s create some certainty.
Porcupine: One of the things that I so strongly agree with you is, I think people are looking for a silver bullet. Like what is the table that we can bring everybody at and solve all the problems? And I think from what you’ve shared with us today, there’s so many different avenues to that kind of a table.
Dan Christmas (24:25): Oh, definitely. And you’re right. There’s all different kinds of levels. Yes, at the national level and at the provincial level, but in the local communities as well. I mean, before Membertou began its rise, very, very few people came to Membertou. I used to remember taxicabs would stop at the entrance and drop people off because they didn’t want to come into the community. And now we’re probably the economic driver in this area. I remember one server at a restaurant whispered to me one day, said, you know, I had a customer here the other day and they asked me if we were on a reserve. They couldn’t imagine that that very thriving business was here in Membertou. And I mean, if we get to that point where we drop the labels and we dropped the stereotypes and just see ourselves as neighbours, we could accomplish so much.
Ghost or Dog?
Porcupine (25:37): Well, Senator it’s been an absolute joy to talk to you. And you are such an inspiration. Your work as an ambassador for the Mi’kmaw and your tireless efforts in the Senate, trying to build a path forward. They’re just very, very inspirational for all of us. And I just have one very quick question: Would you rather be a ghost or a dog?
Dan Christmas (26:08): I’ll tell you the truth. I love my dog to death. You know, he’s the most loyal, happy, and friendly dog in the world. But I mean… the chance to be a ghost and not be seen and go places that you can go and to listen to people that don’t know you’re there? Oh, I don’t know. I’m sort of leaning towards the ghost.
Porcupine: Well, thank you very much for being on our podcast today. Thank you, Senator. It’s been an honour.
Dan Christmas (26:38): Well, thank you, Merrell-Ann. And thank you, Michael.