Dan Christmas, who has devoted most of his career working to better the lives of Mi’kmaw people, is the first Mi’kmaq to be appointed to the Senate.
Christmas, a senior advisor with the Membertou First Nation in Sydney, N.S. was one of nine people appointed as “non-partisan” senators by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Thursday. He said he received the phone call from the Prime Minister while he was attending his sister’s birthday party in Membertou Wednesday evening.
“Well, I was simply shocked,” Christmas, 60, recalled during a phone interview Thursday. “ In fact, I’m still trying to recollect parts of the conversation from the Prime Minister. I’m sure he told me important things,” he said.
Christmas said he immediately told his wife, Maliseet artist Arlene “Dozay” Christmas, before telling the rest of his family attending the birthday party.
“They’re all jumping up and down and crying and screaming, hugging each other,” Christmas recalled.
Christmas will join six other Indigenous people currently serving in the Senate including Justice Murray Sinclair, the former chair for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Christmas advocating Mi’kmaw treaty rights for 40 years
Christmas, a band member with the Membertou First Nation, has spent his nearly 40-year career advocating for recognition of Mi’kmaw treaty rights as well as trying to improve the standard of living for people in his home community.
From 1982 until 1996, Christmas worked as the Director of Advisory Services for the Union of Nova Scotia Indians, a tribal council that represents six Mi’kmaw First Nations in Nova Scotia. While he was there, he helped with the organization’s political and legal strategy to defend Mi’kmaw treaty rights in the courts.
Two notable court cases that UNSI took on while Christmas worked there was the James Simon hunting case and the Donald Marshall, Jr., commercial fishing case. Both cases reached the Supreme Court of Canada in 1985 and 1999 respectively.
In both cases, the highest court ruled that Mi’kmaq people had a right to hunt as well as catch and sell fish for a living under the Peace and Friendship treaties signed between the Mi’kmaq and the British Crown in the 1700s.
In 1996, Christmas left UNSI to become a senior advisor for the Membertou First Nation. In the 20 years he has served in that position, he is credited for playing a key role in helping his band get out of debt and become a successful organization with profitable band-owned businesses.
In 2005, he received an honorary Doctor of Law Degree from Dalhousie University.
Christmas hopes to be a role model for Mi’kmaq youth by becoming the first Mi’kmaq to serve on the Senate.
“I think we can be role models to young people in the professions we do. It could be engineering. It could be journalism. It could be being a social worker or a teacher,” Christmas explained.
“The profession I wanted to be in and to (role) model and to show people is I’m going to be a senator and I hope others will think of that and realize that in their lives, the work that they do, they too can become senators,” he said.
In the meantime, Christmas said he is looking forward to playing a role in reforming the upper chamber as a non-partisan senator. He is also wants a role in rebuilding the relationship between government and Indigenous Canadians.
“I think I can bring a lot of my experience, my knowledge, my expertise to try to make that agenda a reality,” he said.
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