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Burnaby elects first Indigenous politician in 130-year history

UniverCity resident and federal civil servant Mikelle Sasakamoose made history Saturday when she won a seat on the school board, becoming the first Indigenous person ever to be elected to political office in Burnaby.
Trustee-elect Mikelle Sasakamoose hugs a supporter at Burnaby Citizens Association election night headquarters Saturday.

For the first time in its 130-year history, the municipality of Burnaby will have an Indigenous politician serving in elected office.

Trustee-elect Mikelle Sasakamoose, a member of the NDP-aligned Burnaby Citizens Association, won a seat on the Burnaby school board Saturday, garnering 14,972 votes in the provincewide municipal elections.

“Through this campaign, I really stuck to my values and beliefs,” Sasakamoose told the NOW at the BCA’s election night headquarters Saturday, “and to be elected tells me that the majority of people in Burnaby have those same values and same beliefs, and to me that is really inspiring.”

'Not a good history with public education'

Sasakamoose , a 10-year UniverCity resident, was part of a BCA sweep of the school board, which saw the re-election of all five BCA incumbent candidates (Gary Wong, Larry Hayes, Jen Mezei, Bill Brassington and Peter Cech) and the election of two newcomers (Sasakamoose and Kristin Schnider).

A mother of three, with two daughters at Burnaby schools, Sasakamoose has worked as a federal public servant since 2009 and is currently a senior policy advisor to the director of Indigenous relations on reconciliation at Transport Canada.

Sasakamoose is Cree, Tk’emlups te Secwepemc and Syilx and was born and raised on a reserve outside of Kamloops.

She said her family’s history with schools – including close relatives who spent time at residential schools in Saskatchewan and Kamloops – was an important part of her decision to run for school board.

“As a First Nations person, my family has a long history that’s not a good history with public education,” Sasakamoose told the NOW in a March interview.

Role models

While this was her first run at elected office, Sasakamoose is no stranger to politics.

Growing up just a few steps away from her great-grandfather’s house on a ranch outside of Kamloops, she remembers many of her family members engaging with politicians, building relationships and lobbying government.

Her cousin, the late senator Len Marchand, was the first Status Indian to be elected to Parliament.

She said she hopes to be the same kind of role model for her daughters and others in the community.

“We talk about these things,” she said of her family.  “We talk a lot about our identity and our community and our culture. These are the kind of things that were modeled to me when I was growing up by people in my family and in my community, and I’m just trying to do the same for them.”

'Make it work better'

Sasakamoose said racism and negativity she experienced during the campaign took an emotional toll, and there were times she considered quitting, but she persevered with vital support from her husband Cassidy Olivier, her fellow candidates and the BCA campaign staff.

“The things that really got me down in this campaign are the things that I’m trying to fight against, like racism, discrimination, people promoting hate. Those are not things I stand for or am going to ever let stand,” she said. “If I really care about something, then I’ve got to fight for it.”

Looking at the four years ahead, Sasakamoose said the first thing she’ll do is focus on learning the school board ropes.

"I totally appreciate that I’m new, that I do have a lot of learning to do to learn how things work, but, for me, that’s how I navigate any situation,” she said. “Once I learn how it works, then I can navigate it and make it work better, so that’s what I’ll be looking at.”

Follow Cornelia Naylor on Twitter @CorNaylor
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