When Sol Mamakwa rises to speak in the Ontario Legislature, the heckling stops.
The first-term New Democrat from the Northern Ontario riding of Kiiwetinoong, which is two-thirds Indigenous, has an innate ability to capture the attention of the usually raucous room.
And that includes Premier Doug Ford.
Mr. Mamakwa recently approached Mr. Ford after Question Period to ask the Premier to meet with three First Nations chiefs visiting from Northern Ontario. To his surprise, Mr. Ford agreed.
“He said, ‘Bring them to my office after Question Period.’ So we did that,” Mr. Mamakwa said. “They haven’t had that opportunity since this government came into power.”
As the province’s only MPP hailing from a First Nation (one of three NDP members with Métis or Indigenous heritage), Mr. Mamakwa sees his role as representing those who cannot speak for themselves. He has drawn attention to the housing crisis at Cat Lake First Nation, youth mental health and Indigenous education. On the door outside of his Queen’s Park office, his name is spelled in Oji-Cree Syllabics, his first language.
“I’m speaking for marginalized people. Everyday people. That’s part of me, speaking for people that never had a voice here,” Mr. Mamakwa said.
In a tweet this week, Mr. Mamakwa addressed the Progressive Conservative government’s alcohol-focused agenda.
“As the government is busying themselves in buck-a-beer, beer in corner stores and tailgating, we just want clean drinking water in some communities in Kiiwetinoong,” Mr. Mamakwa wrote. Energy and Indigenous Affairs Minister Greg Rickford called it an “unfortunate comment from a member we’ve had an extraordinary opportunity to work [with]," and said his government remains committed to ensuring clean drinking water.
The topic at hand during the impromptu meeting with Mr. Ford, which was also attended by Mr. Rickford, was the Ring of Fire mining project. Mr. Ford recently referenced the meeting to reporters and said his government will not ignore the concerns of Indigenous leaders when it comes to development.
“We’re going to support them, we’re going to work with them on the Ring of Fire, which is going to be massive for the Indigenous community,” Mr. Ford said.
(In a statement, Mr. Ford’s press secretary Ivana Yelich said, "Premier Ford is happy to meet with MPPs from all political parties. His role as Premier of Ontario goes beyond the benches of the PC Caucus.”)
Mr. Mamakwa called the meeting “a start,” adding that Mr. Ford promised to visit Northern Ontario and meet with First Nations chiefs. The Globe was unable to reach the leadership of Eabametoong, Neskantaga and Aroland First Nations, who attended the meeting.
But Mr. Mamakwa said no development plans − even sustainable ones − will proceed without First Nations people being part of the discussion.
“Northern Ontario, or the Far North, is not open for business unless you talk to First Nations. You have to have that dialogue," Mr. Mamakwa said.
Mr. Mamakwa, a 48-year-old father of four, was raised in the small, fly-in First Nation of Kingfisher Lake. His community didn’t have hydro lines until the mid-1980s, and he had to move to the town of Sioux Lookout, a hub for northwestern Ontario, to attend high school. Growing up, there were about 25 suicides in his community, he said. He recounts the crimes of Ralph Rowe, an Anglican priest and Boy Scout leader who was convicted of abusing dozens of children during two decades in remote First Nations communities.
“I’m very lucky,” Mr. Mamakwa said. “Sometimes people ask, you know, 'why can’t you just get over it?’ People don’t know what has happened to our people, especially in the North.”
He got involved in politics after working in health policy for the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which represents 49 Northern Ontario First Nations. He said he was approached by both the Liberals and NDP to run in the 2018 provincial election, and settled on the New Democrats, with whom he said he shares a passion for advocacy and equality.
Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler of Nishnawbe Aski Nation has known Mr. Mamakwa for many years, having worked together on a recent process to improve health-care access for Indigenous communities.
Mr. Fiddler said he hopes Mr. Mamakwa’s presence at Queen’s Park can help foster relationships between First Nations and the PC government, which he says are “pretty much non-existent.”
“It means a lot, not just for Sol, but for all of us who live in [Mr. Mamakwa’s] riding. It’s important that we have a representative in Queen’s Park that gets it, that really knows the issues,” Mr. Fiddler said.
As his party’s Indigenous affairs and reconciliation critic, Mr. Mamakwa has also introduced a private member’s bill to require Ontario laws to be in line with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The bill has been stalled at the committee stage since March.
Despite their political differences, Mr. Ford appears to have an affinity for Mr. Mamakwa: the Premier has invited him for lunch a few times, an offer Mr. Mamakwa said he is considering.
“I would just talk about things that are very human level: where I come from, who I am,” Mr. Mamakwa said.
“Not too much politics, I don’t think. A human being to another human being.”