The late Eskasoni chief Charlie Dennis had a philosophy on leadership he liked repeating to his friend and senior adviser Jaime Battiste.
“He’d often say, ‘You get a lot more from people when you make them feel like they’re part of the solution, instead of pointing fingers and making them feel like they’re the problem,’” said Battiste. “‘You have to work with people to solve complex problems,’ he’d also say. But he lived that philosophy every day.”
To a young Eskasoni leader like Battiste, Dennis set the standard. Dennis, who died in 2015, was a committed defender of Mi’kmaq rights, and a founding member of Unamaki Institute of Natural Resources.
The Dalhousie law school graduate has tried to live up to Dennis’s example, whether in his role as Treaty Education Lead with Mi’kmaw Kina’matnewe — where he was key in negotiating the treaty education memorandum of understanding between Mi’kmaq chiefs and the Nova Scotia government — or in his advocacy work, such as launching the Mi’kmaq and Maliseet Atlantic Youth Council.
“These are some of the things I did by working with people, bringing people together,” said Battiste. “I’m grateful to grow up with parents who instilled in me values that I could and should try to make a difference in life. I’ve always felt a great responsibility to be a change-maker and to use my talents to make a difference for people.”
Now, he’s taking a shot at federal politics. Battiste is hoping to run for the Liberals representing his home Sydney-Victoria riding in the fall election. He’s vying against three others for the Liberal nomination. The candidacy vote is expected to be held next month.
Nova Scotia and P.E.I. are the only provinces who haven’t elected an Indigenous member of Parliament. Battiste is hoping that will change this year.
“I think we’re due,” said Battiste. “But I’d like to think people would support me first and foremost because I’m qualified, and I happen to be Mi’kmaq. I have to be able to represent all of our communities.”
He’s a proponent of immigration to offset an aging Cape Breton population. Battiste is eager to promote what he calls a Cape Breton economy that builds on the island’s strong tourism sector and capitalizes on the international demand for the riding’s scenery, seafood and music.
“We need to showcase what we have. We need to bring federal, provincial, municipal and the Mi’kmaq government to the table in Cape Breton to solve a lot of the issues that we’re dealing with.”
His riding boasts the highest rate of child poverty in Nova Scotia at 33 per cent. In Eskasoni the rate is 75 per cent, he said.
“We can only solve this by working together,” said Battiste. “The same is true for another one of my priorities, protecting our environment and quality of life. I want the quality of life that I enjoy for our children and grandchildren.”
Inverness councillor Jim Mustard has worked closely with Battiste, raising the profile of Mi’kmaq education in the province over the past five years. They’ve travelled throughout the province trying to achieve that goal. He’s backed Battiste’s run for the Liberal nomination from Day 1.
“Look what he’s done as a treaty educator,” said Mustard. “He’s helped so many educators in school systems reclaim their history so it’s one of dignity, respect and understanding on all sides, and that’s huge.”
“We have someone in Jaime that can be the link between the Indigenous and settler community and see it as an opportunity. There’s a booming population of young people in our Cape Breton Mi’kmaq communities. He’s proven to have the trust of young people and elders, building relationships. What more do you want?”
Battiste was drawn to the federal Liberals in 2005 while attending the Kelowna Accord negotiations in British Columbia. He said he was inspired by then Liberal prime minister Paul Martin and his determination to form better relations with First Nations people. They’ve remained friends ever since. Battiste has also remained committed to the party.
“I’ve been going to Ottawa for the past 20 years advocating on behalf of First Nations. When I look at this government I see it has done more for Indigenous people than any other government in the history of Canada. I wouldn’t be running as a Liberal candidate if I didn’t feel that we were making the progress moving forward on reconciliation.”
Fellow Eskasoni resident and Cape Breton regional councillor Esmond Marshall is also backing Battiste. The island and the province need a Mi’kmaq leader able to bring all levels of government together and Battiste has the track record to be that person, said Marshall.
“We need someone to represent our First Nations people at Parliament, someone like Jaime who wants to see his whole riding succeed,” said Marshall.
The other Liberal nomination hopefuls
Jon Yazer lives in Sydney and works in the community service sector. Yazer has experience working for the City of Toronto. He’s pledging to help tap into the island’s “tremendous human capital and potential” through “diligence, creativity, and co-operation.” He supports a Sydney harbour container terminal and investing in skilled manufacturing and information technology in Cape Breton.
Earlene MacMullin lives in North Sydney and is employed by Marine Atlantic. She is serving as Cape Breton regional councillor for District 2. She’s running to help “ensure that the people of Sydney-Victoria riding as well as all of Cape Breton/Unama’ki have a good, strong quality of life.” Among her priorities are child poverty, health care and improving federal, municipal and First Nations relations.
Caleb Gibbons lives in Albert Bridge and spent 25 years in international finance. He’s pledging to use his “international experience and finance acumen to work through the complex issues facing Canada that have a direct effect on the constituents of Sydney-Victoria.” Some of his priorities include rebuilding a robust, island-based economy, reversing the island’s chronic population decline and addressing persistent income equality and child poverty issues.