Falling Apart and Coming Together for the People: Lori Idlout Rises Above Loss and in the House of Commons
“Getting into politics was always something that I felt destined to do,” says Lori Idlout, the Member of Parliament for Nunavut. She grew up in different communities in Nunavut, including Resolute, Pond Inlet, Igloolik, and Chester and when she was a young child, she told her mom she wanted to be Prime Minister. In high school, she was on student council and was a youth representative at the hamlet. When she got to university, she studied political science before switching to psychology.
“I had always been curious about politics and I think that it was just a part of my journey.”
After graduation, she applied to a training program called the Nunavut Unified Human Resources Development Strategy. She went to Yellowknife to learn how government works, then went to the Department of Health for a year and a half before moving to Iqaluit. She joined the Office of the interim Commissioner, which would create the government of Nunavut.
While she had been asked to run for office a number of times, she knew how stressful politics could be and that she needed to wait until she and her family were ready. Idlout went to law school, became a lawyer, created nonprofits, and became well-known for her work ethic. Finally, she felt she had the coping skills, support system, and maturity to run for office… and she won.
Idlout was raised to pursue two goals, getting educated and helping people when she could. “I always knew that I wanted to help people. And that's why I felt like getting elected would be the best way because I could try to make change through my work as the member of parliament to help educate more parliamentarians about why Nunavut is so special and why we need to do better for Nunavut. The whole driving force behind the work I do is to make sure that we're getting more support and more resources for Nunavummiut,” she explains.
For Idlout, education was crucial. “It was very necessary for me, so I could feel I've got the tools to work things through. To be able to navigate such a huge system in Parliament, there's always the need to be able to think critically about the work that we're being asked to do, like passing legislation, talking about budgets… My education has helped a lot to make sure… that I'm always reviewing the bills that come our way and looking to find ways to ensure that Nunavummiut will benefit in some way from the legislation that we're passing,” she remarks.
Informal education also helped, from working with the Department of Health, at the Nunavut Social Development Council and learning from residential school survivors. “I've always cared very much for the lives of Nunavummiut because of how much atrocity and adversity Nunavummiut have been forced to experience and to still have so much strength and love for families and the communities,” she elaborates. She wants to ensure survivors and elders get the support they need for cultural revitalization and to stop intergenerational trauma.
Her advice for youth considering leaving home to further their education is full of compassion. “While it could be challenging at first, I think it can be rewarding because with the changes that you experience… can be hard. But through that journey, I think you really discover who you are and how you can develop coping skills to become a stronger person,” she counsels, relaying how those life experiences can be used to help others. Idlout encourages students to remember why they chose to further their education so they can make the most of it and have a greater sense of accomplishment when they graduate.
“I think that by being honest about who we are, we can help other people.”
After losing her dad to suicide and spending time in foster care, Idlout knows about difficult life experiences. She didn’t have the stability or the coping skills she needed and turned to alcohol. It’s something she’s mindful of as an elected official and she doesn’t want to lose the work that she does due to poor choices. When she’s going through a hard time coping with drinking, she reaches out for help. She’s vulnerable with friends, family and helplines to keep her drinking in check and avoid going back to the heavy drinking she did before politics. While it’s been difficult, she doesn’t feel alone. “Every human, I think, has struggles internally that we have to cope with, anyhow,” she observes.
“It’s okay to fall apart. It's how you put yourself back together that will help make a difference for others.”
If she could go back and tell her younger self anything she says it would be, “It's okay to have fun. It's okay to have humour in your life. I wish I had learned earlier that I could be a fun person, too.. I think that's something that I would encourage more Nunavummiut is that even though you've gone through a hard time, it's good to have positive energy and just have humour.”
To maintain her mental health and work life balance, she stays in touch with friends and family through Facebook and text messages when she’s in Ottawa. “Because I grew up in different communities, I wasn't able to have lifelong friends very much. But having lived in Iqaluit for 20 years, I've been able to keep friends. That's what I also do is just talk with my friends and enjoy life as much as I can,” she shares. Otherwise, she spends time reading, plays Scrabble online and does outdoor activities, either in her backyard in Ottawa or out at the cabin, playing with her dogs when she’s home in the North.
Her role models include inspiring people of Nunavut like Mary Wilman, Christa Kunuk, and others who give back to the community. “The way they lead their lives really helps me to know I can be like them, to continue to want to help people, because it's so easy to be selfish. It's so easy to isolate myself. But when I go home and I see how involved they are in the community, it makes me want to stay involved and make sure I'm not losing my connections,” she smiles. She looks up to her colleagues Leah Gazan and Nikki Ashton, who she admires for their power, passion and how they have guided her to make the most impact in her work and stay grounded in the work she does.
After growing up feeling destined to be in politics, Lori Idlout is living her dream and helping to build the dreams of her fellow Nunavummiut through her work in the Nation’s capital. With the strength of someone who has found her way through hard times and back from challenges with alcohol, she’s standing tall representing her territory to honour her elders and neighbours with every law she passes.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.
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Funding is generously provided by the RBC Foundation in support of RBC Future Launch, and the Government of Canada's Supports for Student Learning program.