The Honourable Brian Francis is the first person of Mi’kmaq descent in Prince Edward Island to serve as a Canadian Senator. Born in the Lennox Island First Nation on PEI, Senator Francis also served for 12 years as the Chief of the Abegweit First Nation.
Senator Francis came up from extremely humble beginnings to rise to great heights, but always with his community at the forefront of his efforts. “As First Nations peoples, we are very, very close to our community. We are connected… and I always knew I have to give back to my community.”
Educated at the Indian Day School on Lennox Island, Senator Francis admits he received a less than stellar education. “The community suffered the results of colonialism and residential schooling….[The school] was run by priests and nuns and non-Indigenous teachers. What I saw at the time was they were there for the pay-check, and we really lacked that quality education to move ourselves along in life. That was a difficult time.”
But he didn’t allow those circumstances to impede his ambition. “I knew I wanted more,” Senator Francis recalls. “I realized at the time that this was just a fork in the road, and I can go down one road — like some of my friends — not do as well, or I can take the positive step and go down the other road, and do the best for myself that I can educationally.”
The young Brian Francis left his family and small community of 180 members, and enrolled at Holland College and became a journeyman carpenter. “Sure, I was lonesome. I didn’t know what I was doing, or know anyone else, but I found good role models that helped guide me through.”
Despite the systemic challenges and barriers in his way, he knew that hard work was the key to improving his situation.“You can’t bury your head in the sand and have [problems] go away, if you want to go through life and have your things that you’d like to have.” Later, that same philosophy led him to pursue a distance degree in social work from Dalhousie University.
With a young family to support, he then left university after three years to get a job with the federal government. Though he eventually would sit in the Red Chamber as a Senator, at that time Brian’s government job was in the mail room as a file clerk. “Some people would say that was a pretty low job, but to me it was everything because it provided for my family.”
Always looking for ways to improve himself, Brian rose up in the public service over the years until he was promoted to senior management. But then, another exciting and challenging opportunity presented itself. One of his community elders suggested Brian run for Chief of the Abegweit First Nation, a position that he went on to hold for three terms (twelve years), before applying to the Senate.
“[I thought] maybe I can use what I’ve learned over my years in the government and in my First Nation community to look at things from a broader perspective and help not only my First Nation, but my First Nation communities in the region and across Canada, as well as all Canadians.”
Senator Francis’s advice to young Indigenous people starting out on their own paths is the same as he gave himself so many years ago. “I always say, life will give me what I put into it. If I put a positive spin on things and move forward, that’s what I’m going to get out of it. I was fortunate enough to think that way, and that’s why I always looked at ways to improve myself, as hard as life was. I mean, I came from a dysfunctional family, a dysfunctional community, and it was not easy. But I said to myself, if I don’t make the change for my children, then I’m not going anywhere and nor are my children. So I had to make that change and only I can do it, right?”
Senator Francis wisely encourages youth to consider taking their own positive steps: “If I can make the change and I don’t make the change, then I can’t complain about anyone else that comes along and does a job that I think is not great. So you have to step up to the plate yourself! If you move forward in a positive way, then life will be good to you.”
Special thanks to Jessica Dee Humphreys for authoring this blog post.
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