Senator Nick G. Sibbeston was a product of the residential school system — an experience he blamed for his battles with depression and alcoholism later in life. He has the distinction of being the first Aboriginal person born in the Northwest Territories to become a lawyer. During his 16 years as an N.W.T. MLA, he garnered a reputation as a firebrand, populist politician. He was premier of the Territories from 1985-1987 and appointed to the Senate in 1999.
Senator Sibbeston published his autobiography You Will Wear a White Shirt: From the Northern Bush to the Halls of Power in 2015.
He retired November 21, 2017.
SenCAplus asked Senator Sibbeston to reflect on his time in the Senate.
What attracted you to the Senate position?
We were living a quiet political life in Fort Simpson, running a bed and breakfast when I got the call from Prime Minister Chrétien. I saw it as an opportunity to represent the people of the north. I had been an MLA for 16 years, but this was an opportunity to broaden my scope, to go to Ottawa to speak about the north in the Senate. It was a bigger venue and a bigger opportunity.
What were your expectations?
I wasn’t very partisan because in the legislative assembly we don’t have political parties so I expected the same and found it strange that people would talk against each other. Liberals talking against the Conservatives and Conservatives talking about Liberals like they were all bad people who would ruin the country. That was a new experience for me. I tried to stay away from it and drew my own path on issues. A less partisan and more independent Senate is more functional and useful for Canadians.
You were appointed in late 1999. Heading into retirement, what achievements have you been most proud of?
Not one specific thing. I feel I did my best work in Senate committees. It’s where the Senate does its best work. The committee is a forum where you deal with legislation but also specific issues. We dealt with education of native people, housing, economic development and business issues and Aboriginal rights so forth. So that’s where I felt most useful both for the people of the north and the country.
How have your northern roots informed or helped your career as a senator?
I was born in the north, I speak the language and spent all those years in the legislative assembly. Ottawa is far removed from northern reality and one thing I learned was that people in the south know little about the northern reality — the people, the land. Any time I spoke about the north in the Senate I felt like I was educating southerners. People saw the north in romantic terms. I tried to talk about the realities of the land and of pollution and climate change and its effects on people’s lives — and how decisions made in Ottawa affected people. When they talk about northern sovereignty, I always said that the people are the best symbol of sovereignty so treat them well. Give them services, good homes and good education. People thriving and living happy, successful lives is the best way to claim sovereignty. Not military bases.
Legislation aside, what have you enjoyed most about working here?
The prestige and honor. You are put in a lofty position — similar to being a Lord in England. And I’ve always enjoyed the ability to be in Ottawa in the winter where it’s warmer and living in the north in the summer. It’s been a rounded, balanced life.
Have you made many friends among fellow senators?
Not really. I mostly hung out with other aboriginal senators. I have acquaintances. We worked well together and my seatmate for a long while was Frank Mahovlich. I enjoyed talking to him. But I always felt I was a bit different from people down there. Culturally and so forth. I don’t have the same background or interests.
If you could give one piece of advice to incoming senators, what would it be?
Be bold and speak from the heart. Say what you have to. You don’t achieve things by speaking calmly and writing letters. You have to bang the table and raise your voice. Change doesn’t come about readily. It has to be forced.
What’s next for you?
Living a quiet life in Fort Simpson and spending more time with my family — my grandchildren. I’ve been in public life so much of my life, I am looking forward to being irresponsible and minding my own business.