Senator Brian Francis was appointed to the Senate of Canada on October 11, 2018. He is the first person of Mi'kmaq descent in Prince Edward Island to serve in this role.
From 2007 to 2018, Senator Francis was the elected chief and band administrator of the Abegweit Mi’kmaq Nation. During his term, he worked to improve the social, economic and cultural well-being of his community.
I was born and raised on a small island part of Prince Edward Island. It was a reserve. Life was hard. Sometimes, there was no money for food or clothing. As I got older, I was determined to make a better life for myself and my family. I relocated to the mainland in search of more opportunities when I was a teenager and eventually built a successful career in the federal public service that lasted more than 22 years. In the various roles I held, I was able to assist many people from my community, which was incredibly rewarding for me. It was helpful for them to have people like me who could understand and relate to their lives — to the issues that were important to them. It’s so important to build a representative public service.
I always had the feeling that maybe I could help make changes to improve the lives of my friends and neighbors, all of whom belonged to the community that shaped me to become the man I am. So, I decided to put my name forward for the position of chief of Abegweit First Nation, which is where I had been living. The people there trusted me to make a difference. A lot still needs to be done but I’d like to think that during my time as chief we made a real improvement in the daily lives of our people. I hope to do the same here in the Senate.
Our community was not always the best environment, which is probably a common experience for many Indigenous people across Canada. We certainly felt the impact of personal and systemic racism, of colonialism, and the effects of residential schools. Issues with mental health, substance abuse and domestic violence were rampant inside and outside our homes. At school, at work and in life we were subjected to prejudice and discrimination. It was a lot for such a small place — our island was roughly 1,350 acres and the only way to get in and out was by boat, by snowmobile or by walking across the ice in the winter (which was dangerous and proved to be fatal for some).
So, we were forced to grow up quickly and survive situations that no child should experience. I attended an Indian Day School, which was a miniature version of a residential school where children went home at night. Those of us who attended these federally operated institutions have had to live with the trauma, and in some cases, physical and sexual abuse committed by individuals entrusted with our care. I distinctly remember when my Grade 1 teacher, who was not from our community, came to school with a loaded shotgun. One day she was leaving the island on a Friday afternoon and we were all down swimming at the wharf. As she was getting onto the ferry to cross, the gun went off by accident and blew a hole right in the cabin of the boat. It almost killed the captain. That sticks in the memory of a six-year-old. And you need to ask yourself, why did she feel the need to bring a shotgun to school? This was not normal. But it was our normal.
The Senate is an integral part of our parliamentary system. It was created to be a champion of regional and minority interests, which are sometimes overlooked. It is also a place of sober second thought where legislation can receive careful consideration before becoming law.
The work that is being done by the Senate, whether it is in the Chamber, in committees or anywhere else in or around the country, is of importance to current and future generations. Just this year, we published reports on issues related to Indigenous languages, accessibility, the charitable sector and firearms. I could go on and on, but I guarantee there is at least one aspect of our work that is near and dear to someone’s heart.
I hope to provide the Indigenous lens, of course, for bills that are sent to the Senate for review, participating in the committees so that committee members can hear my perspective, and, being a former First Nations chief, for them to have a better picture, a better understanding of where we’re coming from as Indigenous peoples.
I also enjoy sitting on the Senate Committee on Fisheries and Oceans. Coming from a fishing family myself, I know this industry is such an important part of P.E.I. and Atlantic Canada. It is the primary career for so many people and requires a balance to keep the industry healthy and sustainable.
I think a hidden gem for me would be Skmaqn-Port-la-Joye-Fort Amherst. I am fortunate to live close to this national historic site. I like to go there in the morning to drink my coffee. It’s calm, peaceful and breathtaking when the sun rises.
It was a former meeting place where the Mi’kmaq leaders met with the Acadians. It’s also where the Acadians were expelled by the British in the 1700s. Some Acadians were hidden by the Mi’kmaq people to save their lives. I think that’s why it’s special to me, too, because I can connect to it.
I recently read the autobiography of the late “Stompin' Tom” Connors, a Canadian icon. I was taken aback by his story because we shared some similarities. He wrote, for example, that he may have some Métis or Mi’kmaq ancestry. He also had a rough start in life. He experienced poverty, homelessness and crime. At age 13, believe it or not, he ran away from his adoptive family in Prince Edward Island to hitchhike across Canada. To survive, he worked odd jobs and wrote songs on his guitar that he then performed live. I think he, like all of us, made mistakes along the way, but it was perseverance and belief in himself that led him to make his wildest dreams come true. I admire that.
I am very family-oriented. I really like to spend time with my wife, children and grandchildren. When I am home we all have dinner together at least three times a week. We also like to do physical activities together. We regularly train with my son, who is a personal trainer. He constantly reminds us of the importance of having a healthy and active lifestyle. We also like to be outside, go to the beach, camping in the summer and having snowball fights in the winter.
Nowadays, I do not have a lot of free time. I attend a lot of events at home and around the region. They allow me to stay closely connected to the people I represent. I also love playing 12-string guitar. I’ve been playing for about 40 years and I play regularly in the St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Parish Church in Cornwall, P.E.I.
I think I’m proud to be Canadian because of the rich and diverse culture in Canada. I recognize that Canada has a way to go in many areas, especially in terms of reconciling with our Indigenous peoples, but there is progress being made. And that makes me proud to be Canadian.
Meaningful reconciliation is about going that extra mile. Reconciliation is going to be a long haul and it’s going to take some time, but with both Canada and our Indigenous peoples working together it’s going to happen.
I am also very proud to be sitting as a senator from P.E.I. It’s a privilege that I do not take lightly. The Senate is a constitutionally mandated part of the democratic process and now provides a strong Indigenous voice and lens when reviewing the bills coming from the House of Commons.