December 16, 2019

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The most interesting man in the game

Ouellette's journey from childhood poverty to mayoral challenger has resonated with electorate

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/10/2014 (1885 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Strathcona-Tweedsmuir just outside Calgary is arguably the poshest private school in Western Canada. The tuition is $20,000, and it's produced premiers, CEOs and NHL hockey players. Students occasionally drive brand-new Lexuses to campus. Recently, the school opened its Aspen Lodge, "an eco-friendly, sheltered, outdoor classroom nestled in the forest."

Strathcona-Tweedsmuir is where Cree candidate Robert-Falcon Ouellette attended high school, despite a childhood seasoned by frequent poverty and thanks to, essentially, a fraud perpetrated by his mother.

Robert-Falcon Ouellette's journey from childhood poverty to mayoral challenger has resonated with electorate.


Robert-Falcon Ouellette's journey from childhood poverty to mayoral challenger has resonated with electorate.

Ouellette's stint at the private school is one of several almost unbelievable chapters in his unlikely personal history, a history that has captured, if not the votes, then the attention of many Winnipeggers this election. His campaign has deftly tapped into the election's zeitgeist issue — the marginalization of indigenous Winnipeggers. His charm and eloquence have impressed many at forums and debates, and his policy ideas have put him in league with the front-runners. But it's arguably his personal backstory — his stint in the military, his summer spent homeless and living in a tent, his five kids and his three advanced degrees — that have catapulted him beyond fringe status.

"Even if this adventure ends," said friend, research colleague and Université de Saint-Boniface professor Denis Gagnon, "people will see that a First Nations person can put themselves in front of the camera, can be in a position of power."

Ouellette's campaign has involved considerable myth-making. He knows the power of casual references to his stint as a young election observer in South Africa in 1994 when Nelson Mandela was first elected. He's prone to moments of awkward self-aggrandizement — "I've been performing really well," and "People don't realize I'm very successful at getting grants," and "Judy's supporters flocked to me." And he's gripped by a certain naiveté about civic politics that allows him to be ambitious but also prompts him to suggest he could win the election if he had another two weeks.

But based on interviews with friends and colleagues from his past, the myth largely holds up to scrutiny.

Ouellette's first break came when he was in seventh grade, when his little brother and his mom lived in a one-bedroom apartment on Calgary's north side. His dad, an Indian residential school survivor and alcoholic, was no longer in the picture, and his mother, Sharon, though loving and single-minded, was occasionally emotionally unstable.

A few years earlier, his mother lost a good job, slowly sold off all the family's furniture and finally had to vacate her townhome. As Ouellette has described repeatedly at mayoral forums, the family then spent the summer living in a tent, moving from KOA campgrounds to city parks and to his grandmother's before his mom finally agreed to go on welfare.

Things stabilized somewhat by the time Ouellette was in junior high, but he went to a rough school, walking around with an X-Acto knife in his bag, just in case. His grades weren't great. There often wasn't enough to eat at home.

"My mother said, 'If we're gonna change our family's path, your future, we're gonna have to do something different,' " he recalled.

So she sussed out the best private school in the city and sent in an application for Ouellette and his little brother. The day before the entrance interview, she took Ouellette for a haircut and to Zellers, where she bought him a white button-down shirt, new runners and "a conservative type of MC Hammer pants."

Ouellette aced the entrance exam, impressed in the interview and got accepted. The one problem was the tuition fees, then about $10,000. At the time, Ouellette's mother was juggling a couple of part-time McJobs. She got one of her bosses to write a letter inflating her salary so she could qualify for a bank loan. She got one every year, with a little extra to pay the interest.

Ouellette's mother spent a decade paying off those loans, before her death several years ago.

At Strathcona-Tweedsmuir, Ouellette discovered poverty didn't define him, that he was just as smart as the smartest kids. No one asked about his background, partly because there were plenty of other kids with darker skin, and no one knew he lived a 90-minute bus ride away in a one-bedroom apartment.

"You wore the same uniform. No one could look at you and say your shoes are really scruffy and you've been wearing the same shirt for five days because there's no money to put in the machine at the laundromat down the street," he said. 'What do your parents do?' 'Oh, my mom works in sales.' "

Former band teacher Duane Hendricks, now a lifelong friend, said Ouellette was a talented trumpet player at Strathcona-Tweedsmuir — a hard worker, disciplined, bright, competitive and well-spoken.

Hendricks was among the few at school who knew about Ouellette's home life and got to know the whole family well, in part because he would drive Ouellette home from school after late band practices.

Later, when Ouellette was struggling at the University of Calgary, Hendricks would have him over for dinner a couple of times a week and correct his essays, a simple thing Ouellette said made all the difference in a very lean year.

That lean year forced Ouellette, who was a cadet as a kid, to join the military, where he spent 18 years of mostly full-time service, serving as a barracks warden and in musical units before his last posting in a medical support unit with the famed Vandoos in Valcartier, Que. Near the beginning of Canada's military deployment to Afghanistan, he applied to go overseas but wasn't accepted.

The military allowed him a good salary and some flexibility to complete two master's degrees, one in music and one in education and then a PhD in three years, all with a young family. He worked until 1 a.m. most nights.

"When you see your mother sacrifice the way she did for you, when she says to you, 'Go get a bachelor's. Go get a master's. When are you getting your Phd?' It's hard to refuse," he said.

Four years ago, after completing his dissertation, he retired from the military and moved to Winnipeg to take a job at the University of Manitoba, buying a large house for his larger family in River Park South and starting work in his new-found field of indigenous education.

He began popping up as a media commentator on indigenous issues, building a profile. Then, last Christmas, he started asking people he knew, such as Idle No More activist and social work student Kyra Wilson and political science professor Malcolm Bird, to help him make a bid for mayor.

"When we started this campaign, around the table, just four or five people, we were like, 'What end of this do we start with?" ' he said.

Since then, with the help of more seasoned campaign volunteers, especially Liberal ones, Ouellette's bid for mayor has picked up speed, especially after his deft handling of the controversy surrounding racist Facebook posts made by rival candidate Gord Steeves' wife. During the hubbub, Ouellette called Winnipeg a city divided by race, an image that became shorthand for a host of issues such as poverty and missing and murdered women that emerged unexpectedly as key issues in the race. He went from a virtually unknown, to "the Falcon."

"I think people who are voting for me are far more committed to me than to any other candidate. I think people voting for the other candidates are largely going through the motions because they think that's what they're supposed to do," he said. "I didn't know that would be the effect of me running on some people."


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