Like every good politician, Ethel Blondin-Andrew has a keen memory for names.

Ask her about any of her accomplishments from her 71 years of life and the list of people to whom she gives credit is seemingly endless.

That includes her recent appointment to the highest civilian honour in the country.

This week, Blondin-Andrew, a longtime Northern MP and the first Indigenous woman to serve in federal cabinet, was one of 85 people appointed to the Order of Canada.

“It’s very humbling, because anybody that does public service knows it’s the opportunity afforded you by so many people,” she said. “So I would say that I humbly accept this on behalf of the people that I worked with, that worked with me and for me, and the people that supported me.”

That list of people includes everyone from the Commissioner of the NWT, Margaret Thom — an old friend from her Indigenous language teaching days — to the friends she made in residential school.

For Blondin-Andrew, the road from her home community of Tulita to the highest echelons of power was unpaved and treacherous. From running away from Grollier Hall residential school in Inuvik and spending a year living in a tent city with other runaways, to surviving tuberculosis, to finishing Grade 8 in Deline at a time when the community still had no electricity.

Eventually, however, Blondin-Andrew was accepted to Grandin College, a leadership school in Fort Smith, and graduated to the University of Alberta. After receiving her bachelor of education in 1974, she spent time working as a teacher and with the Indigenous Development Participation Program.”

In 1988, Blondin-Andrew was elected as the Liberal MP for Western Arctic (now known as the Northwest Territories riding), becoming the first Indigenous woman to serve in Parliament. Then, when Prime Minister Jean Chretien appointed her Secretary of State for Training and Youth in 1993 — the first of many cabinet appointments in her career — she became the premier Indigenous woman to serve in cabinet as well.

“I remember being on all the constitutional committees, and approaching Gil Remillard and Premier (Robert) Bourassa and saying, ‘How could you even contemplate leaving our people out of the preamble of the Constitution? Why would you not do the right thing?’

“Remillard came to me in the last years and said, ‘I never, ever forgot that.’”

However, she said the proudest accomplishment of her political career is bringing her mother tongue to Parliament, where she spent 17 years. She famously delivered her first speech as an MP in the Dene language.

Even at 71 years old, Blondin-Andrew shows no signs of slowing down. She is a co-chair of the board of the National Indigenous Fisheries Institute. She’s also been involved in the drafting of a self-government agreement for Sahtu Dene and Metis of Norman Wells.

Nor has she lost any of her characteristic humility: “You don’t get the privilege and opportunity to do this because you’re someone special. You get to do it because you’re someone who’s willing to learn, keep their heart, their mind, and their soul open to other people who have so much to share,” said Blondin-Andrew. “A good leader is not one who shines the light on them; a good leader is one who shines the light on the capacity of others. And it makes the world a better place. Believe me.”

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