Jenica Atwin, Fredericton member of Parliament, was sitting in the living room with her husband and son when she learned that she won the Rising Star award for Maclean’s Magazine’s 2020 Parliamentarians of the Year.
Atwin won her seat in the 2019 federal election when she beat out Liberal Matt DeCourcey. She said when people told her she didn’t have “a hope in hell,” it just made her want to work harder and prove them wrong.
“I’m never someone to back down from a challenge,” said Atwin.
She and former Green Party leader Elizabeth May are the only members of their party that were recognized this year. Atwin is also one of only three Green Party members ever elected to Parliament and the first Green MP to be elected outside British Columbia.
She always knew that she wanted to do something with Canadian politics.
“I always had an inkling that I wanted to someday be involved,” said Atwin.
She initially entered university intending to go to law school but fell in love with history and planned to earn a master’s in the subject.
After finishing her undergraduate, Atwin began working as a substitute teacher.
She said it was her work as an educator where she developed a passion for mental health advocacy.
Atwin remembered the first time a student approached her and told her that they were suicidal.
“I felt unprepared,” she said.
But Atwin said this experience pushed her to educate herself. She started to take every possible in-service the department provided that dealt with mental health first aid, suicide prevention, and youth and drugs. She said she took anything that could teach her how to better help her students.
Atwin said her work with Indigenous youth pushed her back towards politics.
“So many times we try to change something, we try to remove barriers that some of the youth are experiencing and the system says we can’t do that,” said Atwin. “For me, it was like I need to be involved in that decision-making process and remove some of these barriers.”
Now, despite only having been in Parliament for a year and a half, Atwin has made a name for herself as an advocate for mental health issues, Indigenous rights and environmental sustainability.
“I’m also part of an all-party mental health caucus,” said Atwin. “We’re very action-oriented. We’re not there just to talk about the issue. We really want to have some solutions put forward.”
Atwin also said she is proud of her work on an amendment for Bill C-3, which ensures that all judges across Canada receive sexual assault training.
“We [also] passed an amendment to ensure that Indigenous leaders and representatives are actually involved in the early process of creating the seminars for the judges, so right up front there is Indigenous consultation,” she said.
Atwin hopes this is a step towards addressing the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women. While Atwin is not Indigenous, she is the stepdaughter of Ron Tremblay, the Wolastoq Grand Chief, and she’s married to Oromocto First Nation band councillor Chris Atwin.
She is also working on Bill C-15 which would “enshrine the United Nations Declaration on the rights of Indigenous Peoples into Canadian law.” This was something her party pushed for, she said.
She said she’s thankful to have her position when events like the Mi’kmaq fishing dispute in Nova Scotia happened so she can lend “truth to the conversation.”
Atwin said she’s inspired by other female politicians, particularly United States Vice-President Kamala Harris.
“I watched a documentary last night on Kamala Harris and her rise to power and I just love her line so much about being the first woman but not the last. I think that’s so beautiful,” she said.
Atwin also admires New York City Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, who brought the Green New Deal to Congress back in 2018, a proposed U.S. legislation that aims to address economic inequality and climate change. Atwin said creating something similar for Fredericton is a goal that herself, her party and her New Democratic Party colleagues have.
Atwin sees a Green New Deal as a way to help Fredericton recover from the effects of COVID-19.
“This is an excellent time to jump in and see what this could provide for opportunities for Canadians,” she said.
But Atwin’s biggest inspiration is young people, including her students and children.
“I bring them with me in all of the work that we do in Ottawa,” she said.
Looking towards the future, Atwin hopes that other young people with political aspirations know that everyone has a place in politics.
“You absolutely belong there, if that’s where your heart is leading you, that’s where your journey has taken you,” she said.
“You may not have all the answers, you may not be perfect … but you do belong.”