Q&A: Romeo Saganash (Part Two)

by Aaron Wherry

The second part of my conversation with Romeo Saganash. In this segment we talk about #IdleNoMore, Theresa Spence, Shawn Atleo, the blockades and the chance for progress. The first part of our conversation is here.

Obviously you’ve been preoccupied with other things, but have you had a chance to watch Idle No More? Have you talked to people? What’s your sense of what’s happened these last few weeks?

Well, anyone who thought that this would never happen must have been somewhere else, in a sense, because this was bound to happen. I know a lot of people tend to say that Idle No More is just an aboriginal thing, which is really not the case because a lot of things that we talk about should be of direct concern to all Canadians. Whether it’s the environment, navigable waters, you name it. The dismantling, and it’s not just me as an NDPer that is speaking, but the dismantling of the environment, the dismantling of the economy and natural resources in this country, the dismantling of human rights in this country, the government of the day is presently dismantling the very foundation of what Canada is. And obviously I have a problem with that.

So that is what I’m seeing. I haven’t been completely isolated, I’ve been following this and the people that talk to me, whether in my riding or Montreal or elsewhere here, all point to the same things. The hunting association in Val D’Or has the same preoccupations as the aboriginal peoples that are protesting in the streets. And in many regions, a lot of non-aboriginal people have joined those marches. We need to continue to fight something that is wrong here. And it’s not just about aboriginal rights or treaty rights, it’s about a lot of other things as well.

What do make of the blockades and those protests? Do you think that some good can come from that? Is that the right tactic to take at this point?

What else can they do, in order to be heard? I think that the attempt to provide an understanding, educating Canadians, is a very noble one. And we need that, most definitely. As long as it remains peaceful, I think we’re on the right track. But, again, like I said, I think a lot of the issues that are raised, especially the young aboriginals, are crucial to this country, crucial to this country’s environment, economy, natural resources and justice. We need to get into this all together. It’s the only way.

I worked for 23 years at the United Nations, negotiating the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, on behalf of the 370 indigenous people on this planet, and to this day the UN declaration is the only international law instrument that provides for the rights of non-indigenous people. There are 17 provisions in that declaration that provide for your rights as a non-indigenous person. We managed to find a balance there. If we can do it at this high, UN, multilateral process, we can certainly do it here as Canadians. And that’s my hope.

How difficult is Mr. Atleo’s position right now? There seems to be some sense that his leadership is threatened, right? And there is all this talk of division underneath him.

I don’t think we should be surprised by the so-called disunity of aboriginal chiefs in this country. Not at all. There are ten provincial premiers that have a hard time being united at times on certain issues before the prime minister, so it’s not surprising. I think people need to understand that we live in such varied and diverse political contexts in this country. That it is normal that we cannot always be united and say the same thing on every issue. It’s perfectly normal. I mean, the Cree in Northern Quebec have the James Bay-Northern Quebec agreement, on the other side of the bay they don’t have a James Bay-Northern Quebec agreement. It’s not only province by province where aboriginal peoples have different political contexts, but it’s also various regions in each of these provinces. The Cree in Northern Quebec have a treaty, the Inuit as well, the Innu, the Algonquins don’t have a treaty similar to ours, so it’s always very difficult to have one voice in that context. I mean, there are Crees in Quebec, in Ontario, in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, Montana, North Dakota, there’s no one unified Cree voice in this country, right?

So it’s obviously very difficult for my friend Shawn in that context. But I think the way that he has tried to pull all this together is formidable.

What do you make of Theresa Spence’s hunger strike?

Like many other people, I’m worried about her health and her life. I’m planning to go and see her this afternoon sometime if I have time. We have to tip our hat because she got the Prime Minister moving, I hope in the right direction. We saw movement. I hope in the right direction and finally once and for all because these are issues that are long overdue. It’s not easy to move Stephen Harper and she did. So at least we got that.

From experience, I have always attempted to give people a chance to prove themselves, in any context. For 30 years we fought the Quebec government, but there was a moment in time where we had to decide, okay, let’s give this one more try. And I think that’s what happened. And let’s just hope that this will move forward because he committed to doing something a year ago and he didn’t. Let’s just hope that this time is the right time.

I read this quote from you and I think the sentiment was that you didn’t want to be pigeon-holed. You said, you’re not an aboriginal politician, you’re not a Quebec politician, you didn’t want to be typecast, I guess. But do you feel at all like a standard bearer for aboriginals. There aren’t a lot of aboriginal politicians in the House. I’m not sure if there have ever been aboriginal politicians in the House that had as much history and experience as a leader in a negotiator. Do you feel at all like a standard bearer for people and issues? Do you even want that position or title?

I don’t like that question. But let me say this, and I think I said this publicly before. When Jack and I used to talk about these issues, I said if I do get elected as an NDP MP, I wouldn’t want that file. For various reasons, but the fundamental one is this is a Canadian problem. Why should it be the burden of an aboriginal person to fix the problem that was created by non-aboriginals? That was my point with Jack, at that time. It’s still my point of view at this moment, but again I do realize that the experience that I have over the past three decades with these issues and trying to move these issues forward for the benefit of all, not just the aboriginal people, and trying to find a true balance between aboriginal interests and Canadian interests… yeah, I have that experience and if I can be of some help at this moment in time with that experience in mind, of course.

I said this when I ran as a candidate during the last election, whenever I went to speak before the Cree, I always said, I’m not asking you Crees to vote for me because I’m a Cree. Vote for me for what I stand for and what our party stands for. I said that to the Cree. I said that to the Inuit. I said that to the Algonquins in my riding. From there on, when I got elected, I represent everybody.

And it’s not always easy to find a balance between the interest of one side vis a vis the other side, but it’s possible. And I’ve done it, I’ve achieved it at the UN, we achieved it in Northern Quebec. There was a moment in time, a window of opportunity at one time with the Quebec government after 30 years of legal and political fights with the Quebec government, there was a window of opportunity when the superior court of Quebec in September 2000, ruled that the provisions of the forestry act of Quebec are incompatible with the terms of the James Bay-Northern Quebec agreement. That meant 27 forestry companies in Northern Quebec, that meant about 10,000 to 15,000 jobs. So somebody woke up in Quebec and said, okay, we have to fix this. So the lack of implementation of a treaty for more than 25 years led to that moment. And we said to the government of Quebec at that moment, rather than just fixing the forestry problem, let’s fix our political relations. Let’s find that fundamental modus vivendi that we need as a society, as peoples, in order to achieve that co-existence that is so required today. And that’s what we did. The real name of the Paix des Braves is an Agreement Respecting a New Relationship Between the Cree Nation and the Government of Quebec. And that’s what we achieved. I think things have gone very smoothly since 2002 because of that new relationship agreement.

A lot of people I hear discussing the aboriginal question or issue in this country say, well, it’s going to take a lot of time to fix the problem. Yeah, perhaps. Perhaps, allow me to say. But the fundamental thing that is required, and it’s a very basic thing, is the political will. Is there the political will to really fix the problem, once and for all, for the benefit of all Canadians? If that political will is there, the rest will come more easily. And that’s what I’m looking for. That’s why I’m saying, let’s give the guy a chance, let’s give the parties a chance. I’m glad that Shawn attended the meeting. I’m glad that the Grand Chief of the Grand Council of Cree attended the meeting. And let’s take it from there. Let’s see what happens from there.




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Q&A: Romeo Saganash (Part Two)

  1. ‘What else can they do, in order to be heard?’

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