Three months ago, news broke that NDP MP Romeo Saganash had been removed from an Air Canada flight after he had been deemed too intoxicated to fly. Two hours later, Saganash announced that he would be seeking medical treatment for a dependence on alcohol.
Born in the remote community of Waswanipi, Quebec, Saganash was raised in the bush before being taken away from his family to attend a residential school. He would go on to receive his law degree from the Université du Québec à Montréal and become a prominent leader and negotiator with the Grand Council of the Cree, engaged in debates about sovereignty for Quebec, treaty rights and resource development, and in 2011 he was introduced as a star candidate for the NDP in Quebec. In the wake of Jack Layton’s death, Saganash stepped forward as a candidate for the party’s leadership.
“I am not looking at excuses, but I know that profound scars were left on me because of my time in residential school. I never shied away from that,” he wrote when he stepped away. “The death of my friend and mentor, Jack Layton, also greatly affected me. Like him, I needed a crutch. The leadership race wore me out, on top of taking me away from my children and my loved ones even more often. Life on Parliament Hill can be hectic and exciting, but it is also full of obstacles and pitfalls. Many of my colleagues can attest to this.”
He returned to work in his riding yesterday and was back on Parliament Hill today. Seated in his office, he answered questions about his childhood, life, his alcoholism, his treatment and how a kid from the bush got here—about the pain of residential schools and the mission of his political life. “I recall looking at my leader, straight in the eyes, when I told them I’ll seek help in order to come back well. And that is what I did,” he says. “And you also have this feeling that you’ve disappointed a whole bunch of people. Not only your immediate family, my children, but also my political family. I felt that I’d let down the NDP and my colleagues. I regretted that very much. And my voters, my electors, as well. All that comes into play in your mind when something like that happens. But I was prepared for the challenge. I said to myself that I’ve slayed other dragons before in my life and this one won’t be different.”
While he was away, the Idle No More movement took shape and made its presence felt and Saganash, a man steeped in these issues and debates, also talked about the protests, Theresa Spence, Shawn Atleo, the way forward and the possibility for progress. “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.”