Q&A: Romeo Saganash (Part One)

The NDP MP talks to Aaron Wherry about alcoholism, family and the residential school experience
NDP MP Romeo Saganash will drop out of the leadership race to replace the late Jack Layton, The Canadian Press has learned. Saganash is shown taking part in the first round of debates in Ottawa Sunday, December 4, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand
NDP MP Romeo Saganash in a debate during the NDP leadership race in December 2011. (Fred Chartrand/CP)

After an incident aboard an Air Canada plane in October, NDP MP Romeo Saganash acknowledged that he had a dependence on alcohol and announced that he would be taking a leave to seek treatment. The former Cree leader and negotiator returned to work yesterday. I sat down with him in his Parliament Hill office this morning to talk about his fight against alcoholism, his experiences as a child in a residential school, #IdleNoMore, Theresa Spence and his role as an aboriginal in politics. This is part one of our conversation. Part two is here.

First of all, how are you doing?

Very well. I’m glad to be back. I missed a lot of things apparently. (laughs)

Yeah, just a couple things happened while you were away. How has the last month or so gone? I take it you went through a program or some kind of treatment, how did that go?

That went very well. I’m glad I did it. I told my leader that that was probably the best decision I ever took in my entire career. It taught me a lot of things. It taught me to work on myself and care about myself as well. And that’s important. I was just recalling with the previous reporter that I started out back in 1981 when the late Billy Diamond called upon me to work for the Grand Council of Cree, so I’ve been in this for a long time. And I guess throughout this period, at one point you forget about yourself.

Had it ever been suggested to you, had anyone ever said to you before this, that they thought you might have a problem?


It never occurred to you, either?

Well, perhaps at times, yeah, but not really directly, no one has ever… I think the way that I looked at it over the years was that if it started affecting my job than there’s something wrong. But that never happened, so I just went on with things. And then this incident happened and I said to myself, well, okay, perhaps there might be a problem.

In that statement you released when you said you were going to take some time off, you talked about a few things, one of them being your residential school experience. Do you see that as the root of things? Is that where the trouble starts?

Well, I don’t necessarily want to blame what happened on anything else besides me. I’m the one at the end of the day that took decisions about many things, including alcohol. And I accept that responsibility and I admitted that responsibility and I went and sought help and treatment. But certainly one of the things that they try to teach or that you learn in treatment is that there’s a time when you have to look back on where you come from. And definitely one of the things that I thought about a lot is how my 10 years in a residential school affected who I am today, or tainted who I am today and the way I am today. Definitely. Most definitely. Ten years is a long time.

Especially for someone like me who wanted to become like his father and grandparents and so on. My dream in life was to be like my father, it was to go back in the bush and live off the land. That was my dream when I was young. There was nothing else besides, okay, I’m going to become like my father. And I think that’s what a lot of young people that were sent to residential schools were thinking as well.

I’m part of the last generation of aboriginal people, at least Crees, where I’m from, that were born in the bush, under a tent, raised in the bush for the first years of our lives. The first six or seven years of my life, I spent in the bush with my parents. I’d never even heard someone speak English or French before arriving in the residential school, so that’s the only thing I knew and that’s the only thing that you want to become. And be good as your dad. A good hunter, and so on.

So it did affect me in a certain way, obviously. Especially the fact that right after my arrival at a residential school, the director of the residential school announced that my dad had passed away. And we couldn’t go back to the community because the residential school did not have budgets for that … I come from a large family, 14 kids, and we were sent to different residential schools, purposely. Some went to Sault St. Marie, some went to Brantford, some went to Moosonee, I went to La Tuque residential school. And I still clearly remember the day, on the intercom system, when the director called on the Saganash family to come to his office, on a January morning. And he basically said it in one phrase: Your dad is dead, but we cannot send you kids back home because there’s no budget for that.

Is there any way to quantify how difficult that experience was? Were you abused, was it just being away from your family?

Being sent to a residential school is like being a political prisoner, a linguistic prisoner, a cultural prisoner. You’re taken away, not only from your family, but from your culture, your language and your territory and being sent to this strange place that you’ve never seen before. And I still recall that night we arrived, up the steps, there’s an entrance hall there and the director or priest was up a few steps higher and started speaking in a language I couldn’t even understand. The only language that I spoke when I got there was Cree.

And I still recall hearing the other kids, don’t forget there were four-, five-year-old kids … the kids crying every night, crying out for their mom.

Do you remember when you started drinking? Does it go back a ways? Is it a recent development?

I guess it depends what you mean by drinking. (laughs)


It’s a relative term. Like all 20 year olds, we loved going out on Friday nights or on weekends and having a beer. But in terms of the trouble really starting. I don’t really recall when exactly.

I had a mission in life and that was to help building bridges between my people and the rest of Quebec and Canadian society. My whole purpose was that over the last 30 years. When Jack first approached me in 2006 to run for the NDP, there was still a lot of unfinished business with the Cree at that time, so I preferred to continue to work with the Cree until 2011 when I thought was the timing was great for me. The campaign slogan was travaillons ensemble and that was me over the years.

The intent at that time was for me to run in Quebec City. I had worked from Quebec City for the grand council, my work base was in Quebec City and I had been there for 20 years, so I knew practically everybody in Quebec City. But Jack, and that was probably the only thing that he refused from me, said to me, no, my friend, you’re going back home. And I always loved the way that he explained his refusal to me. He said, look at this way: all of the challenges, the global challenges that we have today, the environment, climate change, relations with aboriginal peoples, the future of aboriginal peoples, resource development, the future of the north, the new geopolitical realities of the Arctic, you name them, they’re all in that riding. And he said, who better than you can represent that riding? And in a sense I’d never thought about it, because it’s so diverse in terms of population. There are Cree in my riding, there are Inuit in my riding, there are Algonquins in my riding, there are forestry workers in my riding, there are mining workers in my riding. More than half the province gets its electricity from that territory. It’s a huge riding, it’s the second largest in the country. And I know the riding very well. It’s a riding where the James Bay-Northern Quebec agreement, first model treaty, applies as well, more than half of the riding is covered by this constitutional arrangement. And I know that treaty very, very well. And I think Jack was right. And I’m certainly glad that he insisted.

You’re such an accomplished man, you’ve done so much and been such a leader, was it difficult to go through this and admit weakness and have  a personal setback when you’ve built yourself up to such a point—that you’ve come so far, did the setback hurt that much more?

In a way, yes. In the sense that it takes a lot of humbleness to admit to a problem, which I did. It takes a lot of courage too, which I had, when the decision was required. 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.

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.

Have you made peace with the residential school experience? Is it possible to make peace with that?

I’m not entirely sure. Because of a lot of things. I still recall, for instance, when the apology came down in the House of Commons by Stephen Harper. The very next day after that apology, I was in Geneva, debating the the UN declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples. And what did the Canadian representatives say at the UN the very next day? They continued to deny the very fundamental rights of the people that they apologized to the previous day. So that apology meant nothing in that sense for me.

I think about the parents as well in all this. When you realize that every fall, entire communities across this land just emptied of kids and children. Every fall. And my mom lost perhaps all of her children every fall. I don’t think there can be peace, really, with what happened. I just can’t put myself in my mom’s place and say, okay, it happened and let’s forget about this and move on. No, I don’t think so.

Especially because in her case, her first child that was sent to a residential school was in 1954. Little John, I believe, was six years old when he was sent. Never came back. Apparently died the very first year he got to a residential school. My mom, my parents, never knew from what he died. My mom never knew where he was buried, for more than 40 years.

Does she know now?

Now she knows and It just happened by coincidence. My sister, who’s still at CBC North in Montreal, was a reporter at the time and did this story on comparative analysis between the Cree on one side and the Cree on the other side of the bay. And so she happened to be in Moosonee and at one point during her stay there a lady came out of her home and asked if she was Emma Saganash. Emma said yes. Are you related to Johnny Saganash? Yeah, my little brother was sent to a residential school. I know where he’s buried? Forty years later. So finally we knew where he was laid to rest. Fortunately my sister had her camera crew there and so they filmed while they were looking for… there was no little cross or tombstone, it was just, the lady knew the name of the person who he was laid next to. So they filmed that. And we showed that to our mom.

(Pauses) You know, I saw my mom cry often in my life. Not the way she cried that day. That was a fundamental closure for her.

Was there some relief in crying at that point?

Of course, of course. Even 40 years later. Because she didn’t know what happened, where he was. My eldest brother, who was a good friend of Johnny, still to this day refuses to accept that he’s dead.

So it was a closure, nevertheless, for my mom. All these things and myself being sent away every fall for 10 years, you cannot really be at peace with that episode, dark episode of my life.

You talked about, being in treatment, you go back—I don’t want to make too much out of it if I shouldn’t be—but is that where the things start to get difficult? Is that the baggage that you were carrying around?

In treatment, they ask you to go back and see where some of the things that you live with today come from. And obviously that is one of them. They teach you to do that and accept that is what happened and try to move on from there. That’s what I did. I’m now going to move on. I’ll never be at peace with what happened. I don’t think there can ever be justice to the people that had to go through that experience, including myself, but we need to move on. So I try to do the work that I have to do honestly. I try to do things that I like besides politics. Photography and writing are things that are important for me.

How are things day to day? What’s your average day like now? My general understanding of alcoholism is you’re never really cured, you just have to keep fighting it.

Yeah, they teach you to take it one day at a time and that’s what I do. Fortunately, for my health, I continue running. I can’t wait to put on my skates, as well, but I never really stopped running over the years. So that’s the good side, health-wise. That keeps my mind straight. Keeps me off the streets. (laughs)