Romeo Saganash, NDP MP for Abitibi-Baie-James-Nunavik-Eeyou, declared his intention to run for leadership of the party on September 16. A Cree lawyer, Saganash was elected to Parliament last May. The Daily spoke with him about his decision to run, and the future of the NDP in Quebec and Canada.
The McGill Daily: What prompted you to run for the NDP leadership?
Romeo Saganash: Mainly the fact that I believe in what Jack [Layton, former leader of the NDP] had proposed for Canada and what he had asked me to do. When I accepted to be an NDP candidate for the last election he proposed to me a vision of Canada that I agreed with, so that is the vision, that is the dream, I want to carry on with, first and foremost as an MP of course, but also as a candidate for this leadership bid for the leadership of the NDP.
MD: Why did you decide to run for parliament in the last election? Had you tried to run before?
RS: I have never been a candidate in any election, although there is a history of parties that have approached me. In every election, whether provincial or federal, almost every party [approached me], except the conservatives – don’t ask me, why I don’t know – but in every election I have been approached by every party, but I was just not ready at times. And [Layton] has asked me to run for the NDP at least since 2006, and the reason I have been refusing so far has mainly in particular been that my children had not grown up yet, and I believed they weren’t ready. I waited just because of that.
This last time I said, “Yes, I am ready.” I had proposed to him that I run in Quebec City, because I have been there for 20 years representing the Cree in governmental affairs with the Quebec government and international affairs. I had that portfolio for the grand council of the Cree for a long time. So my base is in Quebec City and I asked [Layton] if I could run in Quebec City, and at that time when I decided to say yes, that was in February, and he looked at me straight in my eyes and said, ‘You belong in the north. You have to represent this north, the people that live in that north, whether they be Inuit, Cree, Abitibi, that is where you belong. And you are the best person to defend the rights of all in that region. So you have to go there.” I accepted his recommendation on that basis, and the rest is history.
MD: Can you expand on what experiences and perspectives you would be bring as leader of the NDP?
RS: I think the candidates that will be running will be formidable ones. Whether it be [NDP president] Brian Topp, [NDP MP for Outremont] Thomas Mulcair, [NDP MP for Ottawa Centre] Paul Dewar and the rest, if they decide to go in. These are excellent candidates, even compared to me. I am humble enough, I have enough humanity to say that these are great candidates that I will be confronting in this race. I respect that, I respect them, and that is how it is.
I think that the vision that we have, that we all have as candidates, is the same as [Layton’s]. There is no issue there we all agreed with [Layton] and we all want to pursue what [he] had in mind for Canada and the people of Canada. That is a given for all of us. How we articulate what we want is another story. In that sense, I have experience with the Cree and aboriginal peoples, which involves environmental issues, international law issues as well. I have experience negotiating agreements on behalf of the Cree and governments. That is another dimension that I will be bringing to the table. I have a long experience with the United Nations since I was involved with negotiations, discussion and the drafting of the United Nations Declarations of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples adopted in 2007. All this will bring a dimension of experience that I will perhaps be required in understanding were we want to go as a party. I say that in a sense that Canadian people and people in Quebec do not realize how we have been leaders in so many issues in the past and that this present government is doing away with our leadership, is doing away with our reputation that we have around the world. That is something we really have to consider in this race as well, what is the [Conservative] government doing with our reputation internationally? [They are] giving it away. That is something we have to be worried about, concerned about. That isn’t something that has seemed to bother the [Conservative] government. Its agenda that we can see in the 41st parliament that started this Monday is very worrisome for Canadians, and even the expression right wing is no longer appropriate. There is an erosion of human rights in every bill they are tabling right now in the House of Commons. And the Canadian people should be worried about what is going on here.
I have worked on behalf of the Grand Council of the Cree for the Cree as you perhaps know. So on behalf of the Cree we worked with the national assembly in Quebec we worked with the parliament of Canada here in Ottawa we presented briefs we met with ministers we met the premiers of Quebec and the prime ministers in parliament. So the process and how things happen in both institutions I have experience in. So yes I maybe a rookie MP, granted, but I am no rookie in politics. So that is what I am bringing to this job, that I love, by the way.
MD: What do the results of the 2011 Federal election say to you about the changing desires of the people of Quebec and the rest of Canada? And how would you address this in your leadership?
RS: The very first day that I arrived in the riding, the very first day we found an apartment and everything, in my whole life I never had to take more than ten minutes in a grocery store. I wanted to get some groceries, food, and everything, for supper. And it took me not ten minutes, it took me an hour and a half to get out of the IGA I went to in Val-d’Or. That was telling because people approached me, people said, “We are happy that you are running, we no longer need what has been going on in Ottawa for such a long time with the Bloc [Québécois]. I am a former voter for the Bloc, and its time that we changed. We need to have a dialogue we need to have a discussion. We need to have a public discussion on a lot of things and we want this.” A lot of people even before the polls showed us we were climbing in the polls we felt it the very first day. There were a lot of Bloc Québécois members, former Bloc Québécois members that came over to the NDP. There were a lot of Liberal members that came over to the NDP, a lot of Conservatives as well. And a lot of people – and this part is important – a lot of people were blasé about politics in Quebec, and a lot of people for the first time voted in the last election. That is also telling because people were sick and tired of what they were seeing and they want a change, and that is what they told me.
MD: Do you think the NDP’s mandate has changed now that it is the majority party in Quebec?
RS: No, I think the NDP has to represent everybody in Canada, not just Quebec. I have mentioned in my many interviews that I have done since I announced that I was running that I am not there. I may be a Cree – Cree background, Cree culture, Cree language – but I never asked during the last election that the Cree vote for me because I am Cree, I asked for them to vote for me because of the values, the position and the policies that I will defend as a member of the NDP caucus, and as the official opposition. And that should remain true across the country. Just because we have 59 members in [parliament] from Quebec that we should change. We should be there to represent everybody. The 59 members understand that, and I think that the other members from across the country understand that as well.
MD: What problems do you think could affect the NDP in its shift of its support from the Anglophone community to the Francophone community?
RS: It is not a problem, it is a challenge, and every challenge has its opportunities. … I am willing to do the work to get more membership in Quebec – being an MP from Quebec – and the same challenge mind you belongs to other candidates that are not from Quebec. I have to do the work in Quebec to get more delegates and more members, that’s a given. I think the other candidates have to do the same work both in Quebec and outside Quebec. I have to the work outside of Quebec as well. The challenge is there. There are 4.5 million people that voted for the NDP in the last election, so I think there is some basis there that we have to work on. And that is one of the things that we need to tackle in this leadership race.
MD: Will your leadership focus the platform of the NDP in a different way?
RS: The NDP has changed a lot. It will continue to work on protecting the rights of workers across the country. That is something that will not change. But the NDP has other issues that it wants to work on. That includes the youth, people that are out of work, the elderly, students, aboriginal peoples, and what have you. We have an incredible agenda in front of us, and that is what we are working on. It is not just the workers, it is everybody. [Layton] said we must not leave anybody behind, and that is something that we believe in.
MD: Traditional political commentary attributes at least part of the NDP’s success to the forceful and engaging personality of Jack Layton? What role do you see the next leader of the NDP having within the party and in Quebec?
I have said since I announced since that I was running, I think this is also an opportunity for the party to showcase the talent and the depth that we have in the party. There are incredible people in this party, they are very talented, so I think that is something that we need to show Canadians across the country – that this party is here for business, and they’re serious, that we can do this job and that we can govern this country, and that is what people need to understand. Obviously the Conservative government will deny that. We will continue to do the work that needs to be done. And we will not stop until the sun comes up. That is what [Layton] has asked us to do and that is what we are going to do. Whether it is Romeo Saganash or the others that will run, I know that there will be a lot of very good candidates, excellent candidates, incredible candidates. We have to show the people that we can do this.
MD: What goals do you have in supporting sustainable development in Canada?
I have worked on constitutional issues, international law issues, on behalf of the Cree, environmental issues as well, resource development, responsible resource development, sustainable development, water rights, climate change, relations with aboriginal people and so on. I think these are all interrelated, interconnected, and we cannot separate environmental protection from anything else in all of this.
Because natural resources are naturally related to aboriginal people, to the environment, to economic development, to social development, to cultural development, and even political development. All of this is related, is interrelated, interconnected. And that is how we have to approach issues in this country in the coming years. I think the time where we tended to put these issues in different compartments, separate compartments, is no longer there. We have gone past that, and I think we need to see the whole picture now.
— Compiled by Adrian Turcato