Features | Light on the water

A portrait of MP Romeo Sagansh

Romeo Saganash, MP for the Quebec riding of Abitibi-Baie-James-Nunavik-Eeyou,  candidate for NDP leadership, member number 398 of the Cree Waswanipi clan, sits in front of me, and tells me about Johnny, the brother he never knew.

Outside, the snow rages against the window panes, blanketing his office,  in 135 Confederation Building, with a sense of calm. The workday is near its end – dusk has settled, but Romeo appears in no rush.

Johnny was taken away from their mother at the age of six and sent to a residential school, where he died less than a year later. All this before Romeo was born.

The conversation slows. I see the pain that crosses Romeo’s features – pain that is not his own, but for his mother. His mother, who for forty years never found out what had happened to her little boy. A ghost she carried with her, a burden that weighed her down.

Until, one day, a nurse approached Emma Saganash, Romeo’s sister and a journalist at the CBC, and said the words that were decades too late.

“I know where the boy is buried.”

Emma set out to find him.

“She had her crew with her, my sister, so they filmed the scene where they were looking for him,” Romeo says. “And we hear the other lady say, ‘well, you are standing on your little brother.’ And she crumbled in the snow – it was winter, and she crumbled.”

A break in the conversation – the impossible decision of whether to tell his mother. Finally, he shows her the film that Emma made of that day.

“I have seen my mom – cry – many, many times. Many times in my life,” Romeo tells me. There are tears in his eyes now.

“But never the way she cried that day. Never.”

***

I begin two months earlier, in the dead of the night, in a rental car with three friends. We are driving to Waswanipi, Romeo Saganash’s home town.

It is November, and the roads are slick with ice. Two feet of snow cover the ground. I have not slept in thirty hours – we have been driving for eight. Somewhere in the last hour, we lost cell phone reception – this is the farthest North I have ever been.

We drive, aimlessly now, through an unknown town, hopeful that it is Waswinipi.

A bright orange sign catches my attention – a campaign poster for “NDP MP Romeo Saganash” – the only reassurance, so far, that I have come to the right place.

We happen upon a health clinic, and I enter, gathering what little composure I can. A lone Cree woman sits in the waiting room. If she is surprised to see me, she does not show it. I should go to the cultural centre, she explains, pointing me in the right direction.

The cultural centre is a log cabin by the river – a light in the window is the only sign of activity. Night descends upon the thick cover of trees that surround the building – our tracks are the first disturbance in the freshly laid snow.

I knock on the door – no answer. Knock again – nothing. But we have come this far – I open the door.

We walk in to a scene of comfort, of familiarity. We have interrupted four people eating dinner, but it is clear we are not intruders. Introductions are made – Claude Otter, who is living in the cabin, a Cree man who had lived in Montreal on and off as a journalist and translator – an old friend of Romeo’s. Claude’s son Gabriel, who was born away from the reserve, but still comes back in the summer for the peace and quiet. Astrid Peacock, a McGill graduate who moved away from home to be a coordinator at Waswanipi’s community centre. And Robin Blanchard, a sixth grade teacher whose longing for adventure and the outdoors has brought him here, to work at Willie J. Happiejack Memorial, Waswanipi’s school.

No one asks why we have come. We are welcomed with all the hospitality of old friends, of family. Lisbeth Otter, Claude’s cousin, invites us to stay overnight with her – one room for the boy and one room for the three girls. Placing a disarming amount of trust in us, she gives us a key.

***

Romeo was raised in the bush for the first six or seven years of his life.

When he was growing up, Waswanipi was just a small village along the river, the central meeting place for all the Cree living in the bush in the surrounding area. At that time it was only home to a few hundred people. Now, he tells me, it has grown to 1,600 or 1,700.

Rich with tradition, much is still kept from the past – the Cree language, hunting, the preparation of food, “walking out” ceremonies that introduce children to Cree society when they learn to walk.

But a lot has changed since his days in the bush.

“In my time, when I was young, I watched my dad build a canoe, construct snow shoes, and I thought that was it, that I was going to become like him.”

“I thought I had no choice when I was young. You know, I said I’m going to become like my father, I’m going to be just like him, and that’s what I’m going to do. And I was glad that I had no choice.”

I am struck by the difference between the boy he speaks of, and the politician, lawyer, MP who now sits in front of me; surprised to hear a denigration of choices from a man who has gained so much from his own.

“Crees now have a choice between the Cree way of life, or participating in mainstream economy. Our young people have multiple choices, and it has an effect on society.”

“After the Quiet Revolution, Quebec had the highest suicide rate in the country,” he goes on. “And it’s a similar phenomenon I think. All of the sudden, the young Quebecker had multiple choices, rather than just being a forestry person or agricultural person. And having the choice in society is something that is hard, for any person. And I think that’s what’s happening in the Cree society as well.”

He tells me about the changes that came with the James Bay Agreement – a 1975 land claim deal between Quebec and the Cree and Inuit peoples – such as a school and a community centre, and restrictions for development on Cree land.

He speaks of how difficult it was to get the government to honour the promises laid out in the agreement.

And he tells me how the village was moved away from the river, because the conditions of the soil would have made it slide into the current.

***

I wake up to the phone ringing. Lisbeth left earlier this morning – left us, four strangers, in her home.

“I’m answering it,” I declare. My friend’s protests follow me as I reach to pick it up – I am overstepping, this is not our home.

“Well, took you long enough to pick up!” Claude booms on the other end. A smile plays at the edge of my lips.

We arrive at Claude’s cabin, and for the first time see the teepees that line the river bank, effervescent in the sunlight reflected off the partly frozen water. Waswanipi is Cree for “light on the water,” a name that comes from the torches the Cree brought on night fishing trips, beacons to lure the fish to the surface.

Inside, the walls of the cabin are covered with old pictures and hunting memorabilia. There is coffee brewing, and Claude is making blueberry pancakes. We help ourselves to food and sit down to eat breakfast – there is not a single pause in the conversation, as Claude tells one story after another. There is a slow pace to the morning, but I’m impatient to get to work – with a notebook full of questions, I would like to interview Romeo’s friends, his family, the children of Waswanipi. I want stories, recordings, as much on the record as I can gather in two days.

But Claude has launched into another story. “There are four parts to every Cree story,” he says. My questions are forgotten.

I reassure myself – there will be time, after breakfast.

But now Lisbeth is asking us to come outside. She is going to show us how to skin a moose.

Entering the tent, my senses are assaulted by the heat and the smell of flesh, and the constant scraping of the knife against the moose skin, a light pink blanket with eyes holes.

Lisbeth teaches my friend Mike, a tall, lanky kid, how to prepare the hide. “After, you soak it, and you scrape it, and you take all the blood off, and then you put it in the frame to freeze it, then you put the lotion, wash it again, put it outside. Then you put in the water, then you pound it.”

Claude can be heard in the background: “You have to earn your dinner! Press hard! It’s already dead anyway!”

Soon Gabriel announces that, next, we will be going skating with Robin and Astrid at the community rink. I am restless – we don’t have a lot of time.

It was not until later that Astrid put into words what I had by then learned through experience. “The idea of time goes slower here,” she told me. “There isn’t the same concept of time as something that you would fill up in a day. It’s just…you let it happen. And when things happen, they happen.”

And she was right – I did get my interviews, later that day and the next morning. They happened naturally, when they were meant to. As Claude told me, “There’s a time for everything. There’s a time to laugh, a time to cry, a time to eat, a time to sleep. We have to recognize that. For us, when you’re awake and sitting around, it’s time to laugh and share jokes and tell stories. That’s part of how we get people to know us, we tell stories. I don’t tell you how much I make or my work – that’s irrelevant in my life. It’s not the amount of money I have, it’s how many stories I have in my heart.”

***

Gabriel, Claude’s nineteen year-old son, has lived in Montreal most of his life. However, right now he and his father are living in the log cabin.

His face lights up as he tells me stories of both Montreal and Waswanipi, of his two very different lives. Of music festivals and nights out with his friends. Of hunting trips and killing his first moose.

But it is not all good. They had a giveaway just last week, at the cabin, he explains, and I am caught off-guard by the sudden darkness that has fallen over his features.

“A giveaway?” I ask.

“That’s when somebody passes away, we all gather here and expose all their stuff, and we take an item that we want, and keep it for ourselves to remember the person,” he explains.

“She was sixteen, a girl – she committed suicide.”

By now, Gabriel’s stories were not the only I had heard. With one of the lowest high school graduation rates in the country, the Cree school board suffers from a generation of children forced to grow up too fast.

I later asked Astrid what the biggest challenge was for the children growing up in Waswanipi. There were any number of answers I expected – teen pregnancy, high suicide rates, alcohol and drug abuse, violence.

“Anger,” she said, without hesitation.

“So many kids are just so, so angry. You don’t know what’s going to set them off. Sometimes it’s as much as  ‘take out your exercise book’ and they’ll just shut down. Like start shaking, quivering, and have to go outside and do deep breathing, because they’re so, so angry. I don’t know – I’m not sure what it is.

“One of the most interesting things I heard was from a guy named Michael – he’s been living here all his life. What he was telling me, he said it kind of all stems from residential school. Right now we’re at the generation where the parents of these children were the children of the people that were in residential school. And so what he was saying was that, when people were in residential school, they learned to forget everything – give up your religion, give up your culture, your customs… And give up your emotional connection to your parents. You move away, and you kind of forget. And they raised their children in the same manner, not being hugged, no emotional connection. And that gets passed on to these kids right now. There are so many kids that if you try to hug them, they’ll just shy away, and say ‘what are you doing?’ They’ve never done this before. He’s saying that there’s this emotional void that so many kids are feeling. It’s just a hole that’s there, and it makes the kids so angry.”

It wasn’t until much later, speaking to Romeo in his office in Ottawa, that I finally began to understand.

“I find it difficult to imagine just how my mom felt every fall when her fourteen kids were taken away to residential school,” he says. “I just can’t imagine the parents in the Waswanipi community, when all the kids were gone from the reserve. I can’t imagine Waswanipi without kids. I try to put myself in their place at that time, when all of the sudden, one afternoon, all the children were gone from the community.

“I asked my mom one day, a couple of years ago, if you loved me that much, why did you allow them to take me away. And she said, the response was – it would have been boring for you to be the only child in the village, after all your friends have gone.  Which makes sense, I think.

“What’s fortunate in my case is that, despite their efforts, it didn’t destroy me as a person. In fact, in changed me, in a positive way I think. The year I arrived at residential school … I learned that my father had passed away in January. There was an intercom system in the residential school I attended, and one January morning they convened the Saganash family to his office. I knew what was going on – I saw my father sick when I left that August. We walked in; there was five of us in that residential school. And as we sat there I looked and listened to the director explaining that my father had passed away, and that the residential school had no budget to send us to the services.

“That very moment when he announced that, provoked something very strong in me. It was rage, I know. But I didn’t cry in front of him, just to show him that, if I’m going to be stuck in this place for such a long time, might as well try to get the best out of it. And one of those things was being strong. So I did not cry as my brothers and sisters were doing in front of him. I just stared at him, and looked at him, and walked out of the office that way. I was seven and a half. It’s pretty young to realize, okay, if it is what it is, I might as well accept it and carry on. But I am an exception to the rule. It has destroyed a lot of people, including some of my brothers and sisters.”

Of course, I thought. Anger.

***

It’s Sunday, and Mary Saganash, standing no more than five feet tall, welcomes me into her kitchen. Her house is simple, neat. The TV drones in the background, interrupted by the chiming of a clock striking seven.

Claude has accompanied us – Mary speaks only Cree. They greet one another with the tenderness of old friends.

She sits us down at her dining room table. There is a certain hesitation in her demeanour, a reserve in speaking to us. Though she is kind, her eyes appear to drift.

“She says life has changed a lot,” Claude explains to me. “She says she was happier in the bush – life was different, life was easier.”

Again, as when Romeo spoke of the perils of choice for his people, I am struck by this, confused. Here is a woman who had her 14 children taken away to residential school, whose husband died before his time, who continued checking the traps and snares even when he was gone. And yet, “life was easier.” There is no resentment in her voice, only acceptance, and perhaps some sadness. Now she lives alone, and seems to find the present even more trying.

Claude, translating for us, explains.

“She says, kids nowadays, they don’t really listen. And the alcohol abuse has a big impact on the lifestyle here as well.”

“She said she was happier in the bush, and though she said ‘I can’t deny the fact that I too drank,’ but she said life was different, and life has really changed a lot since then.”

Without warning, Mary Saganash rises from the table, and moves to her bedroom down the hall. I am concerned – does she no longer wish to speak with us? Should we leave? But moments later, she returns, with a couple of old leather-bound books in her hands.

She opens the first one, a compilation of notes in near-perfect handwriting, to a page of names and dates – a list of all her children, 14 born to her and three adopted, and the dates of their birth. Romeo Saganash, born October 28, 1963, is the 13th child.

Sifting through family photo albums, one of my friends sitting in on the interview, asks if Romeo got his thick, dark hair from his mother. Mary’s laughter fills the room – though she does not speak English, she understands. And though she has seen much in her eighty years, she has not forgotten how to laugh.

She leads us to the wall in her living room, where photographs of all her children line the walls. Without hesitating, she climbs onto her couch, and begins pointing to the different photographs, speaking to us in Cree.

And though we are not in perfect understanding, I can tell – in a language more profound than Cree or English – how deeply she cares for every one of her children, and just how much she misses the ways of the past.

***

I enter Romeo’s office, and am greeted by a man that I feel I know, though we’ve never met. He wears a red silk shirt, and behind him is a large window that overlooks Ottawa’s Bank Street.

I apologize – I have arrived late, because of the weather. He is quick to laugh it off – “If there’s one thing for sure up North, it’s the weather. It’s the weather that determines whether you can go up, back home.”

Going home is something that Romeo does, he tells me, as often as he can, mostly to see his mother.

“I dropped by – was it Tuesday? – just for an hour in Waswanipi, spoke to the people, thanked them for their support, and then went to my mother’s house to see her, because she had prepared something for me – some food, obviously. And when I left, she said to me – and there was a tone of resignation in her words – she said to me ‘I guess finally, I’ll have to share you with everybody, until the end of my life.’”


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