Saganash sees Quebec-Cree deals as model for Canada

NDP leadership candidate Romeo Saganash says as prime minister he would use lessons he learned in northern Quebec to help boost prosperity and social equality in the rest of Canada.
Romeo Saganash, left, raises hands with late NDP leader Jack Layton during a campaign rally in Quebec during the 2011 federal campaign. Saganash is running to succeed Layton as party leader. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

The deals Romeo Saganash helped negotiate for Cree communities in northern Quebec improved conditions for aboriginal Canadians and are models for the rest of the country, according to the NDP leadership contender.

Saganash said in a recent interview with CBC News he wants to introduce what he helped accomplish in northern Quebec to the rest of Canada to boost the economy while protecting the environment and taking other social interests into consideration.

The 49-year-old Quebec MP wants the job of leader of the Official Opposition and wants to become prime minister in the next federal election.

"I can do this job and I think in Canada we need a better prime minister than we have right now," he said.

"Our policies need to meet of course the economic objectives, but also the social and environmental objectives," he said. The agreements he negotiated with hydro, forestry and other companies as deputy grand chief at the Grand Council of the Crees and as its director of Quebec relations and international affairs met those objectives, he said.

"I will try to bring nationally what I did locally in northern Quebec."

Saganash sought balance in negotiations

Saganash said he always tried to find a balance between the interests of the companies and those of the community when he was negotiating on behalf of the Cree.

Not all aboriginal groups have the resources to do battle in the political arena or in the courts to protect their interests, he said. An unequal playing field and racist attitudes are partly to blame for poor social conditions for many aboriginal people in Canada, he said.

Saganash, who is from the Cree First Nation of Waswanipi and was sent to a residential school at age seven, said he is always devastated when he hears about overcrowding in First Nations communities, suicides and poor education outcomes.

"It’s pretty sad and devastating, at least for me, because here's the richest country in the world, [with] plenty of resources that can benefit everybody and yet we have the first inhabitants of this country that live in Fourth World [very poor] conditions," Saganash said.

"It has a lot to do with policies and priorities of governments," he said when asked why those conditions persist. "It’s a lot of things, it's not just racist policies."

Saganash said as prime minister he would inisist on community representatives being at the table when mining, forestry or other companies bring forward projects that will have an impact on a local population, to ensure the community benefits from the development.

"It’s all about getting people working together and not excluding one group or another group," he said.

Saganash, one of nine candidates in the race so far to succeed Jack Layton as NDP leader, said the ability to bring people together is one of his greatest strengths.

One of his disadvantages in the leadership race, he said, is that he is not a familiar face to most Canadians.

He's known in Quebec because of his work with the Grand Council and internationally through his work as a negotiator for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. But he's new to Parliament Hill and also doesn’t have deep or long ties with the NDP the way some of his rival candidates do.

His relatively short history with the NDP won’t hold him back, he said.  "That’s one of the challenges, it’s not a weakness. It's a challenge in my view," he said.

Saganash, who holds a law degree from the University of Quebec in Montreal, met Layton in 2006. The NDP leader, who died in August, encouraged the Cree leader to join the party and run for a seat in the House of Commons. Saganash finally agreed this past February, after deciding that his three children, aged 27, 19 and 16, were old enough for him to devote more of his time to politics.

He was keen to run in Quebec City, where he worked for years, but Layton convinced him to run in Abitibi-Baie-James-Nunavik-Eeyou, his home riding.

His mother, who raised Saganash and his 13 siblings on her own after his father died months after he was sent to the residential school, still lives there.

The riding was held by Bloc Québécois MP Yvon Lévesque. He issued an apology to Saganash during the federal campaign after saying that some voters wouldn’t choose the NDP because it was running an aboriginal candidate.

Lévesque finished third and Saganash won the riding by more than 6,800 votes over the Conservative candidate on May 2.

Saganash says he is highlighting his experience working with governments in Canada and abroad as one of the reasons NDP members should vote for him at the convention in March.

"I may be a rookie MP but I'm not a rookie politician," he said.

There is also a likeability factor at play in trying to become NDP leader, according to Saganash, and as he's travelled the country and met people, he has sensed that he appeals to them, he said.

"I think that's an important dimension as well for a leader. Is a leader to inspire? Or is a leader to inspire and be capable of administrating a country? I think I have both," he said.