When Romeo Saganash finally got out of the residential school system after 10 years, he vowed to “reconcile with the people who put me away.” This promise inspired his life’s work. He became a lawyer, then served as the New Democratic Party member of Parliament for Abitibi-James Bay-Nunavik-Eeyou from 2011 to 2019.
Saganash was part of the lengthy visioning and design process that led to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), adopted in 2007. The declaration affirms the rights of Indigenous people to their language, culture and traditional lands, and for consent on anything that infringes on their rights and lands.
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In 2016, Saganash tabled a private member’s bill in Parliament to endorse the UN declaration. It died in the Senate. Last December, building on Saganash’s efforts, the Liberal government introduced Bill C-15. In mid-June, it became law, mandating the government “to take all measures necessary to ensure the laws of Canada are consistent with” UNDRIP.
Saganash was a keynote speaker in May at a conference organized by Citizens for Public Justice, where Broadview editor Jocelyn Bell interviewed him. This excerpt of their conversation was updated in June to incorporate significant news events. Romeo Saganash will guest-edit Broadview’s June 2022 issue.
Jocelyn Bell: UNDRIP was a 23-year journey for you, with more years spent in Parliament trying to get Canadian law aligned with the declaration. It is now law. How do you feel?
Romeo Saganash: C-15 is an important piece of legislation. I think it’s huge that the sponsor of this bill, the attorney general of Canada, confirms, in a piece of legislation, that the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples has application in Canadian law. That is the legal reality today. And the minister of justice confirms that.
JB: How do you want Canadians to understand this law?
RS: The UN declaration has 46 articles. All of them are about human rights. The UN considers the rights of Indigenous peoples as inherent, pre-existing and human rights. In Canada, we don’t necessarily consider the rights of Indigenous peoples as human rights. But they are. That’s one aspect that needs to be considered.
The second thing is that the minister of justice will have to make sure that any new legislation is consistent with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. That’s huge for me.
This evening, on #NationalIndigenousPeoplesDay, Bill C-15, An Act respecting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, will receive Royal Assent (exactly two years after C-262 by @RomeoSaganash died in the @SenateCA)! #UNDRIP #SenCA #cdnpoli #indigpoli pic.twitter.com/JmeBcVuwU4
— Senator Brian Francis (@BrianFrancisPEI) June 21, 2021
JB: Conservative politicians claim that “free, prior and informed consent,” which appears throughout C-15, gives Indigenous people a veto over things like natural resource development projects. Do you agree?
RS: The legal concepts of veto and consent are very different. Veto is an absolute concept, with no consideration of anything. Whereas with consent, a judge will have to take into consideration the facts, circumstances and law of a given case, on a case-by-case basis. So there’s no general definition of free, prior, informed consent. It’s a process.
JB: Some Indigenous leaders have also raised concerns that free, prior and informed consent could create a chill effect with industry leaders who might want to invest in their areas. Do you see that as an issue?
RS: I come from a region in northern Quebec where, since the first agreement in 1975, the Cree have signed more than 100 agreements with industry, mining, forestry and HydroQuébec, and with both governments. That’s free, prior and informed consent in action. It’s when you take the time to meet with the people. That’s how we’ve been doing things for the past 40 years, and it works. It’s good for the economy. It’s good for the environment in northern Quebec, and everybody acknowledges that.
The other thing I would add is that when we negotiate free-trade agreements and we talk to potential investors, we need to divulge risks involved. And you know what, in our discussions in this country in that context, we never raise the issue that a lot of the land in Canada is still claimed by Indigenous peoples. And that’s a risk to investors.
JB: You’ve been an insider in Canada’s Parliament, and you have also fought persistently from outside. Where do you feel more at home? And where did you get more leverage?
RS: Where I feel most at home is in the forest. And for the first time in my adult life, I was not able to go for the spring goose break that we traditionally have among my people, because of the pandemic. So I’m heartbroken that I haven’t seen my people for the last year. But besides being at home, I think I managed pretty well both within the walls of Parliament and outside. I negotiated many agreements for my people over the years before I became a member of Parliament. Now, I cannot lobby the Parliament for four years because of the lobbying act, but I’m comfortable anywhere.
I was sent to residential school; I only spoke Cree, and the intent of the school was to take away my language. But I ended up coming out of the residential school with two additional languages. Being able to communicate, both in English and French, to the elected officials in this country has become a source of strength for me. And it has helped my own people a lot.
JB: You’ve written the afterword to a book that’s coming out in English in September. Tell me about it.
RS: The book is Waswanipi by Jean-Yves Soucy. He was a literary figure in Quebec who passed away several years ago. When Soucy was 18 years old, he got a summer job in northern Quebec as a fire warden. He’d never been in the boreal forest, so he hired my dad as a guide. The exchange between the two, from two very different perspectives and worlds, is just amazing.
He asks how my dad viewed the future of his children in 50 years. And my dad answers, “I think our children will need to learn the language that the white man speaks. They will need to learn the ways of the white man. Not for them to become white and lose their culture or traditions or language. But in order for them to learn how to deal with the white man and the white man’s world.”
In the afterword to this wonderful book, I talk about the last time I saw my dad. I won’t say more than that — I think you have to read the book.
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JB: In late spring, the remains of hundreds of children were found in unmarked graves near former residential schools in British Columbia and in Saskatchewan. Indigenous leaders tell us there will be more. What came to mind when you heard these news reports?
RS: First, I felt much pain and sorrow at the thought of those lost babies! For those of us who not only lived the experience of residential schools, but also tragically lost a sibling in unknown circumstances, that news was devastating. I couldn’t breathe for a couple of seconds.
I was immensely privileged to be able to tell the story of my brother in the Parliament of Canada. It brought closure to my family and me. Many families to this day do not have that yet.
When I asked my mom, after we found little John 40 years later, if she would like the remains to be brought home, she responded that it wasn’t necessary because “I will be with him again one day.”
My mom passed on two years ago. I trust the Spirit World organized a feast and dance for the reunion.
JB: You’re too young to be asked this question, but what do you hope your legacy will be?
RS: I’m not yet totally retired; I still do a lot of work and a lot of writing, too. But one thing I regret is that even after 40 years, I’m still leaving behind to my children the same struggles that I faced 40 years ago. And that’s pretty sad. You know, the second paragraph of the preamble to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples says, “Affirming that indigenous peoples are equal to all other peoples, while recognizing the right of all peoples to be different, to consider themselves different, and to be respected as such.”
I want to be respected, as a different person from you. And I want my kids to be respected, because they are different as well.
Jocelyn Bell is the editor/publisher of Broadview.
This interview is used with permission from Citizens for Public Justice. It has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. It first appeared in the September 2021 issue of Broadview with the title “Fighting For Indigenous Rights.”
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