Aboriginal Sensitivities

In May 2011 the New Democratic Party (NDP), the perennial also-rans of Canadian politics, shocked the body politic and much of the Commentariat in Canada by scoring its highest ever vote at a federal election. In the traditionally separatist province of Québec it all but demolished the establishment nationalist party of the Bloc Québécois (BQ) sparking political tremors that have contributed to the fracturing of the BQ’s close ally in the nationalist Parti Québécois or PQ (by long-standing agreement BQ contests federal elections in Québec to the parliament of Canada while PQ contests provincial elections to the regional assembly in Québec only, both on a sovereigntist platform).

With the untimely death of the NDP’s leader Jack Layton, the party has seen something of slow downward spin in the polling (Layton’s television performances in Québec are widely regarded as influencing his party’s unprecedented electoral results in the province, and his passing has seen a noticeable fall in support there). Now several candidates are lining up to replace him, including Romeo Saganash, a middle-ranking MP from Québec, with an unusual background for a Canadian national politician. The First Perspective reports on his candidacy:

“He may be a rookie MP, but don’t call him a rookie politician.

And whatever you do, don’t ask him if he thinks Canada is ready for an aboriginal prime minister.

For the record, this reporter asked NDP leadership hopeful Romeo Saganash neither of these questions, but it became clear early on during a recent interview that they come up often and are among his biggest pet peeves.

The law school graduate and former deputy grand chief of the Grand Council of the Cree has spent the last 30 years brokering deals with industry, utility companies, the Quebec and federal governments and was a key player on the international stage in drafting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

“How many of them have that experience?” he asked of his fellow competitors. “I don’t think too many besides Romeo Saganash.”

For example, he helped negotiate a special regime in Northern Quebec that saved the forestry industry where “trees don’t grow as fast as trees elsewhere” along with “tens of thousands of jobs” over many years.

Similar deals that allow northern communities to reap rewards – be it contracts, jobs or other benefits – from development in their own backyards have been struck with the mining sector as well as with Hydro Quebec. Today, he added, Hydro projects will not proceed unless they’ve been deemed “economically viable, environmentally sound and socially acceptable.

“I think what I have achieved in Northern Quebec and with the Cree . . . is applicable to the rest of the country,” he said.

“The foundations that we have laid in Northern Quebec are strong foundations that allows this type of development to happen for the benefit not only of aboriginal communities, but also the mining towns, the forestry towns and the economy of an entire region.”

Which brings him to that point about whether Canada is ready for an aboriginal prime minister, a question he finds “almost racist.”

While he may be an aboriginal leader, his efforts are not solely for the benefit of First Nations.

“Is being an aboriginal in this race a handicap? Some view that,” he said. “I myself believe I’m a leader, period. And my track record shows that. Much of what I did in the past has benefited everybody. Aboriginal and non-aboriginal.”

As for his plan, so far it’s less defined than some of his competitors. He says he wants to focus on the issues – the economy, the environment, inequality, education, housing and restoring Canada’s good name on the global stage -but he’s put forward little in the way of concrete policy.

In an effort to expand the NDP base in a bid to win the next election, he is reaching out to rural Canadians, suburban immigrant families and First Nations who are starting to bridge the gap with the general population in terms of voter turn-out.

A relative unknown outside Quebec and the aboriginal community, it’s Saganash’s personal story that in many ways sets him apart.

Born in a tent in the village of Waswanipi more than 700 kilometres northeast of Montreal, he jokes that he can “relate to the Occupy movement.”

He spent his first six-and-a-half years “in the bush” living the traditional way of life – hunting, fishing and trapping with his parents – before he was whisked away to residential school for a decade.

His father died the first year he arrived and in the same sentence his schoolmaster informed him of his passing, he was told he couldn’t go home to mourn as it wasn’t in the budget.

Among the youngest of 14 siblings, he never got to know his oldest brother John who died at the age of five during his first year at residential school.

It wasn’t until 1994 that the family learned where he was buried.”

At the moment Saganash’s leadership bid for the NDP seems unlikely to succeed, and whether he is willing to address it or not, his membership of the First Nations is certainly a factor in the debates about the upcoming contest. Meanwhile for the parties of Québec nationalism the future is looking ever bleaker with major fissures in the nationalist vote likely to benefit Canadian federalist parties like the province’s ruling Liberals.

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