As Parliament finally resumed on June 2 for the first time since the election, many shiny new MPs were making their way into the House of Commons as elected representatives to report for duty for the very first time. Abitibi-Baie-James-Nunavik-Eeyou MP Romeo Saganash was one of them.
Just moments after exiting the House, the Nation had the opportunity to speak to Saganash about his first day on the job and his recent appointment by NDP leader Jack Layton to Natural Resources critic.
“It has been a long day. The election of a Speaker of the House reminded me a lot of elections at the Assembly of First Nations,” Saganash laughed.
Saganash said he did not vote for the newly elected Speaker, Andrew Scheer, as he was supporting the NDP’s perfectly bilingual Denise Savoie, the only woman vying for the position. While he has some concerns about Scheer’s lack of perfect bilingualism, Saganash hopes the translators in the House will be able to help the Speaker handle it.
In regards to language, Saganash said he hopes there may be a chance to speak his own within the House.
“I inquired about the possibility of at least giving my first statement in Cree and so they are going to get back to me on that. The House rules state that statements and question asking needs to be done in one of the two official languages and so I am not sure if there are any constitutional rights involved here for Aboriginal peoples,” said Saganash.
It may very well be the first time that Cree has ever been spoken by an MP in Parliament.
In terms of becoming the new Natural Resources critic in Layton’s shadow cabinet, Saganash said he is currently working very hard at familiarizing himself with all of the pertinent issues that he will have to know in depth.
“I am very honoured by the trust that has been bestowed upon me by Jack Layton. It is important that he recognizes that natural resources are important to me and to other Aboriginal peoples as well as dealing with the environment. Since natural resources are directly related to the environment and Aboriginal people as well as treaties, this is going to be a challenge,” said Saganash.
Saganash will be taking the helm from former BC MP Nathan Cullen who decided not to run again in the recent election. Fortunately for Saganash, Cullen will be sticking around for a bit to help Saganash learn more about the issues in western Canada, particularly when it comes to the highly controversial oil-sands industry of Alberta.
In Saganash’s opinion, Cullen was amazing at his job and left him with very big shoes to fill.
This being the start of a new phase for Parliament with the NDP holding 103 seats for the first time, Saganash said a lot of what he and his colleagues are currently working on is all about coordinating efforts. In his case, Saganash will be frequently meeting with Aboriginal Affairs critic Linda Duncan and Environment critic Megan Leslie.
Working with the Conservative government holding a majority will be no easy task for the NDP, particularly as Prime Minister Harper has a long history of favouring industry over a number of other issues.
“There are a lot (of concerns) because (the Conservatives) have had a tendency to practically hand over natural-resource handling to foreign companies and that is just not how you do it. Canadians need to remain sovereign over their natural resources and Aboriginal people need to have a say in the development of their natural resources and so on,” said Saganash.
Fortunately for Saganash, a legacy of 30+ years of working with the Grand Council of the Crees has been excellent preparation for working in the House.
“I am sure it’s going to help. A lot of times I refer to the good practices that we have developed among the Cree in terms of negotiating agreements under natural resources and that effort will help in my discussions with the government side as well as my discussions with my colleagues on a lot of issues,” said Saganash.
As for now, Saganash said he is closely monitoring the progress that is made in his home riding with Quebec’s Plan Nord and, at the same time, he is forming his own bonds with the leadership within the provincial government.
“I will be continuing to work on building these collaborative efforts with the people who are directly concerned with natural resources, including our Environment critic and our Aboriginal Affairs critic,” said Saganash.