Romeo Saganash discusses residential school’s impact on his life and family

NDP MP Romeo Saganash’s personal struggles and emotions have been very public in recent months. After being removed from a flight in October for drunkenness, he immediately came clean about his alcoholism and the emotions that underpinned it – the stress of working Parliament Hill and participating in the NDP leadership race, the loss of his good friend Jack Layton, and the unhealed scars from his youth in residential schools.

In attempt to illustrate the emotional damage inflicted by the residential school experience, Saganash made a powerful statement (in French) to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on April 26, in which he both recounted his own experiences and called upon the government to change the way it deals with Aboriginal people.

“I give the impression of being a normal person,” he said. “But no. I can never be normal. And not a single one of these children taken away to residential school can pretend to be normal today. It’s impossible, impossible.”

Calling the legacy of residential schools “the aspect of Canadian history the hardest to tell,” Saganash grieved for “what was taken from these children of five, six, seven years old, who were for the most part born in the forest and who knew nothing other than life in the forest, life with their families; who, in their earliest years, were torn from their territory, torn from their culture, torn from their language, torn from their families to be placed in a context alien to them.”

To this day, Saganash can still remember precise details of the residential school in La Tuque where he spent 10 years after being taken from his home in Waswanipi: “The darkness in the hall, the smell of the place, the voices and the sounds of the priests responsible for that residential school, at the top of the stairs, in a language of which I understood nothing.”

Saganash believes he and other First Nations children were victims of politics. “The effect of being an Indian, the effect of being Aboriginal, was that Canadian history sent me to residential school.”

But the most difficult memory for Saganash to share concerned the death of his brother Johnish.

He broke down as he recalled the boy he called “my little brother – because I never knew him, for one thing, and for another he was sent away.” Johnish Saganash was the first member of the Saganash family taken to residential school (in Moose Factory) in 1954 when he was six; he died there within his first year.

Fighting tears, Saganash told the room that his family still does not know what happened to his brother. “We don’t have a death certificate for Johnish and it took 40 years for my mother to find out where his small…  where Johnish was buried,” he said.

Years later, he and his sister, Emma Saganash of Radio-Canada, were able to locate the grave of their lost brother and filmed the event so that they could show their mother.

“I’ve often seen my mother cry,” he said of her reaction to the video, “but I’ve never seen my mother cry like that. Never. And this story, as traumatizing as it is, isn’t unique to my family.”

Saganash went on to criticize the apology made by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in June 2008 for the history of residential schools. Saying that the apology was nonetheless a “necessary step,” Saganash condemned it as empty words that do not encourage legitimate reconciliation.

“For an apology to be sincere [and] valid,” he said, “there must be concrete gestures to put the apology in motion, to show the meaning of the apology toward those to whom one is apologizing – toward all Aboriginal people in Canada. Unfortunately, this is not what happened.”

Saganash said he continues to see discrimination against Aboriginal people under law, and set out a series of recommendations to foster reconciliation. For Saganash, reconciliation begins with the demand that Canadian laws respect the rights of Indigenous Nations and communities and follow the standards laid out in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP). It’s a cause he has pursued in his work as an MP by introducing a Private Members’ Bill in January that would, if passed, ensure laws adopted by the Canadian parliament respect the constitution as well as UNDRIP’s terms and provisions.

He doesn’t understand why it’s so difficult to check whether any law passed by Parliament contradicts Article 35 of the Constitution. “It’s essential,” he insisted.

Along with the “duty to consult” Indigenous communities in development of natural resources, Saganash emphasized that developers also have an obligation to heed the recommendations they receive.

Finally, he praised the strength and dignity of the Nishiyuu walkers, who, upon reaching Ottawa after their 1,600-kilometre trek, met with Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt and asked nothing of him.

“This is a point of nobility,” he underlined. “They proved their point. They had made, as we say in English, ‘a statement’ by making this journey. We should admire their courage.”

During an interview after his presentation, Saganash shrugged off the suggestion that it must be difficult for him as a public figure to make such an emotional expression of truth, though he was visibly shaken following his statement.

“I think that whenever you speak with Romeo Saganash, you speak with the human being inside Romeo Saganash,” he said. “It was an intimate conversation, a very personal conversation. What I said about doing it officially for once allows me to close that chapter personally. Now that it’s said, I don’t think I’ll have a difficult time anymore telling that story. I’ve turned a page and this provided an opportunity for that.”

Saganash praised the TRC process. “When people who are confronted with colonial practices and policies throughout their lives get together, one good feeling is that you’re able to say, ‘Hey, I’m not alone.’ That’s what’s happening with the Commission hearings throughout the country, and especially at national events like this.”

For Saganash, the role of an MP is one that demands that he express himself in action, and above all, he said, he is committed to pursuing the causes of Aboriginal justice. As likely the only sitting member of the House of Commons who is also a residential-school survivor, Saganash said it’s his duty to speak out about his experience.

“This get-together of survivors with others, with Canadians, with their parents and friends, it’s important,” he said. “It’s important to be able to say, ‘I’m not alone,’ and to say, ‘If he can do it, I can do it as well.’ It’s a healing process that’s fundamental for all of us.”

But he insisted that words alone will not be enough. He said the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is well-suited to building reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people because it “is the international law instrument providing most for the rights of non-Indigenous people as well. So it strikes a balance between fundamental rights of Indigenous peoples, and the rights of those who live within the states where there are Indigenous peoples.”

Saganash says that he has received many letters from organizations ranging from the Assembly of First Nations to the Quebec Bar Association in support of his Private Members’ Bill, which at press time had not yet been debated in the House of Commons.

“So I think we’re on the right track in terms of reconciliation,” he said. “That’s what I want to show as a politician: that I don’t just talk about these issues, I act on them.”