Romeo Saganash has a bronchial infection. His breathing is laboured; his voice is almost a croak. His face is framed by a wave of longish curly hair. The clothes are expensive, stylish and businessman dark. He’s been fighting an chest infection for a week or so, made worse by a short campaign trip to the west coast and then a quick flight back to Montreal to take part in the NDP’s televised leadership debate.

“I was afraid my voice wasn’t there,” he says about his debate performance. “But I got through okay.”


Saganash is one of eight people vying to replace Jack Layton and lead the federal New Democratic Party, the Official Opposition in the House of Commons. And he’s raising eyebrows. In fact, there were more than a few pundits in both the English and French media who gave Saganash unexpectedly high marks. Why unexpected? Because Saganash isn’t like the other candidates.


Saganash is a newcomer to the NDP. He didn’t earn his stripes working up the ranks of the party, or work on anyone’s election campaign. This lack of political bones may be a factor against Romeo even if it was the late Jack Layton who personally recruited him to run as the party’s candidate in the riding of Abitibi-Baie James-Nunavik-Eeyou.


Then there’s the fact that he’s a northerner, representing a huge but sparsely populated northern riding. Finally, Saganash is Cree, and the first Aboriginal person to ever run for the leadership of any national political party in Canada.


Yet, the overall assessment of Saganash’s performance paralleled his own about his vocal performance. “My voice got stronger as we got going, especially in the French debates.” Pundits said he “started late” but improved as the debates went on in both languages. Saganash says it was his first time in the glare of national audiences and it took awhile for him to get up to speed.


A lot of people expected Saganash to do well in the French debates. After Thomas Mulcair, Saganash is the most fluent candidate in French. Despite the “mutual admiration society” as one pundit described both the English and French debates, commentators said Saganash won points on issues like the environment, resource development and Native issues. Saganash had better do well on these files since he’s worked on them for most of his professional life.


Romeo Saganash was born in Waswanipi, “survived” 10 years in residential school and returned home to a choice; pursue the life of his father and ancestors, or take another path.


“Well, if my father had been there when I got out, I would’ve gone to the bush and lived that way of life. He died the first year I went to residential school. That killed my hopes of becoming like him, living like him, and pursuing that traditional way of life.”


Saganash spent two years in the bush, but it was a panel discussion in 1985 looking back at the first 10 years of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement that changed the direction of his life. There were speakers on this panel from Hydro Québec, officials of the federal and Québec governments, but also James O’Reilly, a Montreal lawyer who represented the Cree during the JBNQA negotiations.


“I sat there listening to them,” Romeo says today. “I listened to James O’Reilly. And I thought to myself: ‘I can do that!’”


The following year, 1986, Saganash enrolled in law at the Université du Québec à Montréal. He graduated in 1989.


Almost immediately, the Grand Council of the Cree recruited Saganash to set up a Quebec City office to work on Cree Government and International Relations. This work would focus on two increasingly vital issues that threatened to undermine the JBQNA. Quebec’s plans to build more hydro dams on northern rivers would also literally pave the way for mining companies to begin operations across Cree territory. The federal government, on the other hand, seemed content to ignore its commitments to the Cree while hoping that no one of political consequence noticed.


Complaints about the federal government’s negligence snowballed as years passed over the cost of building roads, homes, and new schools. And so it went.


The Cree said many of the problems were due to Ottawa’s failure to keep its end of the bargain. In almost every case, these problems also infected the Cree relationship with Quebec. In short, Quebec didn’t want to be caught holding the bag for anything Ottawa did or didn’t do.


Caught in the middle, Cree agencies launched lawsuits to pressure both levels of government to make good on their parts of the Agreement, or have the courts settle the matter for them. By the time the 25th anniversary of the signing of the JBQNA rolled by, Cree lawsuits against both the federal and Quebec governments totalled about $6 billion.


Saganash says breaking this legal logjam became his priority. He visited every Cree community to explain why they needed to break the deadlock. It was costing the Cree a fortune in legal bills each year just to keep the lawsuits alive. Saganash and others felt the time was ripe to negotiate a new deal to create jobs and jumpstart stalled development. This eventually produced the Paix des Braves.


The 1990s had garnered international notice for the Crees’ headline-grabbing activism. Cree paddlers on the Hudson River generated global opposition to Hydro Québec’s plans to dam the Great Whale River system.


As the only indigenous group from Canada recognized by the United Nations as a non-governmental group, the Cree helped open doors at global forums so other Aboriginal peoples from Canada and elsewhere could also raise their concerns. Eventually, these efforts developed into a 20-year effort to define a “Draft Declaration” on the rights of Indigenous peoples.


Then Jack called.

“The first time he asked me was in 2006,” Saganash recalled. “I was a guest speaker at an NDP Quebec convention in Saint Jerôme. I was to speak on Aboriginal rights in Canada. Jack happened to be there. After my presentation we chatted for a while. He said, ‘Would you consider running for my party?’”


Saganash said he wasn’t ready at that time. His children were still in school, negotiations at the UN on a Draft Declaration were at a critical stage, and the Cree had him working on the Paix des Braves. He says Jack called every now and then over the next four years.


“There wasn’t any pressure. He just wanted to know how things were. Or he’d ask about something dealing with Aboriginal issues.”


In February 2011, however, “He called up. This time, I told him: ‘Jack, I think I’m ready this time.’ He immediately asked, ‘What are you doing tomorrow?’ I had meetings set for the next morning but I flew down to Toronto the next afternoon. I went to Jack’s house and we sat at that kitchen table, that same kitchen table where everyone sat with Jack to plan the next election campaign.”


The rest is history. On May 2, the NDP swept aside Quebec’s long dominant Bloc Québécois in a mass political shift dubbed the “Orange Crush.” Saganash won in a riding nearly three times the size of France but with less population than a medium-sized city, where the best-ever result for the NDP had been a second-place score of 28 per cent in 1988. The federal riding of Abitibi-Baie James-Nunavik-Eeyou stretches from near Val d’Or in the south to Nunavik in the north, and includes Inuit, Cree, Algonquin, Attikamekw, Innu, territories and populations.


The riding is also the focus of Jean Charest’s multi-decade Plan Nord, a grand blueprint for a resource extraction and industrial development boom.


In politics, timing is crucial. In the federal election, voters in Quebec were ready for a change. The world is in a global financial meltdown that Canada cannot escape. Uncertainty about jobs, an aging Quebec workforce nearing retirement, worries about cuts to social, health and education programs are ingredients in a recipe for political change. Voters are receptive to messages of hope instead of the grim conservative fear mongering of uncertainty and pain. All of which raises questions about the timing of Saganash’s decision to run for the leadership of the NDP.


Robert Kanatewat is from Chisasibi and a long-time fixture in Cree politics. He became an activist in the 1970s campaigns against Robert Bourassa’s plans to divert and build hydroelectric dams on rivers flowing into James Bay. He’s never stopped his involvement in Cree affairs. At the Special Chiefs Assembly of the Assembly of First Nations in Ottawa, he said he wasn’t sure why Romeo Saganash chose this time to launch a leadership bid.


“I think he’s brave to run for the leadership of the NDP,” Kanatewat says. “Especially since he’s only been an MP for less than a year.” If Saganash actually overcomes the long odds to win the NDP leadership, it will take him away from his constituents, Kanatewat warns.


“I wonder if he’s been to every part of his riding,” questions Kanatewat. “I don’t know if he’s been to Nunavik, or if he’s been back to the Cree communities, or if people in the rest of his own riding know very much about him.”


To Russell Diabo, it’s more than just a case of poor timing; it’s about harsh reality and numbers. Diabo, a Mohawk from Kahnawake, is a disenchanted former Liberal who once worked in the trenches to establish an Aboriginal caucus. He quit, frustrated by the internal Liberal Party machinery, mostly an old-boys network, which had little understanding or sympathy for Indigenous rights let alone a real role for an Aboriginal caucus within the party structure.


“My understanding is that the NDP have a one vote per party member system, unlike the Liberals who had a delegate selection process,” Diabo observes. “But most of the NDP membership is in the West, not in Quebec. As we know, there was only one MP from Quebec before this last election. It’s hard to say if the NDP can maintain that support into the next election.


“As for Romeo’s leadership race, I think he’s way at the back of the pack although it’s nice to see him up there. I think he has some things to say. Certainly in the Quebec and Aboriginal experience, he has something to say that the rest of Canada could learn from if they wanted to listen.”


But to Diabo, it still all boils down to numbers.

“When we were in the Liberal Party, we identified 16 ridings where Aboriginal peoples held the balance of voting power. But we don’t have a history of participating in the mainstream vote. As you know, we didn’t have the vote until 1960, 1968 in Quebec. And a lot of people feel that mainstream politics isn’t our system and they don’t want to participate in a ‘foreign’ system.’”


Regardless, Saganash said he’s the only candidate of the eight people running for the leadership who has crossed the country looking for support. He insists that he’s running a mainstream campaign with one difference from the others – he includes Aboriginal communities.


“There has not been one single community that has not said we cannot support you. I met with an Ontario delegation recently and I’m positive from the reaction I got from them. I’m going to meet with another Ontario group (of chiefs) at the AFN Assembly. I’ve been getting expressions of support and I think that will continue.”


But did any Aboriginal group promise to officially endorse his leadership? Or to deliver votes for his leadership by signing people up as members of the NDP? More to the point, has the Grand Council of the Cree officially endorsed Romeo Saganash’s leadership aspirations with the NDP?


The answer to all of these questions (so far): No, they haven’t. Not officially. Some people may act as individuals, may join the NDP so they can vote for Romeo. But it’s unlikely, according to Russell Diabo, that any official Aboriginal group will publically endorse Romeo Saganash.


Patrick Madahbee, Grand Council Chief of the Anishinabek Nation, is more blunt. “Officially we have rules within our organization. We have to work with all these parties. Obviously, we have friends in some parties and enemies too. So we have to work with all of them. Our official position is that we can’t endorse other governments. We are our own Anishnabek Government. We have our own election process to elect our own government at the local and national level. And that’s our government.”


However, Madahbee adds, he’d be happy to see the Anishnabek newspaper run an article, campaign material or anything else to make sure that people are aware of Saganash, someone he met only a couple of weeks ago and considers “a very intelligent man.”


Ghislain Picard is Regional Chief for the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador. He says there should be a debate within communities to decide for themselves to get more involved in mainstream politics.


“If you ask the chiefs though,” Picard nods his head toward the conference hall where the Assembly of First Nations was meeting, “the discussion can only go so far. To me, the fact that so many of our people have become more involved, especially in this last election in the mainstream political parties and process, especially within the NDP, a lot of people are saying that maybe it’s time we sent our best warriors.”