01/16/2013 04:41 EST | Updated 03/18/2013 05:12 EDT

MP Saganash Says Blockades May Be Only Way To Make PM Listen


Blockades are sometimes the only way for aboriginal demonstrators to get a message across, says a New Democrat MP.

Romeo Saganash, who spent 30 years working in politics and advocacy on behalf of First Nations groups, says whether a blockade is effective depends on the circumstances.

"They are sometimes, sometimes they're not. The short answer is that," he told CBC News.

"I mean, it really depends on where, when and what are the reasons why. Is it the last resort in some cases? ... Is that the only way that the prime minister will listen to citizens and First Nations peoples in this country? Perhaps. This is a prime minister that's very difficult to move on many of the issues unless you're his friend. Very difficult to get anything from this prime minister. If you're an environmentalist, you're considered in his eyes as a radical. So it's a very difficult prime minister."

Saganash is easing back into work as the MP for Abitibi-Baie-James-Nunavik-Eeyou after taking leave last fall to be treated for alcohol dependence. He took a leave on Oct. 22 after he admitted he had been removed from an Air Canada Jazz flight from Montreal to Val D'Or, Que.

Saganash went into treatment at the beginning of November, where he says he was completely cut off from the outside world for three weeks — a different experience for someone who spends his working life tethered to a smartphone.

"I didn't know that Barack Obama, for instance, was re-elected until I came out on Nov. 22," he said. "They confiscated our cameras, our cellphones, our computers. You're not even allowed to bring books. No TV, no newspapers, nothing. So it's just yourself and the challenge that you have to settle issues."

'Revisited pain' of residential school

Only he is to blame for the decisions he made, Saganash said, though he spent much of his time in treatment dealing with fallout from his 10 years in a residential school.

"Given what I've done and what I've worked on and achieved over the last 30 years, I always thought at least in my mind that I had overcome that dark episode of my life," Saganash said.

"It's quite amazing to me to realize that what happened 40 years ago still has an impact on you today."

"I don't think anybody that attended a residential school will totally be at peace with that part of our lives. I don't think so. It's not possible. But at least to understand how it affects you today was an important dimension that I got to understand in treatment."

The MP says he spent a lot of time in his riding after he left treatment, particularly in the bush, where he ate a traditional diet that included rabbit and partridge.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said in a statement Thursday that Saganash will be taking on a deputy critic role for intergovernmental aboriginal affairs.

"I hold Romeo in high regard," Mulcair said. "I admire his determination and good negotiation skills. He understands the magnitude of the task before him, and I know that he is up to this new challenge."

Before being elected to the House of Commons, Saganash was a well-known Cree leader and negotiator who wrangled deals with hydro and forestry companies.

He says Prime Minister Stephen Harper showed some movement on First Nations issues when he met last week with Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo.

"Let us hope that that continues, because that is what is required right now, political will on the part of the prime minister," Saganash said.

"'Does the prime minister have the political will to settle all these issues,' is a question that he only can answer. But the meeting happened and I think it's a step. Let's see what happens from now on."

Harper has 'key to unlock' First Nations dilemma

Even while discussing a serious issue, Saganash hasn't lost his ability to crack a joke, referring to the Conservative government's love of the monarchy in addressing whether Gov. Gen. David Johnston needs to be at any meeting with First Nations leaders.

"If there's one thing that this prime minister should understand, it's the symbol of the Crown, right? I'm hoping that he can relate to that message," he said.

"The prime minister is the prime minister and he holds the key to unlocking this national dilemma that we have right now."

Last week, chiefs from Manitoba and Ontario refused to meet with Harper and Atleo, demanding Johnston be there too. Some chiefs said they wanted to vote non-confidence in Atleo, with two former candidates against him in last summer's race for national chief speaking out against him.

But Saganash says the AFN has strong leadership.

"I think that division is perfectly normal — perfectly normal ... [Aboriginal People's] contexts, our political contexts, our legal contexts are very different form one end of the country to the other. So of course the approaches are going to be different. Of course, we won't agree on everything and that's perfectly normal."

Saganash counsels that leaders need the chance to prove themselves, and Atleo had that opportunity.

"There are certain situations and certain moments in time where you have to make those difficult decisions. I've been through that in 30 years in politics. I've been through those moments," he said.

'Not looking at excuses'

In a statement last fall, Saganash said he had to overcome a dependence on alcohol, "like far too many other Canadians."

"Neither fatigue nor stress can justify what I did.... I have asked my leader [Tom Mulcair] to give me leave so that I can take the necessary time to treat this illness. I am deeply grateful for his support and the support of all my colleagues in this difficult period of my life."

Saganash also apologized to the other passengers on the plane and to the flight crew. The Air Canada flight was delayed by half an hour as Saganash was escorted off the plane.

He said many of his colleagues can attest to the pitfalls of working in the hectic environment of Parliament Hill.

"I am not looking at excuses, but I know that profound scars were left on me because of my time in residential school. I never shied away from that. The death of my friend and mentor, Jack Layton, also greatly affected me," he said in the statement.

Saganash ran for the NDP leadership in 2012 but dropped out partway through the campaign. At the time he went on leave, he said in the statement the race wore him out and took him away more often from his family than his regular MP duties.

Saganash was elected to represent the northern Quebec riding of Abitibi-Baie-James-Nunavik-Eeyou in 2011.

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