Cree NDP MP Romeo Saganash still remembers the sights and smells of his first day at a residential school in La Tuque, Que.
“I still recall the priest way up on the stairs in … the entrance hall … speaking a language I had never heard,” Saganash said during a sit-down interview at his Ottawa office.
Saganash was six and a half years old and had just been removed from his home and territory to endure what he calls “political … linguistic and cultural incarceration.”
His story is far from an isolated case.
Canada’s residential school system — a government-funded assimilation program — was in place for 130 years. The last school closed in 1996.
After spending a decade away from his family and culture — where he learned English, French and every sport imaginable — Saganash decided to dedicate his life to advocating for his people as a lawyer.
He helped to negotiate the historic James Bay-Northern Quebec agreement, and he spent more than 20 years at the United Nations helping to discuss the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
But while he was waging legal and political battles, the emotional footprint of his upbringing remained — unconfronted and untreated.
Then it caught up to him.
“Sometimes you forget about yourself,” he said. “That’s what happened.”
The MP, and former NDP leadership candidate, was escorted off a plane in October for being drunk.
When the incident made headlines, Saganash took a medical leave from his parliamentary duties and sought help.
After going through a 21-day treatment program where he was “completely closed off from the rest of the world”, Saganash is opening up about his mission to recognize himself – and the pain of his past.
“After all of these years, doing what I did, the work that I have done … I thought all this was behind me – that I was at peace with that part of my life. That wasn’t the case,” he said. “What happened there still taints what I am today. That is something that you learn to understand when you’re in that type of therapy.”
With this awareness, Saganash says he is “thrilled” to be back – especially as aboriginal issues have been thrust into the spotlight through nationwide Idle No More demonstrations.
Upon his return this week, he was appointed deputy critic for intergovernmental aboriginal affairs.