A young Cree activist is becoming a Quebec media star

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Maïtée Labrecque-Saganash is making her presence felt. Whether she’s busy being an activist, a journalist, a feminist, a student, a daughter or  simply a member of the Waswanipi Cree Nation, she is determined to make her voice heard.

In francophone Quebec, Labrecque-Saganash has rapidly become a high-profile personality – largely thanks to her weekly column in Métro, the free Montreal daily newspaper. Identified as a “Militante crie et étudiante en science politique” (Cree activist and political-science student), she has been writing about Indigenous issues since October 2016.

That same year she toured Quebec for a project called Faut qu’on se parle (We Need To Talk) that included former student leader Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois (now the co-leader of Québec solidaire) and Jean-Martin Aussant (the former leader of Option nationale). Engaging with people either in large public forums or during intimate home visits, they discussed political and social issues with the goal of defining the kind of Quebec that Quebecers want and how socially progressive it should be.

Now Labrecque-Saganash is a familiar voice on television and radio talk shows and is frequently invited to speak at various conferences.

During the Faut qu’on se parle tour, Labrecque-Saganash was surprised at the welcome she received when she spoke about Indigenous peoples in Quebec: “I told them about our culture and how we view the land, the environment, the resources, and they were very moved and respectful. And when we addressed Quebec sovereignty and what role Indigenous people could play, I would turn the discussion around and ask what can Quebec do for Indigenous sovereignty.”

Born in 1995, Labrecque-Saganash grew up in the suburbs of Quebec City with her mother Élaine, her father – the NDP MP and former Cree negotiator Romeo Saganash – and two siblings, sister Stéphanie and brother Félix. In school, she said she experienced racism and was bullied for being Indigenous.

“Though there were some Black and Vietnamese students, we as Cree were treated harshly,” she recounted. “We had deal with a lot of stereotypes and disinformation. However, unlike the others, they couldn’t tell us to ‘Go back to where we came from.’ We were already here.”

Labrecque-Saganash notes that many Québécois youth know little about Native people other than as what they see in their history books – “scantily dressed, prehistoric beings who have nothing to do with the Quebec reality.”

Several years ago, Labrecque-Saganash sat on an advisory committee that reviewed the new Quebec high-school history curriculum introduced in 2016. After a year, committee members were told that the editors weren’t obliged to use any of their recommendations. Upon hearing this, Labrecque-Saganash demanded a meeting with the editors.

“I spoke about residential schools in Quebec, and pointed out that during the Quiet Revolution [in the 1960s] when the Québécois were seeking emancipation, they were still forcing Native children into residential schools,” she said of the meeting. “When I finished, one editor replied that they all knew my father had attended a residential school, and understood that I was a bit emotional about the subject. I told them it had nothing to do with emotion, but with historical facts and these needed to be taught.”

Her father and his siblings were sent to residential schools, and Labrecque-Saganash said she deals with the legacy of this experience on a daily basis.

“When it comes to my dad, it’s about his communication skills,” she said of Romeo. “It’s hard for him to express his feelings, since he’s not in touch with them, but he’s learning. I’m about to turn 23 and we’re just now figuring out how to communicate with each other.”

For the first four months of this year, Labrecque-Saganash traveled across Eeyou Istchee with the Footprints: A Walk Through Generations exhibit, which was curated by the Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute in Oujé-Bougoumou. In every community, she met a number of residential school survivors. Many talked with her openly about their experiences knowing that her father was a survivor. When she asked them if they ever spoke to their children about it, most said they didn’t.

Labrecque-Saganash would see her father dealing with his pain as she grew up, but she never knew why. These days she understands much more and says her father’s relationship with his children is changing. “I think seeing me reclaiming my culture and language, and my brother being an amazing hunter and fisherman, and good on the land, has made my dad more connected and closer to us. He realizes that he has passed on pride to us, rather than just trauma.”

A political science student at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), Labrecque-Saganash is thinking about going on to get a law degree. But she decided to take the winter semester off in order to spend more time up north.

“I went to get more connected. I went to speak with the Elders, and my fellow youth to learn things and I did it on my own,” she said. “Growing up I spent all my summers in the Broadback area until I was around 16. Then I stopped, but now I realize unconsciously I was missing it. These days I know that I need to go up north to find balance. I’m so deeply attached to this land that I can’t be away from it for too long.”

For Labrecque-Saganash, the most important issue facing Indigenous peoples in Quebec is land. “Nearly 90% of Waswanipi’s territory has been cut or fragmented. As an Indigenous person I should have the right to live and thrive on my land. It’s alarming when you think that the youth will grow up hunting on clear-cut land. The province has to realize that when they destroy the land they are destroying our way of life, and our language,” she stated.

“It is really traumatizing for the Elders. I can’t imagine how my grandmother feels looking at how different we live today. While many Québécois see Hydro-Québec as such an accomplishment, they never think about what it cost the Cree to build those dams. I want to make sure that Quebec understands our place and role here, and doesn’t take us for granted.”

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Maïtée Labrecque-Saganash will begin a new column for the Nation in our next issue.

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