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Cree leader awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Law for advancing Indigenous rights

BY Ben Powless Dec 22, 2021

Romeo Saganash was conferred an Honorary Doctorate of Law by Université Laval November 25 in recognition of his service advancing the cause of Indigenous Peoples in an event attended by over 1,000 people.  

“Romeo Saganash’s career is one of the most exemplary,” said a statement by the university in Quebec City. “All his life he has worked tirelessly for national reconciliation and the promotion of a more just and inclusive world. He has acted on multiple occasions as a negotiator and representative of First Nations in Canada and elsewhere in the world. He strived to provide better living conditions for the Cree community and for First Nations members.”

Originally from Waswanipi, Saganash founded the Cree Nation Youth Council and would go on to serve as its president. He earned a law degree in 1989 from Université du Quebéc à Montréal and was the first Cree to graduate from law school in Quebec. 

He then served as Deputy Grand Chief of the Grand Council of the Crees from 1990 to 1993, pushing for Cree rights in an atmosphere of increasing hydroelectric development. He served as Vice-Chairman of the Board of the Cree Regional Authority, and then Director of Cree-Quebec Relations for over 10 years.

During this time, Saganash was one of the main negotiators of the Paix des Braves agreement in 2002, which was hailed as instrumental in ensuring Cree participation and management of forestry, mining and hydroelectricity. He was also a key negotiator in drafting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in 2007. 

In 2011, he was elected to Parliament for Abitibi–Baie-James–Nunavik–Eeyou as a member of the New Democratic Party, a position he held until 2019. There, he was instrumental in advancing legislation that would eventually lead to Canada adopting the UNDRIP. 

In response to the award, Grand Chief Mandy Gull Masty stated, “On behalf of the Grand Council of the Crees (Eeyou Istchee) / Cree Nation Government, I would like to congratulate Romeo on receiving this highest distinction as we stand in ovation for his contributions to the advancement of the Cree Nation and the rights of Indigenous Peoples.

“It brings us great pride to see one of our own receive such a prestigious award. We are inspired by his courage and determination in promoting and protecting the rights of our people, and ultimately all Indigenous Peoples across Canada and the world.”

Prior to the award, Saganash was part of a conference organized by the Faculty of Law at Université Laval, talking about the challenges of his career and the future of Indigenous Peoples. “We have not finished this march towards justice. We must lead this march together,” he said to applause.

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Ben Powless is a Kanien'kehá:ka and Anishnabek writer and photographer, currently living in Ottawa. He has a degree in Human Rights, Indigenous and Environmental Studies from Carleton University.