Romeo Saganash Exits NDP Leadership Race, But His Bid Inspired Aboriginal Youth


The first aboriginal ever to run for head of a major political party in Canada has withdrawn from the race, citing a lack of cash as well as family illness. But his bid inspired aboriginal youth nonetheless.

Romeo Saganash, Cree attorney and New Democratic Party (NDP) Member of Parliament for the riding (district) of Abitibi-Baie James-Nunavik-Eeyou in northern Quebec, is also fending off a case of pneumonia himself, the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) reported.

In the aggregate it was more than his campaign could bear, he told the media in a statement released on February 10.

“My mother, sisters and brothers and my children all need more attention than I have been able to provide,” Saganash said. “I am unable to devote enough time to them, my constituents or my party and run the kind of campaign that I would like to run.”

Although he noted the outpouring of support from aboriginals, he said that mobilizing that support and getting voters out would have required an infrastructure that could not be put in place in the space of one campaign.

“There remains much work to do to bring this community to the party, but a strong foundation of hope and engagement now exists. I am sure this will continue,” he said.

Nevertheless, supporters were shocked and saddened, APTN said. Some tried to raise money at the 11th hour, but he told them to stand down. He had been running on a shoestring as it was, staying at people’s homes rather than hotels while on the campaign trail, the network said.

"It is impossible to run a winning campaign as the favorite second choice,” Saganash said in his statement. “People send you good wishes, but they don't send their money."

Serving his first parliamentary term, Saganash was up against NDP veterans Montreal MP Thomas Mulcair, former party president Brian Topp, Toronto MP Peggy Nash, Ottawa MP Paul Dewar, British Columbia MP Nathan Cullen, Manitoba MP Niki Ashton and Nova Scotia pharmacist Martin Singh. Robert Chisholm, the MP from Nova Scotia, withdrew before Saganash did because he could not speak French, according to the Canadian Press.

Saganash’s run alone made him a pioneer, and the man who survived residential school was credited with inspiring youth just by putting in a bid. Two young activists wrote about what his candidacy meant to them in a February 13 story on

“Although this contest has been hard fought and came with many challenges, New Democrats were lucky to have Romeo in this race as long as we did,” wrote Max Fine Day, who worked on his campaign.

“A leader for over 25 years, a man with intelligence, compassion and vision, Romeo came equipped with progressive ideas that would benefit all Canadians. But perhaps most importantly, he has given a generation of young people, like me, reason to hope when things seem the most hopeless,” he said. “His journey from residential school to leadership candidate shows how far we've come in Romeo's lifetime.”

Tria Donaldson, a Mohawk and indigenous activist from Victoria, British Columbia, wrote about how unthinkable a campaign by a residential school survivor would have been back in her grandfather’s time, 60 years ago.

“Romeo's incredible track record of leadership, his thoughtful vision for Canada and the passionate way he spoke about social democratic values brought a lot to the leadership campaign,” she wrote. “But for me, and for many other young folks, the power of Romeo's campaign went beyond just him as a person. For me he represents hope.

“Hearing Romeo speak in Cree during a leadership town hall in B.C. was one of the most inspiring and emotional moments I have experienced as part of any social change movement,” Donaldson wrote. “My heart sang with joy to hear an Indigenous language spoken by a potential prime minister.”