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Bill Namagoose retires after 35 years as Grand Council executive director

BY Ben Powless Jan 13, 2023

The Cree Nation Government (CNG) and the Grand Council of the Crees said goodbye to their long-time executive director in December, as Bill Namagoose retired after nearly 35 years in the role. Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty announced that Davey Bobbish would step into the position in January. 

Namagoose, originally from Waskaganish, first became band manager in 1978 at the age of 21. “Everybody in my generation wanted to help our generation. Our communities were in very dire straits in that time,” he told the Nation.

“We’re the generation that saw the initial bulldozer invasion of our communities by Hydro-Québec. There was no recognition we were even there or had any rights,” he said, which inspired him to get involved in public service. 

“What [former Grand Chief] Billy Diamond said was we had to get communities out of the rut we were in,” Namagoose explained, saying that communities were impoverished at the time. When he was selected as band manager, he remembers the band office was a “cold, cold building” that didn’t have indoor toilets, just outhouses. The rest of the community was no better, with open sewers but no running water or electricity. 

The Grand Council of the Crees was only four years old then, and the school board and the health board had yet to be created. While Namagoose’s job mostly involved basic management, including doing payroll for those working on housing, a large part was pushing for the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA)’s promises to be fulfilled. 

“When we signed the agreement in 1975, Canada and Quebec walked away. It took several decades to get them to agree,” he said. Instead, he decided to run for chief, and was elected in 1983 at the age of 26. 

When the Crees and Quebec signed the Cree-Naskapi Act (now known as the Naskapi and the Cree-Naskapi Commission Act) in 1984, Namagoose went to bed one night as the last Indian Act chief in Waskaganish and awoke the next morning as the first Cree-Naskapi Act chief. 

“But we still didn’t have sewers or water. It costs money,” he lamented. “People thought this would happen overnight.” Namagoose decided to go back to administration in Waskaganish, before applying for the role of executive director with the Grand Council of the Crees and securing the position in 1988. 

He moved to Val-d’Or, where the administrative offices were, until they closed and moved to Nemaska. The Cree Nation, headed at the time by Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come, had just begun a national and international fight against Quebec over the proposed Great Whale River Project hydroelectric development.

If Quebec and Canada weren’t respecting the JBQNA, why should the Cree be obliged to respect Canadian and Québécois sovereignty? “That was Matthew’s point when he ran for Grand Chief,” Namagoose argued. “He said if they won’t respect it, we should stop development.” 

Living in Nemaska would have made working on the Great Whale campaign even harder, so Namagoose moved his offices to Ottawa in 1990 to work out of the Cree Nation Embassy. The campaign involved travel to New York on the weekends with the support of environmental groups from the United States.

In 1990, Coon Come organized a canoe trip from Hudson Bay to the Hudson River in New York, to put pressure on the New York state government to abandon planned electricity purchases from the project. Eventually, after massive international pressure, New York withdrew, which led to Quebec and Hydro-Québec dropping the project in 1994.

The Crees would go on to sign several other agreements with Quebec and Canada, starting with the Paix des Braves agreement in 2002 negotiated with the province, the federal New Relationship Agreement in 2008, and the Agreement on Cree Nation Governance signed with Ottawa in 2017, which paved the way for the Cree Constitution the same year.

These agreements and funding commitments allowed the Cree government to focus on social issues and build up their own administration. “The Cree communities transformed from impoverished to modern communities with modern facilities, modern sports arenas, paved streets, and lots of people working. Still, we have many people who need help,” he added. 

Now there are over 450 people working for the CNG, and many more employed by the school board and health board. “For me, I’m satisfied, I have no regrets about leaving since the housing program is under way. That was the missing piece, we can resolve that now. Without housing, the communities would not be viable; people would leave,” he said. 

He said that Quebec had also come a long way from being “paranoid about the Cree,” saying that they didn’t want to have the words “Cree Nation” recognized in legislation, which led to them using the words “Cree Regional Authority.” “But now they recognized us, and the world didn’t end,” he added with a laugh.

However, Namagoose said there’s still more to be done. “We still have to get more autonomy,” from the province and Canada, he said, pointing to the Grande Alliance as a good starting point. He said the Cree Nation could also look to take over more programs from the province and feds, including pensions and old age securities, and doing more economic development. 

Speaking to his retirement, Gull-Masty honoured him as the “knowledge-carrier of all the decisions that were made in implementing the JBNQA. He was my go-to person to answer those questions. In addition, I think that Bill has really built the CNG to be a structure that we’ve come to know today, and I’m interested to see how it will evolve after his retirement.”

She said the CNG has benefitted from having a steady administration over decades to implement the decisions set out by the Council Board, as well as being key in federal negotiations. “We’ve been able to really succeed not only in treaties with Quebec but also with Canada,” she added. 

Gull-Masty said that Bobbish will have big shoes to fill, but they’ve been working side-by-side since the fall to transfer institutional knowledge. “I want to wish Bill and his family all of the best in the next part of their life and thank [his wife] Jeannie for all her work in supporting him in his role,” she added.

Namagoose was also appointed to the Order of Canada on December 29, in honour of his 45 years in public service. “It’s an honour to be honoured by the people I almost fought against, the government,” he said. 

For the Cree, he said he was proud to serve them. “I’m glad they trusted me and the confidence they placed in me was very fulfilling,” he said. “Rights are not something you talk about but breathe life into and become viable. I’m glad to be part of the process.”

As for what’s next, Namagoose said he’s been approached by companies that want to work on reconciliation and want his guidance. 

But first, “I’m just going to take a break. I’m going to enjoy my free time,” he shared. “People say when you retire you get busier, but I don’t want to do that. I’ve been busy my whole life; I want to relax and not get bored.”

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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.