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Cree Nation Youth summit inspires next generation in Quebec City

BY Patrick Quinn Mar 16, 2024

The next generation of Cree leaders left the first Cree Nation Youth Council summit inspired to assume their future responsibilities. The event brought together most community youth councils along with numerous presenters to Quebec City February 25-27. 

“Equipping the youth with the knowledge and tools to bring home was the ultimate goal here,” said CNYC Grand Chief Adrian Gunner. “And for multiple youth councils to network and get to know each other. As my deputy youth chief Jordan Masty would say, we’re going to need each other down the road.” 

Special projects coordinator Tania Richmond was credited with building the program for the event. CNYC leaders and their executive committees helped plan the agenda, workshops and speakers for the summit. 

“There’s a lot of fun and games back home but we wanted to bring everyone together to learn a thing or two,” Gunner explained. “The Grand Chief’s workshop made me realize the complexity of development and protected areas, the role in bringing people together, and the understanding that leadership is not all black and white.”

Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty acknowledged it’s hard to say no to an offer of a leadership role but to have patience and wait for the right moment. Deputy Grand Chief Norman A. Wapachee noted that politicians often serve their own interests while true leaders stand for the interests of others.  

Keynote presentations came from the Cree school and health board leaders, Sarah Pash and Bertie Wapachee. Pash emphasized the education system’s growing independence and Wapachee recalled working for the CNYC in Quebec City in 1992 when it helped organize the World Indigenous Youth Conference. 

Assembly of First Nations youth council co-chair Rosalie LaBillois delivered an impactful presentation, but most speakers and workshop leaders came from Eeyou Istchee. Gunner highlighted the ceremonial teachings from Miss Whapmagoostui Jade Mukash and the treaty insights from CNG legal expert Paul John Murdoch. 

Other presenters included Apatisiiwin Skills Development, the Eeyou Eenou Police Force, Youth Protection, and the Department of Commerce and Industry. Attendees appreciated the Social and Culture Department’s advice about accessing funding for local programs.  

For Cree language commissioner Jamie Moses, the summit was an opportunity to share his team’s work in community engagement. His young team gained contacts to help them collaborate on local initiatives. 

“We’re hoping to conduct surveys to have a better picture of challenges up ahead, asking to rate your abilities to read and write Cree,” Moses told the Nation. “Comparing numbers, we have from 1989 to today, I think the health of our language is rapidly declining. It’s crucial to engage the young leaders to be part of finding solutions to improve the language among the younger population.”

Moses explained that youth councils not only deliver helpful programming within their communities but also influence decision-making on a regional level. 

“The CNYC has a special place in my heart because I’m also a product of that organization,” said Moses. “I am a former youth chief [in Eastmain], so I’ve always enjoyed following the CNYC’s progress, even mentoring young leaders in my home community.”

Current Eastmain chief and CNYC board member Linden Spencer was motivated by speakers like LaBillois and Pash to work harder to engage his community’s youth. He was excited to meet other youth councils, exchanging best practices for working together, and gained new understanding from the diverse workshops. 

“What hit me most was the Cree language,” said Spencer. “There are a lot of ways we can encourage youth to keep building their language. We have a class once a day, but some are struggling.”

While Christopher Herodier’s presentation about La Grande Alliance answered some questions, Gunner suggested youth are skeptical about the partnership with the province that proposes protected areas and infrastructure development. Gunner said some are totally opposed, others are more open, and many aren’t sure, causing “fear and anxiety about the land.”

“Youth feel the pressure is coming to them because of past experience with the dams,” agreed Spencer. “I want to tell the youth we are in the driver’s seat – it’s important to learn more. Don’t go against it right away but understand it so we’ll know what to do when the time comes.”

A highlight for many was 14-year-old Mistissini resident Liam Swallow’s speech condemning violence and vandalism. Spencer loved how Swallow encouraged youth to aspire to leadership positions and encouraged everyone to “rally behind his efforts for peaceful and respectful communities in Eeyou Istchee.”

“In rejecting violence, we embrace the transformative power of education and dialogue,” Swallow said. “Let us cultivate a culture where kindness is our common language and understanding our universal currency. Together we can steer away from destructive violence – the toughest climbs lead to the greatest views.”

Social media reactions emphasized the fun parts of the event. A gala hosted by Mi’kmaq comedian Janelle Niles featured performers such as Dank Aspects, NorthSideBaby and the Cree Nation’s own Siibii and Kong. Gunner said they’re hoping to host summits every second year.

“It was always in the plans, but we were finally able to do it,” said Gunner. “It’s one of the most successful events we’ve had at CNYC, and I feel we’ve hit the mark in how a program should be.”

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.