This year’s annual general assembly, held in Waskaganish August 30 to September 1, was an occasion to recognize the outstanding lifelong contributions of Cree Nation members while making space for the leaders of tomorrow.
After Robert Kanatewat was awarded the Lieutenant Governor’s First Peoples Medal in May, the Cree Nation Government decided to make a similar acknowledgement. Bill Namagoose, Robbie Matthew and the late Alice Shecapio were honoured with Acts of Service medals, which were designed by local Cree artist Tim Whiskeychan.
“Since it was the first year, we wanted it to be a surprise,” explained Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty. “Next year, it will be more ceremonial, likely part of an evening event, and open to Cree Nation members to nominate people.”
The AGA was relocated from Eastmain to Namagoose’s hometown of Waskaganish to accommodate his retirement dinner, celebrating 45 years of service to the Cree Nation. He told the Nation he really appreciated this gesture and reflected on his efforts implementing the JBNQA after becoming the CNG’s executive director in 1988.
“Quebec was enjoying immense revenues from the hydroelectric projects, but they walked away from their promises,” Namagoose recalled. “The Crees decided to take a stand and we focused on stopping the Great Whale project. That propelled the Crees into political activists and Quebec took us very seriously.”
With separatism a recurring election issue, it’s interesting to remember the Cree Nation’s influential role in the 1995 referendum. According to Namagoose, they told Quebec, “You can go if you want but Cree territory is staying here in Canada.” A subsequent CNG public opinion poll found that this position significantly altered the outcome.
“Sometimes I was in downtown Manhattan, thinking what the hell am I doing there, but then I’d think of my unilingual Cree uncles making their living in the Broadback,” said Namagoose. “That gave me motivation because I didn’t want Hydro-Québec or others to disrupt their way of life.”
Former Chisasibi Chief and Cree Trappers’ Association president Robbie Matthew was also honoured for his dedication to protecting and strengthening the Cree way of life. With his wife Sally, he taught traditional skills and cultural pride to generations of youth while serving as advisor to numerous organizations.
“We wanted to choose somebody who gives back in a volunteerism role,” said Gull-Masty. “I was moved by tributes I’d heard about the late Alice Shecapio. She was heavily involved in her community, a long-time coach, and a person who had such an impact on so many young women. Her daughter Ardelle accepted the award on her behalf.”
Many AGA discussions focused on preserving Cree traditions for an expanding and evolving population. It was resolved to assess the current trapline system and the changing role of the tallyman to ensure there are adequate wildlife protections and youth can have greater access to traditional activities.
“Traplines are not growing any bigger, but families are getting larger,” Gull-Masty said. “How are we going to teach today’s youth to be sustainable and respectful in their activities? The tallyman has an obligation to pass along Cree knowledge but is also facing pressure as a steward and asked to participate in consultations.”
With the growing cost of living, an urgency to maintain moose habitats and a need for internal evaluation, new funding of $572,346 was announced for the CTA. This will contribute to moose management, special language initiatives and the hosting of regional forums to share expertise and traditional knowledge from the coastal and inland communities.
“The funds will go towards our local projects and programs where it is the trappers who will benefit,” stated CTA president Arden Visitor. “Building action plans for language and wildlife preservation continues to be very important for our members and we look forward to offering this.”
The Cree Nation Youth Council (CNYC) will also receive $670,270 to expand their programming, such as an upcoming cultural exchange initiative with the Inuit. With youth forming 60% of the Cree Nation, Gull-Masty wants to shift from per capita to needs-based funding while considering the provision of a youth department head office.
“This year I was so moved by the youth participation,” said Gull-Masty. “Their voice was loud and clear on what their expectations were. They’re making the CNYC what they believe it needs to be. These youth are so vibrant and determined, I think the future of our leaders is very exciting.”
With 2022 declared the Cree year of special needs, videos sharing some families’ challenges were a revelation for many. Ahead of the special-needs symposium in November, resolutions supported infrastructure and housing that is better adapted for these community members.
“Every Cree has their rights, and we have a duty to support their needs so they can stay as much as possible in the community,” Gull-Masty asserted. “Building partnerships as Cree entities is the key to unlocking a unified approach to issues on the territory. Breaking down those silos is so important.”
As the economic security program for Cree hunters hasn’t kept pace with rising costs and demands, it was resolved to negotiate with Quebec for increased benefits and availability to Cree Nation members.
Despite inflation-related construction delays, Waskaganish CMC will be completed two years earlier than planned. It was also resolved to expand the private housing program for Cree entrepreneurs and enable Whapmagoostui to access fuel subsidies available in Nunavik.
The Cree Native Arts and Crafts Association announced a new bursary of $500 for graduating high school students and plans to develop the online Wachiya store to help open new markets for Cree artists.
Washaw Sibi announced promising developments for their future village, with each community supporting the transfer of Category I lands to meet this goal. Other discussions included the potential decentralization of policing services and preventing conflicts of interest between entrepreneurial and elected duties.
“Most importantly, communities are learning about one another,” concluded Gull-Masty. “Unity amongst Cree communities is the foundation of what brought us together to fight many battles in the past and it continues to hold up our Nation. Harmony in the Cree Nation is what protects the things that are important to us.”
by Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter