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Community ᐄᐦᑖᐧᐃᓐ

The State of the Cree Nation

BY Ben Powless Dec 30, 2020

2020 has been without a doubt an exceptional year. Covid-19, a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, has uprooted many of our lives, although Eeyou Istchee has been relatively untouched thanks to efforts by the Cree Nation Government and institutions including the Cree Health Board. 

At the helm of the Cree Nation Government, Grand Chief Abel Bosum worked tirelessly on behalf of the Cree Nation to oversee this response. 

The Nation asked the Grand Chief about that and other pressing issues, as well as future plans, in our annual State of the Cree Nation address.

The Nation: How has Covid-19 changed things – for the Cree government, and for the Cree Nation as a whole?

Grand Chief: There is no question that the Covid-19 pandemic has altered much of the way we do things in the Cree Nation. It has changed what we do and how we do it. But I am very proud of the fact that the Cree Nation, through our Cree institutions together with our communities, have been able to stay safe during this pandemic and we have not experienced any serious outbreak of the Covid-19 virus in any of our communities. In fact, we have not experienced a single case of community transmission of the virus since the beginning of the pandemic. The few cases among our people have all been as a result of our people being in southern Quebec, or people infected in the south coming into our communities.

We have been able to stay safe by taking things into our own hands – we recognized very early on in the pandemic that the kinds of precautionary measures and guidelines that were developed for Quebec as a whole did not necessarily address our own geographic, social and economic realities. Those measures were developed for regions very different from our own, and we realized that if we were truly going to protect our communities effectively, we would need to develop our own guidelines, our own precautionary measures, our own laws and our own initiatives. Through very close collaboration between our Cree Nation Government, our Cree Board of Health and Social Services, our Cree School Board and our communities, we introduced our own approaches for keeping our people safe, and we have carefully monitored and modified our approaches as we have all gone through different stages in the spread of the virus. 

So far, we have been very successful in what we have done, and we continue to monitor, assess and modify what we are doing to ensure that our successful battle against the spread of the virus continues. Our success in limiting the spread of the virus is directly a result of our having secured the resources to ensure that our major Cree institutions are robust enough – financially and in terms of human resources – to address the major challenge posed by the pandemic. Throughout the pandemic, we have made sure that there would be regular and effective communications to our people. We have held regular meetings among the leadership at all levels of our nation involving our Chiefs and the leaders of our Cree entities that were quickly followed up with messages to our people about the latest developments in the pandemic and the latest precautionary measures.

I think it is safe to say that we have been successful because our governance is in place. Our governance has permitted us to apply our own solutions to our own challenges. We have, of course, collaborated with key Quebec institutions such as the Ministry of Health and Social Services, the SQ and others. But we collaborated with them in order to ensure that our own approaches could be implemented in harmony with the rest of Quebec. Our success in keeping our communities safe owes a great deal to the maturity of our Cree governance.

But, in reality, the success of everything we have done to protect ourselves from the virus has been a direct result of the efforts, the patience and the maturity of our people. We have witnessed repeatedly over the years that our greatest strength as a nation has been the unity of our people, and it is our people at the community level who have made the sacrifices, who have complied with the precautionary measures we have put in place, and who have understood what has been asked of them. As our communities practically shut down for significant periods of time, our people maintained their confidence in our collective approach, and it was our collective unity, and our people’s faith in our efforts, that gave our communities the comfort and the confidence to begin to gradually open up again. 

I am particularly proud of the fact that all of our Cree entities have found new ways of working together toward a common goal, and I honestly believe that this reality will stay with us as we continue to work together to address a whole range of priorities for the Cree Nation. We are now looking forward to the introduction of the vaccines which we are hopeful will start to get us to a place of normalcy so that we can resume our lives in ways that are more familiar to us, and I hope that we can all look back at the last year and take pride in our achievement and take pride in the way that we placed the health of our people as the highest priority. 

The Nation: What were some of the successes of your office this past year?

Grand Chief: In spite of our overwhelming focus on keeping our people safe during the pandemic, we have actually achieved a number of other important objectives over this past year. As we have promised, we have finally been able to implement our Cree Nation’s private housing initiative. The program is now up and running and so far we have begun to assess 40 files which have been submitted for approval. We expect this number to increase in the coming years as we put in place our own approach to resolving the historic shortage of housing in our communities. This initiative will go a long way to addressing many of the community-based needs of our people.

I am also very proud of the fact that we have made the expansion of “protected areas” a priority for our communities. As part of the Grande Alliance MOU, we have been able to identify new protected areas which will connect the protected wildlife habitats throughout our territory. This, of course, has been done through extensive consultations with our communities and their traditional hunters and trappers. In fact, the “protected areas” initiative is the first substantive action to come out of the MOU which has now entered the process of environmental review under section 22 of the JBNQA.

It is very unfortunate that one of the consequences of the pandemic has been that we have had to put on hold the community tours that we had been planning so that we could come to each community to explain the Grande Alliance MOU, and what it could mean for our communities. The Grande Alliance is itself not a project. It is a framework for the planning of potential projects which, themselves, will need to go through the normal process of environmental and social review as required by the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. Our overall perspective on this MOU is that it will be a scoping exercise in deciding which potential projects meet the needs of our communities.

Under the direction of Ms. Nadia Saganash, our Cree Nation Government has made significant progress in increasing the number of “Wildlife Protection Resources” by initiating the Eeyou Istchee Land Keepers as part of our Wildlife Protection Assistant Program throughout our traditional territory. This initiative implements one of the important sections of our 2012 Governance Agreement with Quebec and will enhance our presence on the territory by being directly involved in environmental and conservation protection regulations and measures.

I am very proud of the fact that we have finally been able to move forward with the establishment of the Cree Development Corporation so that we can be in a better position to take advantage of development opportunities throughout the region resulting in many more contracting opportunities for our Cree enterprises while, at the same time, creating very significant employment opportunities for our people. I have a great deal of confidence in Mr. Davey Bobbish who has been appointed as the Chief Executive Officer of this Cree entity and I am happy that this institution has a competent and experienced Board of Directors. This Cree entity will play an increasingly important role in the economic life of our nation.

I am also very enthusiastic and proud of the fact that we have also moved forward with our Cree Language Commission by appointing Mr. Jamie Moses as our new Cree Language Commissioner. Jamie’s passion and commitment for iiyiyiuiyihtiwin and iiyiyiuyimuwin is demonstrated from his past work experience, as Cultural Coordinator for 15 years for the Cree Nation of Eastmain. Further, he brings his experience and knowledge of his culture and values as a Board member for the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay, Vice-Chair for the Cree Outfitting and Tourism Association, Board member for the Cree Cultural Institute and other working groups and committees. Jamie speaks Cree, English and French. We look forward to working with Jamie in his capacity as the Cree Language Commissioner.

With regard to important cultural matters, I am very pleased to announce that the City of Montreal has agreed to repatriate a Cree beaded hood (the Gunner Hood) from the Lachine Museum to Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute. This fine example of a Cree beaded hood belonged to the Gunner family, it is nearly 200 years old and an important part of our heritage. It had been on temporary loan to Aanischaaukamikw where it was shown in the opening exhibition. Now it will be coming home to Eeyou Istchee on a permanent basis. Aanischaaukamikw and the Cree Nation will celebrate the hood’s repatriation with a public event in the New Year.

As part of our effort to indigenize, to the greatest extent possible, the labour force in our Cree entities I was very pleased that we were able to appoint Mr. John Longchap as our new Director of Cree Capital Planning. In our effort to bring out the best of our communities I am highly confident that Mr. Longchap will successfully apply a wealth of community experience to this important Cree Nation Government position and, as he does everything, he will do so with professionalism and with creativity.

Our Cree Nation, in collaboration with Quebec and Canada, were able to work together to pay a very fitting tribute to our first Grand Chief, the late Billy Diamond. 

The renaming of this critical infrastructure link that safely connects our Cree communities and the region with the economic centres of Quebec and Canada acknowledges his important role in the history of northern Quebec and also in the future development, not only of the Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee, but of our region and Quebec as a whole. We are grateful to the family for giving us permission to pay tribute to our former leader in this way.

Over this past year, I had the opportunity to work very closely with Canada’s Minster of Justice, Mr. David Lametti, as he was given the responsibility to bring forward legislation to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The Grand Council of the Crees/Cree Nation Government has been actively involved at the international level in drafting and promoting the passage of the UN Declaration for nearly 40 years. We are particularly grateful to former Grand Chief Dr. Ted Moses and Mr. Romeo Saganash who worked diligently for many years to see the fruition of this very significant initiative.

Building on a previous bill first introduced by our own Romeo Saganash, this new legislation, Bill C-15, will be an important framework for reconciliation between Canada and Indigenous peoples as called for in the Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Declaration will also be an important source for the interpretation of Canadian law. 

This legislation will contribute to ensuring that historic injustices, colonialism, and current instances of systemic racism can be addressed, while also promoting the inherent rights of Indigenous peoples to self-determination and the right of self-government. The new bill has been introduced to parliament and we look forward to its successful adoption and receiving royal assent in the coming months.

In general, over this past year, perhaps the silver lining around the pandemic is in the way in which we have all worked together to address the challenges of the pandemic. We have introduced a much more coordinated approach among all our Cree entities which will make us much more responsive to the needs of our communities and much more effective in delivering programs and services to our people in the future. I have been very pleased to see this more coordinated approach further our efforts to replace the previous approach in which each Cree entity operated in more of a silo reality. This will be extremely important as we move forward in tackling important initiatives on behalf of our people.

The Nation: What are some of the lessons you’ll be taking forward? 

Grand Chief: One of the realities of going through a very difficult and challenging time, is that there are very many important lessons to be aware of and different practices that can be incorporated into how we will now do things.

I think that one of the most important lessons is that we have learned to rely on each another, and we have relearned the importance of our Cree values of unity and caring for one another. In prioritizing the health of our people, we have learned to rely on our own expertise, and we have learned that it is okay to trust our own instincts and decisions. In developing our own home-grown response to the Covid-19 pandemic we have realized that the way in which we addressed this challenge can easily be transferred to other priorities and other initiatives involving all our Cree entities. When it was needed most, we rose to the occasion and relied on our instincts, our traditional values and our traditional knowledge, and it worked.

We, of course, utilized all the tools available to us which made the development and the communications of our precautionary recommendations possible. We are truly grateful that we have, thanks to our Eeyou Communications Network, a robust communications infrastructure that permits us to be in touch with one another so that we can instantly inform our people of changing circumstances that they need to be aware of. Under the direction of Alfred Loon, the presence of this network has provided us with an enormously important tool which we have used to its fullest, and we know very well that without that network available to us our work would have been much more challenging. The importance of this communications network will, of course, be extremely useful in addressing major issues in the future.

The Nation: How have the Cree government and institutions managed the Covid crisis overall? How could they improve?

Grand Chief: As I mentioned before, I think that our Cree institutions have been exemplary in the way in which we have managed this pandemic crisis. We worked hard and we worked together – all of us, in our institutions, our communities, and our families. Everyone across the board worked together, particularly with our Public Health experts, with our PSOs, and others, to develop the right measures and laws that would work for our communities and our people. Our people heeded the warnings, understood them, and they have complied with all the precautionary measures that we have developed. It was not luck that successfully has gotten us through the pandemic so far, it was hard work and having the right priorities.

I am particularly grateful to all our people who made sacrifices to ensure everyone’s health and safety. Important community and social events such as weddings, funerals, holidays and vacations had to be done very differently, and in some cases, postponed. Many of our Cree workers who are employed in the mines, the hydro camps, and the forestry operations within our region, needed to do extra isolating which meant that they needed to be away from their families for longer than normal. Entire families sacrificed so that we could better ensure the health and safety of everyone. So, our gratitude really starts with the people.

I would like to share with you an incident that occurred during the pandemic that not many people are aware of. We encountered a situation in Chisasibi early in the pandemic when the Elder’s Home caught fire and burned down. Our Elders who were residents in that facility were immediately relocated to new temporary facilities which were outfitted with all the amenities that they needed to be comfortable. In spite of this potentially tragic situation, we all – together – worked in sync with the Cree Health Board to continue to provide the essential services for our Elders and there was absolutely no interruption in the delivery of these services. This is just one little example of how well, and how seamlessly, we have addressed any problems that have come up as we worked together to get us all through this pandemic.

The Nation: Besides Covid, what do you think were the major issues facing the Cree Nation this past year, and how did those issues get addressed, if at all?

Grand Chief: The provision of housing to our communities remains a major challenge. We continue to experience overcrowding which has been a particular worry during the pandemic, and we continue to experience many physical and mental health challenges associated with insufficient and inadequate housing. It is for this reason that we realized, once again, that we needed to take things into our own hands, and we established a $100 million fund dedicated to addressing our housing shortfall. Through our private housing initiative, it will be possible to provide our people with opportunities to build their own homes while, at the same time, we will be able to free up social housing for those who genuinely need it. 

We are also continuing to have discussions with both the Governments of Quebec and Canada about how they can contribute to this housing initiative and become part of the solution.

During this past year, we signed an MOU with Quebec referred to as the Grande Alliance.  This initiative, which I believe may be another very significant milestone achievement, lays out a collaborative approach between the Cree Nation and Quebec and builds on the “Paix des braves. It provides for long-term collaboration between our two governments to identify new protected areas which will connect the territory’s wildlife habitats. The MOU also provides for the planning of projects which would extend the existing transportation infrastructure in the region to promote economic development. All projects proposed under this MOU will be subject to the rigorous environmental and social impact review process outlined in Section 22 of the JBNQA that includes community engagement at every step of the process.

The objective of this initiative is to provide predictability and stability for the economic and social development of the Eeyou Istchee James Bay Territory. This “Grand Alliance” balances our profound respect for the environment with the potential for the involvement in the development of the natural resources within our territory. In effect, this represents one more tool through which the Cree people will be in the driver’s seat regarding what happens within our territory – both with respect to economic development and more generally with respect to land use planning.

And, of course as always, we can never rest when it comes to the protection of our Cree rights. We know that we must be constantly vigilant and constantly on guard to make sure that there is no erosion, no minimizing and no disregard for our rights as Cree people and our rights as Indigenous people. Even in the context of a pandemic we have constantly been alert, and we have reacted, whenever there has been any hint that our rights might be ignored or over-ridden. It is through this vigilance on our part that we are able to protect our gains for the benefit of our future generations.

The Nation: What are your plans for the upcoming year?

Grand Chief: At this time, we know that effective and safe vaccines are on their way, and we are looking forward to working with governmental authorities to ensure that the vaccines are available to our people in a timely way. In the meantime, we still need to continue to be watchful, to be wise and to be committed to continuing to do what we all must do to keep our communities and our people safe.

We will, nonetheless, continue to the greatest extent possible, to work on those priorities that will be important for our people after we have gotten through this pandemic. We will continue to expand our housing initiative, we will continue to identify those projects which will be helpful and useful for our people in the context of the Grande Alliance MOU, and we will continue to find creative ways to communicate with our people about significant developments in our territory.

I am particularly looking forward to developing a positive working relationship with our two newly elected Chiefs – Ms. Daisy House in Chisasibi, and Mr. Robbie Kawapit in Whapmagoostui. I am looking forward to having their strong voices around the table, and I look forward to their contributions to the very many issues that we deal with at the Cree Nation Government and across all our Cree entities.

As we all are aware, we needed to postpone many meetings in our communities to make them aware of the various initiatives we have been working on. This, regrettably, has created some misunderstandings and misconceptions about some of our initiatives. During this next year we will need to redouble our efforts to find more creative ways of communicating with our people at the community level. We are blessed to have the resources to undertake new and different ways of communicating with our people and we will use these resources as effectively and as creatively as possible.

One of the events that we needed to postpone is related to the sad passing of Mr. Fred Blackned from Wemindji. Mr. Blackned was one of the very few remaining original signatories to our treaty – the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. He, along with the other signatories to the JBNQA, were the heroic pioneers of our Cree Nation who took the unprecedented risk of opposing the James Bay Hydroelectric Project in the early 1970’s and took us into the uncharted territory of negotiating Canada’s first modern Treaty.

Mr. Blackned had been recovering from a stroke he had experienced last Christmas, and he was receiving treatment in a care facility in Montreal. Because of the challenges in being together physically to express our support for the family at the time of Mr. Blackned’s passing, a respectful and fitting memorial service needed to be postponed. I am hopeful that, at the appropriate time, we will be able to join the community of Wemindji and the Blackned family in a special ceremony to respectfully remember the important contributions that Fred has made over the years to his community and to our Cree Nation.

The Nation: What, if any, of the resolutions from the Annual General Assembly have been enacted so far? 

Grand Chief: Among the various resolutions that were passed by this year’s Annual General Assembly, it is worth noting those resolutions that were not strictly administrative in nature and dealt with substantive issues. First, the AGA this year resoundingly approved a resolution in support of the renaming of the James Bay Highway in honour of our first Grand Chief, Billy Diamond. This initiative was supported by Quebec and was announced in November 2020. The formal renaming of the highway took place on November 11th, the 45th anniversary of the signing of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. This resolution was fully supported by the family of our late Grand Chief.

Another resolution passed by the AGA addressed the impacts of climate change on the incidence of forest fires. The resolution called for studies to conduct research on this connection, and also, to identify potential economic development opportunities associated with forest fires. The resolution also called for the introduction of mitigation measures to remove burnt trees in areas which are frequently occupied by Cree land users. 

A further AGA resolution called for the commencement of discussions with Quebec with the objective of bringing to the Cree Trappers Association and to the Income Security Program greater recognition and esteem and called for the Cree Nation Government to ensure that practitioners of the Cree Traditional Way of Life are engaged in all discussions around infrastructure development with the Governments of Quebec and Canada on the same basis as scientific professionals. This issue will continue to be a Cree priority at our Standing Liaison Committee with Quebec.

The Nation: This has been a challenging year for many people – what is your message as we go into another unpredictable year? 

Grand Chief: Needless to say, 2020 was a very challenging year. But we have so far managed to get through it relatively unscathed, and we have gotten through it by prioritizing the health and the well-being of our people. We got through it by caring for one another, and we will hopefully continue to get through it until the successful introduction of a vaccine, by caring for one another. 

But this did not just happen on its own. Our caring was matched by our actions. We have been able to remain safe because we decided to take responsibility for ourselves and we acted as a Nation. We have remained safe because we, as an Indigenous people, took the measures that we decided were the best for us regardless of what measures might be in place around us. We have remained safe because we have had the benefit of reaping the rewards of decades of struggle to have the institutions and the resources to map out a course of action that we determined would be best for our own realities. We have also remained safe because we have been able to rely on our traditional Cree values – especially those of caring and respect, to guide us. And we have remained safe because our people have been united in taking the precautionary measures that have been recommended because we care for each other and because that is what we Cree people do in dangerous times.

As we look forward to an early transition to some semblance of normalcy, the lessons we have learned, and learned together, as we have dealt with this pandemic will continue to serve as we tackle important initiatives on behalf of our people. The lessons we have learned are important ones and we will incorporate these into how we do things in the future.

The Nation: Any other final words to share?

Grand Chief: I very much would like to take this opportunity to express the gratitude on the part of the entire Cree Nation to all those front-line workers, including those from outside our communities, who have chosen to be with us, and to stay with us, as we have worked so hard to keep our communities and our people safe throughout this pandemic. We have among us so many professionals and para-professionals who have demonstrated their commitment to the well-being of our people and who have sacrificed and risked their own health and safety. We are grateful to the doctors, the nurses, the teachers, and to our police officers who have been separated from their families to be with ours. A number of these workers have even made the decision to give up their holidays with their families for the sake of our health. To those individuals, please know that we recognize the work you are doing on our behalf, and we deeply appreciate what you do for us. You will forever remain in our hearts.

To our Cree people of Eeyou/Eenou Istchee, and to our friends beyond, I would like to wish you the best possible holiday season, and I wish you peace and contentment in the New Year. May you all find comfort in being with your loved ones, may you experience satisfaction in this year’s more limited social contacts, and may you all find joy in the knowledge that we are now safe, and that we will likely continue to safely get through this pandemic, and as we do so we set an honourable example of what is possible when the health of our people is the highest priority.



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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.