After a voting day nail-biter on August 14, Gaston Cooper was elected Chief of Ouje-Bougoumou over former Deputy Chief Lance Cooper. Angel Mianscum was elected Deputy Chief ahead of Harry Bosum.
Outgoing Chief Curtis Bosum compared the leadership transition to passing the baton in a relay race, where what’s most important is “how well the entire team of runners work together for the benefit of the team.” The election campaign was capped by the community’s first-ever debate, hosted by Louise Wapachee on August 11.
As new Chief, Gaston Cooper brings a wealth of experience on OJ’s band council and in numerous administrative positions. He has worked with many of the Cree Nation’s regional entities, most recently as executive director of the Cree Native Arts and Crafts Association (CNACA) over the past five years.
Cooper recalled that after informing CNACA President Kenneth Gilpin of his intention to run for chief, “the first words he uttered was, ‘I hope you lose’.” Cooper said he helped turn CNACA around from the verge of bankruptcy during his tenure, achieving significant milestones including the development of local arts committees and the reopening of the Wachiya store.
The first Wachiya store based in Val-d’Or closed in the early 1990s. The Cree-owned marketplace for traditional arts and craftwork reopened online this past March with plans to set up a physical store in Old Montreal this winter.
“I think people appreciated that and saw I was able to accomplish the impossible,” Cooper told the Nation. “People started taking me seriously, that I could possibly do something good for Ouje-Bougoumou.”
Originally from Waswanipi, Cooper moved to Ouje-Bougoumou 32 years ago. When he was first elected to band council in 2002, he spoke of growing up alongside the people of Ouje before a community was established, then officially applying for band membership after having his first child with his wife, who was already a member.
At age 21, Cooper was “called up from Waswanipi” to work with the CBC for several years. Leaving CBC to attend college, he was pulled back to the job when a child was on the way. Cooper expressed no regrets in how his journey panned out, having three beautiful and accomplished children who are now university students or graduates.
Working at CBC opened doors in communications and marketing, which led to various positions at entities, such as Air Creebec, the James Bay Cree Communications Society and the Cree School Board. Cooper more recently worked as Ouje’s representative with the Cree Nation Government. He said he’s been able to “take a piece” from all the good leaders he’s worked with that’s benefited his own management style.
On the new Chief and Council’s inauguration day, Cooper honoured the legacy left by past leadership, whose “dedication, vision and hard work have paved the way for our continued success.” As one of his campaign promises, Cooper intends to create an advisory committee comprised of former Chiefs in the community.
“Being a Chief, you’ve reached the highest level of office within that community and that title will remain with you for the rest of your life,” explained Cooper. “I consulted with all the former Chiefs, asking them to be on the advisory committee, and they’ve all accepted. When something new arises, they can suggest what our position should be.”
Their collective leadership overcame decades of marginalization by mining companies and governments to finally gain recognition and land to construct a village in 1989. That village on the shore of Lake Opemiska has become an internationally recognized model of innovative sustainability and a showcase for Cree culture.
With its relative proximity to southern cities and attractions like the Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute and Nuuhchimi Wiinuu cultural camp, Ouje-Bougoumou has enviable tourism potential. During consultations on the campaign trail, Cooper said culture was often mentioned as a priority – almost as much as housing.
“I heard from the youth, especially those who leave their community to pursue their dreams in post-secondary, that when they come back there’s no place for them,” said Cooper. “They ask where they can work for the summer and come back during the holidays. With the housing department, we may have found a solution with a few houses being renovated and saved for transit units.”
Employment and economic development were other issues frequently cited, with community members concerned that there are too many jobs going to neighbouring towns or the south. Since taking office, he’s gained support for asserting a collective response to recent incidents of vandalism.
“Vandalism not only damages the physical appearance of our community but also erodes the sense of safety and pride that we should all feel in our neighbourhood,” Cooper shared in a public notice. “I strongly urge all residents to come together and take a stand against vandalism.”
Emphasizing that youth are “the pillars” of community development, Cooper said he’s been encouraging young people to go into politics or take other leadership roles. He was inspired to witness the engagement of teenagers during the election even though they were too young to vote and he’s enjoying his popularity among younger members.
“After I won as Chief, the little ones would start running to you, congratulating you and giving hugs,” said Cooper. “Just the other day after being away for a week in meetings, I saw little girls playing broomball and the first thing they said was ‘Hi Chief, where did you go?’”
At the other end of the demographic spectrum, Cooper recently posted a selfie playing bingo with Elders. During the election campaign, he experienced support from the community’s Elders he first felt when moving to Ouje-Bougoumou all those years ago.
“One Elder told me during the election campaign, ‘I don’t think you realized it, but we saw something good in you,’” Cooper shared. “‘That’s why we put you in these committees, so you could learn and eventually lead us one day.’ I realized I owe a lot to the community. I thought I would repay it back to the people by giving myself 100% to help them.”
By Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter