Nemaska was beautiful in the first week of August, as delegates, chiefs, heads of Cree organizations and departments gathered for this year’s Annual General Assembly to discuss and report on a wide range of topics. But one thing seemed to be missing this year and that was controversy. This can be partially explained by the fact that there are now separate AGAs for the Cree Health Board, Cree School Board, the Board of Compensation and CreeCo as well as other Cree organizations.
Grand Chief Abel Bosum felt there was another factor in play behind this development – and that was communication. “We cover a lot of the reports, issues, information and concerns through Twitter, Instagram and other forms of social and regular media. So, when people come to the AGA a lot of their questions have already been answered. I feel that this is very important to the Cree people and our government,” said Bosum.
This years’ theme was “Unlocking the Wealth of the Cree Nation,” which recognizes the achievements of the past 45 years.
“We have made historic gains in the recognition of our right as a Cree Nation to govern ourselves completely free from governmental interference,” Bosum said. “We have gained the recognition of our right to be involved in all development activities taking place within our traditional territory; and we have gained the right to benefit from those development projects—financially and with respect to employment, contracts, and environmental protection.”
Another key economic stimulant is local housing, which translates into jobs and contracts. As well, the home ownership model will give those Cree a tangible asset, Bosum insisted. Those initiatives, he said, “represent a progressive and positive approach to addressing our housing shortages, while at the same time, realizing major economic development potential for our communities and for our Nation.”
Meanwhile, the food was great. Most of it was traditional and Freddy Jolly offered delicious bear meat smoked in the old way. One evening I was corralled into assisting with preparing snacks for the next day’s meeting. Fortunately, I left before Darlene Diamond, aka the Cree Martha Stewart, got a chance to tell me I was fired.
The feast honouring Romeo Saganash’s service in Parliament was memorable. We all learned a few things about Romeo and honoured some of the actions throughout the years he was in politics. In his early years we were told that until the age of seven the only language he knew and heard was Cree. Then he was taken to residential school in La Tuque.
After finishing there he attended a 10th anniversary James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement conference that sparked his interest in law. So much so that in 1989 he became the first Cree to earn a law degree in Quebec.
The following year he was voted in as the Deputy Grand Chief of the Grand Council of the Crees. The battle against Hydro-Québec’s plans to dam the Great Whale River was happening at this time. A rocky road to start out your political career for anyone and he stayed in office from 1990-93. The next 10 years saw Saganash work as the director of Quebec Relations and International Affairs. In 1997, he chaired the James Bay Advisory Committee on the Environment for the three years.
In 2011, he became the first Cree from Eeyou Istchee to run for federal office. He became the NDP Member of Parliament representing the Abitibi–Baie-James–Nunavik–Eeyou riding. In 2015, he was elected for a second term. He decided not to run for a third term.
“But Romeo’s career is not over,” Grand Chief Bosum told the guests attending the feast. “I am confident that whatever the next part of Romeo’s journey might be, and wherever it may take him, and whether he will still be running somewhere or not, I know he will be devoting himself to a noble and a just cause, and we will continue to be proud of his achievements. On behalf of the Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee, Romeo, Meegwetch.”
Saganash was then presented with a moose hide vest, which he accepted with tears in his eyes. “The ultimate honour one can get is to be honoured by your own, and for that I am proud and grateful,” said Saganash.
The evening was capped by a concert by the lake, starting with Wapstin (Lawrence Martin), the first Cree to win a Juno in Canada. He sung a few old favourites and the crowd’s response showed he still had his mojo going strong.
After his set I jokingly told Chisasibi Chief Davey Bobbish he was up next. We all laughed until the MC called for Bobbish to come to the stage. Turned out the joke was on me. Bobbish was trailed by a few people who said he had to show he had an entourage. Then Mistissini Chief Thomas Neeposh finished warming up the audience for the main act, Kashtin.
Kashtin has never failed to please the Cree. During the concert Nemaska radio host Virginia Diamond lamented that she hadn’t brought an extra pair of panties to toss on stage. It’s a safe bet she wasn’t the only one to think along similar lines. Of course, I was wearing the only pair I had brought and wasn’t about to give them up.