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Politics ᐊ ᓃᑳᓂᔅᑭᑭᓂᐧᐃᒡ ᐊᐱᑎᓰᐧᐃᓐ

Former Grand Chief Abel Bosum reflects on his legacy

BY Patrick Quinn Aug 30, 2021

Many were surprised when Abel Bosum conceded the race for a second term as Grand Chief shortly after seeing the first-round Cree Nation Government election results July 14. However, his decision to forego the run-off vote was characteristic of the respect with which he approached his leadership.

“If I ran again, I felt it would go against the principle I’ve always promoted – unity in the Cree Nation,” Bosum told the Nation. “Looking back, I think I made the right decision. I accepted the fact that those who went to vote wanted the change. As a citizen of the Cree Nation, I need to accept that.” 

While he was pleased to see more youth get involved this election, Bosum expressed disappointment that voter turn-out in the first round was only 35% of eligible voters. He suggested that the Covid pandemic complicated campaign communications, providing little opportunity to share messages outside of social media and local radio. 

It was also clear that the campaigns of new Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty and Pakesso Mukash resonated with voters. Both were critical of how the Grande Alliance agreement with the Quebec government had been negotiated and communicated with the Cree Nation. Bosum maintains that the multi-billion-dollar infrastructure framework with Quebec is largely misunderstood.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for the Cree Nation, once they understand what it is,” Bosum asserted. “It’s about planning our own future, taking the lead and taking the pen to charter where it is we want to go. Once we can do that, then we have to decide how and when we want to implement or if we want to implement anything at all.”

Bosum blamed the pandemic for preventing proper community consultation and alleged that “anti-developers” took advantage to manipulate information. While the Grande Alliance had been discussed extensively in council meetings and online communications, perhaps that wasn’t enough.

“We talked about the impact that mining would have if we didn’t do anything about infrastructure in the region,” said Bosum. “I think the Chiefs in the communities understood what we were getting ourselves into. It was reported over a three-year period at almost every council meeting and livestream, but it just didn’t reach the people.”

While Bosum’s role in securing the “Paix des Braves” and other agreements has earned him a reputation as a master negotiator, some have expressed skepticism about his longstanding relationship with government officials. He responded that establishing committees close to the premier and other government ministers allowed the Cree Nation to address important issues that build upon the intent and spirit of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement.

Bosum pursued ambitious goals since his early career as Ouje-Bougoumou Chief, before there was even a real community to call home. Perceived as squatters on their own land when many lived in tar-paper shacks by the roadside, Bosum has said he transformed his anger into inspiration.

“Our people had nothing, lived in third-world conditions,” recalled Bosum. “They believed in where they wanted to go – through hard work and perseverance, we all worked together to make it happen. Building something from nothing to the community it is and the awards it won – it’s certainly something I’m very proud of. To me, it was building something I could go home to.”

In the 1980s, Bosum successfully secured both the community’s membership in the JBNQA and its land base by bridging generational differences to unite the community around a common vision for the future. As he exposed the human rights violations his people encountered, Bosum encouraged members to occupy their chosen site and blockade an important access road. 

“When I was working in Ouje, I had to rely on what were the tools of that day,” Bosum explained. “We had to do the lobbying and blockades to get attention and find ways to bring the issue to light. Once it was there, we had to learn to bring solutions to the table. That’s one of the secrets of success – you have to know what it is you want.”

After a productive stint as president of the Aanischaaukamikw Foundation and Cree Cultural Institute, Bosum accomplished much as Grand Chief despite the personal tragedy of his son Nathaniel’s death in 2018 and the pandemic’s interruption over the past year-and-a-half. He was quick to name the Cree Nation’s effective pandemic response as the highlight of his term as Grand Chief, asserting that saving lives is the most important thing in communities and families.

“He led the Cree communities during the Covid pandemic, which saved many Cree lives,” commented Cree Grand Council Executive Director Bill Namagoose, who has known Bosum since the GCC’s early days. “He had a vision on the long-term needs of the Cree Nation then and how to achieve them. I enjoy being a long-time friend and colleague of his and have learned much from him.

“Bringing his people home and building their community of Ouje-Bougoumou is his greatest achievement,” Namagoose told the Nation. “He gave them security and a sense of belonging. The Paix des Braves helped to reverse the economic and social downward spiral the Cree Nation was on – the transformative change is apparent in the Cree communities. Although he is not very tall, he is one of the giants in the Cree Nation and in Cree history.”

After successfully advocating for his community, Bosum was chosen to represent the Crees in stalled negotiations with Quebec. The Paix des Braves marked a turning point in relations with the province, providing new funding and greater autonomy in managing JBNQA benefits, empowering the Cree Nation to define its own future. 

“The Paix des Braves, then the governance agreements that allowed us to extend our role in all of Eeyou Istchee, as opposed to just being on reserves – I would see these as the highlights of my career,” Bosum reflected. “I feel good that I was part of that and the fact I was able to carry the torch from former leaders like Billy Diamond, Ted Moses and others.”

Bosum intends to revive his consulting services firm after a well-deserved break with his wife Sophie. Now it is the turn of the next generation. As Abel Bosum embarks upon unfinished business this fall, he hopes that the next leadership can build upon his work.

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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.