Despite the organizational challenges posed by a renewed Covid-19 pandemic, new Cree Youth Grand Chief Adrian N. Gunner and Deputy Youth Chief Jordan Masty are determined to address the challenges facing young people in Eeyou Istchee.
While a planned first meeting between Gunner and Masty in Waskaganish was postponed when the CNG annual general assembly became a virtual event, the two spoke following the Cree Nation Youth Council elections and decided their slogan would be “skododisden” (“let’s go do this then”).
“I’m looking forward to working with Adrian,” said Masty. “He’s a really good guy and hard worker. He’s not afraid to speak up and I have the same mentality. To achieve something, we have to work together as a Nation.”
In the CNYC elections August 17, Waswanipi’s Gunner won with 54% of the 850 votes cast, well ahead of Heather House and Stacy Anderson. Youth aged 13 to 35 cast their ballots at polling stations established in each Cree community, while eligible voters in Chibougamau, Senneterre, Val-d’Or, Montreal, Ottawa and Mocreebec voted by telephone or FaceTime.
Gunner approached his campaign three months earlier with dedication, immediately accepting his nomination and preparing his promotional posters. He later embarked on a tour of the entire Cree Nation, making his first visit to Eastmain.
“I wanted to show I was dedicated, and I was going to give 100%,” Gunner told the Nation. “I want to thank everyone who reached out during my campaign and after getting elected. I want my platform to be the foundation of my leadership for the next four years – to help preserve our land, language, culture and traditions.”
Gunner and Masty now become a voice for Crees under the age of 35, a fast-growing demographic that now represents more than 60% of the Cree population. After years as local youth development coordinator, Gunner’s experience working on the Eeyou Eenou Police Force and most recently as social work technician at Waswanipi’s high school gave him insights into social issues faced by Cree youth.
“I feel there are certain youth demographics left out in terms of support and services,” said Gunner. “From a personal and professional perspective, I’ve seen a lot of alcohol abuse and there is a lack of support for young parents and single parents. Bullying is probably one of the biggest issues in schools today.”
Gunner wants to promote collaboration between entities to provide diverse paths to healing from the intergenerational trauma at the root of many of these issues. He remarked that land-based healing has been most effective for him, practicing his culture by hunting, fishing and simply being out with family and friends.
“The youth often tell me there isn’t enough going on for them,” Gunner added. “I want to make more things happen. Youth outreach should be a priority – I want to take a proactive approach and start small. I would like to have evening activities between our board meetings to get them involved in the small things so they can know us when the big things come.”
While the CNYC offers a variety of programs and services related to education, healthy living, personal development, culture, training, employment and citizenship, Gunner believes more can be done to engage youth in communities and those returning from post-secondary studies in the south.
“A lot of times when students getting education down south come back, they don’t have a job available,” noted Gunner. “I want to work closely with Apatisiiwin Skills Development to create career fairs and promote youth capacity building.”
Gunner will also work with other Cree entities to address the lack of housing options for these returning community members.
“Graduates coming back don’t have transitional housing,” Gunner explained. “A lot of times the social housing has a long waiting list. Some are on the list for years before they can get a house. Sometimes people are pressured to get into home ownership but they’re still in the transition of starting or seeking a new job after graduating.”
Every community has its unique housing challenges and perhaps none more so than Masty’s: Whapmagoostui. Masty hopes to leverage his new position as Deputy Youth Grand Chief to address the obstacles that the northernmost Cree community faces in accessing infrastructure and services such as internet.
“The price triples compared to Chisasibi or Waskaganish,” Masty told the Nation. “They have to ship everything by barge, and then the cost of labour here – it all adds up. One of the biggest challenges we face in Whapmagoostui is the lack of social housing. We need to find ways to reduce that cost.”
Masty has been involved in local politics from an early age and is currently a band councillor, Cree Trappers’ Association vice-chair and youth chief in Whapmagoostui. Assuming his new regional leadership role, he wasn’t sure about possible conflicts of interest with these local responsibilities or about the Deputy Youth Chief’s lack of salary, which he said the CNYC was looking into before Goose Break.
Both new leaders expressed a desire to develop a deeper partnership with the Elders Council. Gunner had planned to attend September’s cultural gathering in Mistissini before it was postponed due to Covid precautions. The pandemic has significantly disrupted youth activities over the past two years and created new mental health concerns.
“We’ve been really isolated, especially Whapmagoostui,” shared Masty. “We couldn’t leave unless we had a medical emergency. It’s still challenging and not a lot of us have left the community for over two years now. We’re still trying to survive every day.”