How would you describe the current state of the Cree Nation?
Thank you for the opportunity to share my thoughts with the Cree Nation as we bring 2018 to a close and look forward to a new year. Overall, I view the Cree Nation to be in a healthy space. We continue in our mission to bring to our communities and to the people of Eeyou Istchee the rewards of decades of struggles and challenges to protect and preserve our rights as Indigenous peoples, and as Crees.
I am particularly proud of the work we have undertaken to improve the standard of living for our hunters and trappers. We have begun an important internal discussion to identify creative ways of making sure that the traditional Cree way of life remains a financially viable option for our people. Our people on the land have made an enormous contribution to our struggles to assert our rights throughout our traditional territory, and it is now time for us to give back. It is time to modify and to creatively reconfigure the ways in which we can support our hunters and trappers going forward. We will continue to work together to put into place new initiatives to create more income for our hunters and trappers and bring their income levels up to a standard that is realistic and that genuinely honours their place in our Cree society.
I remain convinced that we are on the right track by having committed ourselves to working together – chiiyaanuu – to ensure that our efforts on behalf of the people, and on behalf of our communities, are hitting the mark. I have tried, over the last year, to spend as much time as possible in our communities so that I could hear first-hand about the issues that are important for our people and to hear about the concerns that people have.
I do not want to give the impression that I believe everything is perfect. I know, and we know, that we have some serious issues to address in our communities and there are areas where we need to be more creative in our solutions. But it will only be through honest dialogues that we will identify the problems and come up with effective solutions. For example, we need to build on our work to date to develop a workable approach to address our housing crisis, and to do so we will continue our negotiations with both the governments of Canada and Quebec.
We also need to redouble our efforts in the area of capacity building to make sure that the next generation is equipped with the tools, the knowledge, and the skills to continue to build our Cree Nation. In fact, I consider this to be a very urgent matter that we cannot put off any longer. I will be looking to find additional ways to provide our young people with opportunities to develop their personal careers while, at the same time, contributing to and enhancing our Cree Nation.
All in all, I remain very optimistic about our future. We know what we need to do and we have the tools to continue to achieve great things for our communities and our people.
In terms of economics, has this been a good year for the Cree?
Yes, I believe it has been a good year. As a result of our various agreements over the years there continue to be employment opportunities throughout Eeyou Istchee – in our local governments, in our Cree Nation Government, in our regional Cree entities and in the development activities taking place on our traditional lands.
We are also continuing our discussions and negotiations with the Government of Quebec to ensure that a key portion of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement dealing with contracting within the region is interpreted in such a way as to provide preference to Cree enterprises. In this respect, we continue to insist that our communities, our affected hunters and trappers, and our Cree Nation will be involved in all mining developments within Eeyou Istchee.
We will continue to ensure that all development activities within our traditional territory of Eeyou Istchee require our consent and our participation. In combination, all these avenues for generating income for our people will contribute to a solid economic foundation for the future of our Cree Nation.
Over the course of the past year, what were the high points for the Cree Nation Government?
This has been a year in which we have moved forward on a number of fronts in our working to implement our agenda. Although there may not be one thing that especially stands out as being more important, we have made progress on a number of key issues. We tabled our proposal to both provincial and federal governments regarding our innovative housing initiative, we have continued to make capacity-building a high priority, we have begun the journey to improve the standard of living for our hunters and trappers, we have concluded an historic Indigenous-to-Indigenous agreement with our Pekuakamiulnuatsh neighbours, we have continued to have important exchanges with our Anicinape neighbours, particularly around the site selection issues for Washaw Sibi, and we have ensured that the positive and effective lines of communication are open with the new Quebec government under Mr. François Legault.
We have made particular efforts, in light of organizational changes within the federal government, to raise a number of issues that need special attention by the Government of Canada, including access to road funding, infrastructure funding, environmental review processes, human-resource development funding, police funding, residency and eligibility issues related to JBNQA benefits, and the future villages for Washaw Sibi and MoCreebec. These are all initiatives that we promised to work on, and we are doing just that.
What was the most difficult part of the past year for the Cree Nation Government to work through?
I, like most people, would always like to see changes happen a lot faster than they really take. Whenever we are dealing with governments, particularly initiatives that involve more than one level of government, it takes time to raise issues, have those issues understood and appreciated, have negotiators appointed, have governments issue mandates for negotiators, then enter the difficult phase of negotiating mutually acceptable agreements or new arrangements. It can sometimes feel frustrating if those steps are not achieved quickly, yet we need to go through those steps to get where we would like to be.
I understand if people at the local community level become frustrated because we do not see changes right away, but it has been my goal to keep our communities informed about the progress we are making on all our initiatives, especially those that involve particular communities. It is for this reason that I have tried very hard to visit all our communities as often as possible. This has given me an opportunity not only to provide updates to our people on major initiatives, but it always provides me with a deeper understanding of the issues that our people really are concerned about and what we, as a Cree Nation, need to focus our energies on.
With a federal election on the horizon and a provincial election now behind us, what is your current relationship with both federal and provincial governments?
On the provincial side, we now have a new government in place led by Mr. François Legault. We have had several meetings already with Mr. Legault to provide him with an understanding of certain Cree Nation realities that will be useful for his new government to appreciate. The door for continuing dialogue is open and I am confident that we will be able to continue with our important initiatives in the context of this new government.
On the federal side, there have been some important restructuring measures within the civil service, notably, the division of the former Department of Indian Affairs into two new departments – Indigenous Services Canada and the Department of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs.
Under the coordination of Mr. Bill Namagoose, we have made sure that our relationship with the federal government is appropriate and that issues related to our treaty – the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement – receive the special consideration that they deserve. A special Cree-Canada Standing Liaison Committee has been created as a place where we can bring issues to the attention of Canada.
Also, under Mr. Namagoose’s coordination, we have maintained an open dialogue with a new Deputy Ministers’ Oversight Committee for treaty implementation. This committee is comprised of 19 deputy ministers from different departments across the federal government and is responsible for bringing about what we refer to as a “whole-of-government” approach to JBNQA issues.
This recognizes that there is more than one department within the federal government with a role to play in implementing our treaty. So far, we have been able to present to this committee issues related to housing, environmental legislation, funding for access roads, infrastructure, police and CHRD. We will continue to create dialogues wherever necessary in order to ensure proper implementation of our treaty.
Given that the Cree constitution creates a very different relationship with the provincial and federal governments compared to other First Nations, what is your relationship like with Indigenous leadership throughout Quebec, such as the AFNQL and the First Nations they represent?
I have personally kept the communications open with Mr. Ghislain Picard, the AFNQL Regional Chief, as we have continued to address issues that affect all Indigenous peoples in the province. For example, we have been in close touch as the Viens Commission has been carrying out its work to report on the way in which Quebec institutions relate to our peoples and to address issues of systemic racism. In light of this, we have created the position of Indigenous Relations, occupied by Tina Petawabano.
It is important that we also continue to build and maintain relations with our neighbours. A number of discussions have begun on a variety of issues. As signatories of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, the Inuit and the Cree have several common interests when dealing with the governments of Quebec and Canada.
We want to continue to build and strengthen our alliances with our neighbours to the north. The Maamuu Wiicheutuwin Agreement, signed with Mashteuiatsh earlier this summer, was a positive display of building and maintaining these relations. The success of this table has led to discussions with the Atikamekw, Anicinape and Illuwuk across the bay in Ontario.
Although we may have differences that have caused rifts between us over the years, there are more points that unite us than divide us. This notion will be the focus of these discussions that will hopefully bring us to common solutions. The Maamuu Wiicheutuwin Agreement is a great example of what we can achieve when we set our differences aside and concentrate on our commonalities and links that have existed for generations.
We have been serious about our nation-building agenda, our rights-based negotiating strategies, and we have been serious about becoming “masters of our own homes”. We remain open to sharing our experiences over the last 45 years in the hope that our brothers and sisters throughout Quebec and the rest of Canada may be able to benefit from that experience.
In a year of inquiries and commissions, are government-led initiatives (such as the Viens Commission/CERP or the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls) creating positive, lasting change?
Whether the government initiatives create lasting change or not, we will just need to wait and see. Because these initiatives hold out the possibility for change, we will continue to be involved in them and we will continue to contribute where we can to bringing about permanent and lasting change.
As we all know, governments sometimes have short lives and the initiatives begun by one government may not always carry over to the next. If there is any possibility that we can contribute to a momentum that makes it difficult to reverse important changes, we will do that. This is our way of giving back, but we also know that when we make a contribution to change, when we make a contribution to bringing about genuine reconciliation, and when we contribute to the full recognition of Indigenous rights, it will be good for us as well. This kind of progress helps protect the integrity of our own treaty and all the agreements that have flowed from our treaty over the years.
What can Crees expect from the Cree Nation Government in 2019?
In general, I think we can expect to see continuing progress on all the initiatives that I have mentioned and all the priorities we have expressed for the Cree Nation. I hope, a year from now, that I can report on substantial progress on all these initiatives and priorities.
I should emphasize, as I mentioned earlier, that the issue of capacity-building will continue to be a very high priority, not only for the Cree Nation as a whole but for me personally. I am convinced that our ability to maintain the progress we have made over the last 45 years will only be protected and sustained if we prepare our young people to carry on our work. So, we need to include our young people in our Cree entities, we need to make our young people to feel a part of this journey we have been on, we need to inspire them to continue the work, and we need to provide them with all the tools they will need to continue to realize our vision. We need to make sure that they feel there is room for them if they have made the commitment to their own educations and their own personal paths of growth.
We cannot, as a Nation, afford to alienate our youth. That is why I will continue to find ways to encourage our youth, and help our youth, create a sense of purpose. In the same way that our current and past leadership has been inspired by a sense of purpose associated with the building of our very special Indigenous Nation, we need to share the opportunity for that inspiration with our youth. In the long run, we will all benefit from that.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
For me personally, and for my family, this past year has been one marked by a tragedy of the most difficult kind. As you know, we lost our son, Nathaniel, in a motorcycle accident on July 1. Nathaniel was just coming into his own – he was engaged to a beautiful and wonderful partner, he was beginning to experience success in his new business venture in which he was trying to make a contribution to the capacity-building agenda of our Cree Nation, and he was living life to the fullest – with passion, with hard work, and with an ever-present sense of humour and optimism for the future.
Our family is still trying to come to terms with this profound loss, especially as we are entering the holiday season, which has always been a very special time for us. It has always been a time for our entire family to come together to celebrate and to be comforted by the strength of our bonds.
I would like to express, on behalf of my family, our appreciation for all the support and kindness that we have been shown wherever we have traveled, throughout Eeyou Istchee and beyond. That support has helped us in ways we cannot express.
May 2019 be a year of health and joy for all our extended families, our friends and acquaintances.