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Politics ᐊ ᓃᑳᓂᔅᑭᑭᓂᐧᐃᒡ ᐊᐱᑎᓰᐧᐃᓐ

The Grand Chief reviews the year 2022 in Eeyou Istchee

BY Ben Powless Jan 27, 2023

Since being elected in 2021 during the Covid pandemic, Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty has seen provincial and federal elections and dealt with a range of issues, from meeting with the Pope over the legacy of residential schools, to provincial language laws, to federal announcements on protected areas.

The Nation reached out to the Grand Chief to discuss the state of the Cree Nation, and to ask about pressing issues and future plans.

The Nation: How would you describe the current state of the Cree Nation? 

Grand Chief: I would say that the current state of the nation is there are many discussions going on at different levels with the government. Within the Cree Nation, three of the items we had targeted from my office was to really enhance and build stronger communities and dialogue with communities. This is something we’re planning for this year.

One of the big initiatives we launched in my first year was to better understand and connect with communities on their needs. These discussions and dialogues have been ongoing, and I’m pleased with them. Second is relations with external nationals: to see what opportunities and directions we can go in to build nation-to-nation relationships. 

With both levels of government – provincial and federal – we see the return of re-elected governments, so we’re continuing the working relationships with Quebec. One of the things I’m pleased with is we didn’t lose progress with the election, so those discussions can continue seamlessly. 

With Canada, we’ve seen big announcements with housing and the environment. Those have been fruitful for all nations, but for the Cree exponentially so. The dialogue is continuing.

There have also been some hardships. It has been challenging at local levels for some of the things that communities have gone through. Some things hit close to home for myself, but near the end of 2022 I saw a new working relationship and communities and regional entities which confirmed our relationship to work together. For me, looking forward to the upcoming year, this is what I’m excited to see. 

The Nation: How is the Cree Nation doing now in response to the pandemic? What have you learned?

Grand Chief: Of course, Covid is still active and out there. Last year with the pandemic was a huge transition year. You saw us move away from using measures for lockdowns and really engaging our community members to be responsible for their actions and activities.

It was a year of reopening and seeing more public activities, with people coming back to what was closest to the norm of our pre-pandemic lives. It has been challenging to observe the Cree Nation coming back, opening back up. Of course, it’s nice to see people, it’s nice to connect and get together in person, but I also see there’s been a lot of stress due to the pandemic and what we’ve gone through.

It was a traumatic event. It was completely out of the norm; it took everyone by storm. It was hard and challenging. It was extra hard for us because we’re so social. 

In hindsight, we need to sit down and have a discussion amongst ourselves as community leaders to ask what Covid taught us and what are we looking to highlight from the lessons learnt. We have had some internal discussions at leadership tables, but in our informal discussions we’ve touched on it a bit.

Time and time again, chiefs have said, “I’ve realized there’s so many issues, because of the pandemic.” Issues that weren’t transparent became very apparent. The pandemic has been an experience. We’re not over dealing with the stresses and traumas that it created at a local level. 

We were lucky as the Cree Nation that we took measures to protect our members; they were extremely challenging. It was hard to lose family members, I also lost a family member. Grieving for those people together, now that we’re open again, is something we have to encourage. 

As for the present day, people are more aware, are more cautious, and are more respectful of one another and trying to ensure they protect one another. It’s changed the way we think about illness and communities.

The Nation:  Over the past year, what were the high points for the Cree Nation?

Grand Chief: For me, there have been many high points. One of the things I really appreciate this past year was the support that members have given to my office – contacting me, speaking to me in person or on social media. The support or encouragement for the things I’ve decided to do have helped push us forward. This has been a highlight – getting that feedback directly from people, be it good or that this thing I should’ve approached differently, I’ve appreciated as a leader. 

Another thing that’s important has been the changing relationship with the Deputy Grand Chief (Norman Wapachee) and working closely with one another. The work that Norman has done I’ve really appreciated. He has a huge role in the cultural baseline study, understanding where we are as a nation is very important for both of us. Seeing him establish the framework, preparing for work we’re doing this year with communities, I’m really proud of him and our good working relationship.

Some of the highlights I’ve seen have been observing chiefs working on hard issues in communities, seeing these chiefs support their members. Seeing communities come together in sometimes very difficult circumstances. Seeing the nation coming together to support a community or family grieving. That’s been one of the things that’s really encouraged me – that even though we’re so many different communities, at the end of the day the communities come together to support one another. 

Really impactful for me has been to see moments where people have come together in a quiet way to address very challenging discussions and issues. Going to Chisasibi and being part of the group hosting the Minister (of Crown–Indigenous Relations Marc Miller) when he made an announcement with the Elder and the way the community planned the announcement: sharing a meal while telling the story of what happened at that residential school. That was a very impactful moment to observe and be a part of that process. It’s a very dark history, but to create a safe space to talk about it was very impactful. 

Another element more internally to the Cree Nation Government was us taking the time this summer to have a session amongst leadership and administrative bodies and share where we wanted to go long term. It was a time to share our objectives, share our priorities, get feedback and get them in as part of our planning process to better understand staff and understand where they want to see the organization go, and recognize their contributions to the Cree Nation – that was a really good experience. 

That was important for me to see what we’ve had so many members who have made significant contributions: volunteering, organizing events, supporting calls to community, or people with longstanding contributions in their careers. Having a chance to sit down and look at the ways people have given to the Cree Nation – it was a powerful moment of reflection. 

Choosing people to receive the first awards that we gave out at the Annual General Assembly in August was a very powerful moment for me. It was challenging to only pick three. I was very honoured the people we chose accepted. 

It’s unique to give back to members and call them out and acknowledge what they’ve contributing sometimes quietly over a lifetime. For me, those were moments I looked at people and said, wow, everyone’s contributing to push us forward. It’s not just one leader, but people contributing as a whole and allowing us to advance to new domains. These are things that help us push the Cree Nation forward.

The Nation: What has brought the most difficulty for the Cree Nation in the past year?

Grand Chief: One of the biggest challenges this past year is cyber-bullying. It’s so hard to watch people say negative things online – to have their own facts and perceptions on a situation and then go out and make statements online. I don’t think we as people – not just the Cree Nation, but people in general – understand how much of an impact social media has on us and younger generations.

I’ve seen from time-to-time social media used in a really negative way. I’ve seen some things that are really hurtful. I’ve had it happen to me. I understand how it feels to be cyber-bullied. We have to set an example for our younger kids. 

We don’t tolerate bullying in person, in workplaces and in schools. We all need to reflect on how we use social media and remember the statements we put out there have an impact on all the people reading them – not just the targets. I want to encourage people in the Cree Nation to think about how they use social media and the messages they’re putting out there and remember what our Elders tell us.

My late grandmother always said not to be mean to one another, and the knowledge shared through me was to always show love to one another. We forget sometimes the impact of our words. It can either help or hurt. 

The Nation: How would you characterize the Cree Nation’s relationship with the provincial and federal governments?

Grand Chief: I think the Cree Nation is really unique with our relationship with Quebec. The way our treaty is written, it creates a distinct structure of relationship with Quebec. We’ve had over the duration of our treaty different phases: sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes non-existent. 

I think we’re in a place where we have a good understanding of one another and our objectives, in terms of health and education. The Quebec government is in a place where it’s reflecting on who is part of the population that isn’t Québécois. The Québécois have a distinct identity and aren’t Indigenous, and they’re asking, what are we going to do to meet their needs? 

We have many files and discussion on the table. Some are advancing well; some need more time and more discussions to understand what is the targeted outcome for each side of the table. We saw the appointment of new ministers, so we’ll have new relationships with them. We have the continuity of some ministers who were reappointed. 

Of course, there are some issues that are more challenging, that I don’t necessarily agree with them on. I’ve spoken at length on Bill 96 about the officialization of the French language – I don’t agree, I don’t think it’s fair to recognize it as the official language where there are more than 12 Indigenous languages. 

Since the re-election of Premier Legault, I’m challenging him to have an Indigenous advisor to speak to him about reconciliation. Reconciliation goes beyond acknowledgements and an apology. Reconciliation to me is building new relationships and ensuring you’re trying to elevate the lives and standards of those negatively impacted by previous governments – provincial or federal. 

For me, that’s what reconciliation means. To hear the Premier make those statements was encouraging but if you want to do reconciliation, that’s not an easy task and you have to challenge yourself to move that file forward. So, I’m looking forward to seeing where he wants to go. 

On the federal level, we have a longstanding working relationship with the government. We’ve seen big announcements with housing. There’s lot of files moving forward and lots of dialogue. I was encouraged at the end of the year to see all the announcements of environmental protection of land and marine areas coming from Canada. There are lot of good things on the table.

We have to remember to keep pressure on both levels of government. We have good relationships, but we have to do our part to respond to them. 

The Nation: The Cree Nation has always been a participant in international affairs, what do you see as the Cree Nation’s role within international governance, given the Cree Nation’s recent participation in the UN Convention on Biological Diversity and the Human Rights Council?

Grand Chief: I don’t think people know the Cree Nation is one of the few nations that has been recognized and given a role to speak in discussions at an international level. We did a lot of work to push the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) forward and I think that’s been a very challenging process, but it was because we had a long-term working relationship with bodies at the international level. 

It’s important to understand the Cree Nation resides within Quebec, and has relationships with Quebec and Canada, but we shouldn’t limit ourselves to those relationships. Pursuing an international economic position this year is really important. 

How can we build economic relationships with other countries? Highlighting and showcasing our territory and culture for tourism would bring lots of benefits. Building collaborative processes to engage tourists to come is important to me. 

We were part of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues this past fall. I had some staff participate in a technical working group in Geneva, and we’ll participate in the Permanent Forum this year. My plans are to bring forward proposals from the Cree Nation to enhance participation with these international bodies.

I want to see a new methodology for conservation credits associated with cultural activities. It’s well known that cultural activities contribute to the conservation of territories. I want to bring forward and encourage other Indigenous nations to have these efforts and develop new mechanisms for environmental and cultural preservation. 

We must lead by example and encourage others. We’ll also participate at major discussions in Geneva in July, and I’m excited to see what happens. There will be lots of dialogues on Indigenous issues, so I’ll look at what’s coming from that and what directions Indigenous Peoples want to head in with international relationships.

The Nation: What can Crees expect from the Cree Nation in 2023?

Grand Chief: 2023 is going to be a big year for the Cree Nation because the first year we were in office, we were doing lots of planning and preparations. The Deputy Grand Chief and I are going to be doing engagement sessions starting in April. We want to go to each community and do extended visits, do governance sessions, and ask them to contribute to the Cree constitution. 

We’re in the process of doing a governance review and want input from members on what they want their governments to do in the future, and to bring forward concerns but also be a part of the building process of where they want the Cree Nation to go. 

We want to encourage people to be part of the working sessions so they can be part of building the Cree Nation, giving feedback on services, and engaging to determine where they want to go in the future as Cree members. 

The second thing I’m excited about is the declaration we made on social solidarity. We’re working with local and regional leadership on these issues. For me, the two areas I’m going to be focused on are violence against women. I’m working with staff on a project to address this and have a campaign to bring greater awareness.

The other important issue is to work on bullying. We have to address the impacts on children and how to teach them to speak kindly to one another. We hope to get into communities and speak with younger members.

And lastly, I’m looking forward to working with our new Executive Director (Davey Bobbish). Just because he’s a different person, it will have an impact on our organization. I’m encouraged to see how we will transition as an organization with this extremely senior civil servant position. As a leader, I’m excited to see how that relationship will grow and have an impact on our staff.

The Nation: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Grand Chief: One of the things I have enjoyed this past year is we’ve started doing a governance review. I want to thank the JBQNA signatories and former leaders who participated in that process and who spoke with Norman and me and my team in the meetings we had.

They came in and discussed the spirit and intent of negotiations before the JBQNA, what it was like negotiating the JBQNA. We had former Grand Chiefs come in and share what they were doing and what their intentions were. They gave such insightful stories, feedback, advice and direction. It was the first time we’ve taken those steps as a council board. I want to thank them for continuing to serve the Cree Nation beyond their mandate and sharing and educating our current council board members about our treaty and how we’ve evolved as a nation. 

I want to thank staff, and I’m excited to bring this information forward to our members, to each of the Cree Nations, what our treaty is doing for us and what we’re doing to implement the treaty. I hope that our members here in the Cree Nation are going to engage in that and learn what we’re doing as a nation and continue to contribute to that.

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Ben Powless is a Kanien'kehá:ka and Anishnabek writer and photographer, currently living in Ottawa. He has a degree in Human Rights, Indigenous and Environmental Studies from Carleton University.