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Politics ᐊ ᓃᑳᓂᔅᑭᑭᓂᐧᐃᒡ ᐊᐱᑎᓰᐧᐃᓐ

The Grand Chief reviews the year 2023 in Eeyou Istchee

BY Avanti Nambiar Feb 26, 2024

2023 was a difficult year. The summer months were disrupted by forest fires that raged across Eeeyou Istchee and uprooted the lives of many. Plans and projects were put on hold as survival became the main priority.

At the helm of the Cree Nation Government, Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty worked tirelessly with all the communities to oversee this collaborative response. 

The Nation asked the Grand Chief about the successes and challenges of last year as well as the government’s future plans, in our annual State of the Cree Nation address.

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

Grand Chief: We’ve seen a lot of evolution between 2023 and 2024. One of the interesting things that we’re working hard on is our relationships with other Indigenous nations. We hosted the Innu nation in the community of Chisasibi and it was really productive, one of the first of its kind in Canada, where one nation meets another nation to do a trade: we had to reduce the number of caribou that the Innu nation was able to harvest. 

This is one of the foundational aspects of this relationship, a trade of caribou. Due to the impact of this past summer’s forest fires on the caribou and their habitat, we are trying to be very conservative in managing our impacts on the territory. I’m hopeful that other Cree Nation members are following this trend, where they’re being mindful of their harvest impact. 

Our relationship with the government of Quebec is a huge working file for Cree Nation. There’s a lot of focus and energy put towards working with our partners. I want Cree Nation members to understand is that there are so many different ways that we work with Quebec, in terms of governance, in terms of relationship, economic, social… We work with almost every single ministry. Last year, I’ve seen some ministries really succeed in working with the Cree Nation. But I’ve seen others that are really challenged. And 2024 will probably be the year where some of these files are going to be heard by the community members at the Cree Nation Council board table. It’s an incredibly challenging job. 

There’s going to be some issues that come to the table that will probably be challenging for the Crees. And for me right now, one of the huge challenges is what happened this past summer. The forest fires had a tremendous effect on the Cree Nation, not just in terms of land loss, but on people who were evacuated and taken from their communities. Loss of time, loss of employment, loss of revenue – not to mention the impact on tallymen and land users who lost their equipment, lost their cabins. Some traplines were devastated by forest fire, up to 90%. 

These things have had a huge impact on the Cree Nation. We’ve spent a lot of time after the summer trying to catch up on the issues that we were working on. Everything was at a standstill. We’re hoping to bring forward more solutions in 2024. And we’re not only looking to bring solutions internally from the Cree Nation Government, but we’re also looking to engage our partners at the provincial and federal levels to address what happened on our territory.

The Nation: How did the Cree Nation handle public health challenges this year?

Grand Chief: This past summer was something that was so out of the norm. We do have emergency planning in the communities, but for the first time in our history, we had to have regional emergency planning. This is something that was a challenge, because our territory is so large, and there are different organizations that manage different parts of the territory. The communities are Category One: they’re managed by the communities. Category Two is managed by Cree Nation Government. Category Three is managed in collaboration, by the Cree Nation Government and the regional governments of Eeyou Istchee. 

This summer was a test of those working relationships, because we were suddenly required to come together and come up with these super important strategies in response to an emergency. How to manage resources or territory; how to deal with sudden evacuations. 

It’s important for people to understand that in Eeyou Istchee the are multiple levels of government that work together. We have different mandates. There’s a successful working relationship. We were able to get through the fire season without anybody being harmed. Without any Crees losing their lives. I think that’s really important to focus on. 

We’re still studying the level of impact that it’s had on the territory, what happened with evacuations, the response time. It has highlighted a new area of governance that wasn’t well defined. We’ve come up with a lot of protocols since. We’re going to be tabling a final report at a regional government meeting about how things went during this period of time. How did people work together? We had some staff members who were working on this nonstop. 

Our deputy executive director, Melissa Saganash, did an incredible job in bringing these different levels of government together to find solutions. There were many people who did a lot of planning behind the scenes and it was really challenging because it was so unprecedented. I think the government of Quebec realized how unprepared it was, and that it had a major lack of resources. Quebec was really not able to fight the fires. 

For me, this is one of the challenges for Nordic regions. They have different levels of priority when they fight fires. And unfortunately, we fell outside of those regulations, and we suffered a lot of impacts because of them. I think that Quebec needs to reassess and realign its procedures to address the needs of people who are impacted by fire. 

We are already looking at the 2024 summer season. The predictions from the Canadian Forest Service are saying that it’s going to be a very dry year. There’s an extremely high risk to have forest fires again. So our priority as a government is to ensure we have better emergency planning. That there are more mechanisms in place to respond and fight fires. 

It’s also going to take the collaboration of our Cree Nation members. They need to plan for fire resiliency, fire prevention, at their campsites. To take the time to make sure that their camp is not going to be at risk of fire, buying insurance, making sure that they clean up around their camp, pulling away the brush, gettng rid of any root systems that are near their camp in order to create a little fire barrier. These things are really important. What saved a lot of people’s cabins is that some of them had fire resiliency. 

These are the kinds of things that you will be hearing from the Cree Nation Government. In the next couple of months, you’ll have information about the cabin program, who will be eligible, how will this program be rolled out. What are recommendations that we’re giving for this summer, how to be prepared, how to focus on spring activities to get their camps ready for the summer. 

The Nation: What were other big issues for the Cree Nation Government to work through? 

Grand Chief: Cree Nation members have been seeing a lot of activity in the mining sector. And I’ve noticed that people have a lot of questions. I encourage people to attend events, community consultations, or when companies come to do presentations. It’s really important to be informed. 

When the company comes to Cree Nation territory and they’re pursuing the project, we have a huge role to play. One of the most important is the land user and the tallyman and his family members who make use of that trapline. They have to be informed. They have to be aware of the decision making that the community makes in this process. And then there’s the Cree Nation at the table. Having oversight for environmental assessment, having participation at the negotiation, helping the communities understand what the project is about. 

When a community chooses to accept a project in their territory, there’s a lot of work put into that. I am mindful that we need to create employment opportunities. And we use the lens of sustainable development, to take care of the territory and leave impacts that can be managed. It’s a challenge to walk that line. But I do think that the communities that have active mining projects in their territory have gone above and beyond. Sometimes, it’s a really successful working relationship. Sometimes there are challenges in the process. 

But there is a lot of responsibility for the Cree Nation, to make sure that we are involved, that we’re informed, that we are aware of the steps, and that we are providing that social acceptability. And that is probably one of the greatest tools that the Cree Nation has. Not only the environmental assessment authority that we have under the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. We are really able to be drivers of what our expectations are of the project, and what the success is for it. 

In 2023, I had the opportunity to go with the Government of Canada to an investment conference in London. I was able to showcase how we operate as a nation, how our mining files are handled in the territory. We’re quite unique. I feel that we’re very advanced in the way that we present ourselves in the mining domain and how we want companies to work in our territory. We have a really good system, but we always have to strive to be better. So we’re taking feedback. We are looking at the relationships between companies, we’re looking at how tallymen are looking at projects in their territory, and we’re incorporating it into how we do our work. 

This is one of the big files that you’ll see coming up in 2024. You’ll see a lot of dialogue on energy. I think many Quebecers are aware that Hydro-Québec released a huge strategic action plan. And that plan does involve the Cree territory as well. 

The Nation: What are some of the lessons you will be taking forward?

Grand Chief: I’ll call it more of a learning curve for me, and the members of the council board. I am the Grand Chief, I am the chair of the Cree Nation Government table. But our government operates with additional community leadership, community chiefs, community reps, they have a role to play in our governance cycle. And this year, I am so proud to see that half of the community chiefs are females. It’s something that’s really important, that you see a huge participation of women in the governance system. I’s created a new dynamic at the Cree Nation Government table. I would say that, out of the 11 chiefs who sit there, eight are newly elected leadership. 

You’re also trying to engage them and understand their different styles. You’re trying to help them with their community, trying to have open dialogue. This is one of my leadership lessons: how can I help others understand their roles, encourage them, work with them, and empower them. I’m always excited to see new people coming to the table. And I’m looking forward to seeing what they want to bring to the communities.

The Nation: Economically, how has 2023 been for the Cree?

Grand Chief: Economically, the Cree Nation is in a position where it has secured a lot of funding. We do see that there is a greater need for a more focused lens on a Cree economy. This past summer was so hard because there were a lot of things that stalled. It gave us the ability to reflect a lot and to ask, “How has this event made us realize things about our working relationships, our territory, our needs, as a nation?” 

We just came out of two huge events: the Covid pandemic, and then the forest fires. It’s made us realize the importance of driving a Cree economy. 

I’ll give you a little bit of a scoop. Every year, we do a declaration with our partners at the Cree Health Board and Cree School Board. This year, it’s going to be a declaration of strategic initiatives that contribute to economic development. It’s a strategic alignment of how we can use our funds to enhance or create new economic opportunities. How communities can plan together. How to enhance regional planning, how to incorporate initiatives that make the greatest impact.

You’re also going to see a lot of planning coming out of our Department of Commerce and Industry, because they’re huge drivers in the economic sector, about how we as a nation can use our funds to create a private economy. We have a strong public sector, but we need to enhance that private economy. And it is our opportunity as public entities or public associations to spend our money building our relationships with private sector entrepreneurs. 

We’re looking to support entrepreneurs. We’re looking to bring information to our members: to explain to them what does the Cree economy look like? What are the foundations? And what are its components? Where are we strong? But also, where are we weak? And what should expect?

The Nation: What were the successes for the Cree Nation Government in 2023?

Grand Chief: I want to highlight the work of the Deputy Grand Chief [Norman Wapachee]. It’s important for members to be aware of the work that he’s doing. At the moment he’s working on the cultural baseline study, looking at the state of culture and the territory and evaluating how it has changed, how it has shifted. This is really important information. 

We discussed this at the beginning of the term. This is a priority for us, to understand the state of culture, the state of language, it was one of the pillars of my platform. I was so glad that he was able to undertake this project and to really drive it. That has also branched off into a Cree Nation Research Institute. We are often the subject of study, we have a lot of different organizations that come into the territory and study aspects of our culture. And it’s really important for us to drive those research initiatives. 

So he’s setting up an organization that will allow for us to not only actively participate in research initiatives, but to become the owners of that data. And I’m really proud of the work that he’s doing. He has been such a huge support to my office.

He’s been handling a National Marine Conservation Area file. Working on trying to establish a zone of protection for the James Bay, not only for Cree territory, but also in partnership with our neighbours in the north, the Inuit. So you’re going to see this one coming to the Cree Nation table again in 2024. There will be more public discussion about how communities on the coast can understand and prepare for a protected area in their coastal waters. 

He’s done an exceptional job. And I’m looking forward to seeing how 2024 is going to unfold.

The Nation: What is your current relationship with the federal and provincial governments? 

Grand Chief: At the federal level, 2024 is going to be a year you will start seeing some movement. We’re expecting an election soon. On the federal level, we have a good working relationship with the government. We have files that we are advancing. We had a lot of success with the housing negotiations, we’ve had a lot of housing go up. 

But what the Cree Nation has to prepare for is that soon some of our agreements will need to be renegotiated. There’s going to be a lot of work. There’s already work that’s starting internally to evaluate the implementation and how we can further enhance those agreements. We’ve taken over responsibilities from these governments. So we have to evaluate that work. We have to make sure that we were able to achieve what was outlined in these agreements. That we’ve implemented them to the best of our capacity. And if we haven’t, we have to explain to the government what our expectations are, and our needs to address. 

I’m also keeping my eye on what’s happening in Ottawa. I always seek to understand and listen to what the different parties are doing. I had the opportunity in 2023 to participate in a few Senate committee hearings. I was excited to learn about the efforts of Senator Michelle Odette in creating a national reconciliation table. That is really forward thinking, that engages different bodies to come to the table and talk about reconciliation. We have to do our part in participating as well. This is important for me as a grand chief, that we are enhancing our relationships with other nations. That’s a huge part of our role.

I was excited to see the election of Cindy Woodhouse [as National Grand Chief]. I’m looking forward to working with her. I’ve known her through our work with the Vatican, and with the Pope and his visit.

In terms of Quebec, this is probably where my energies will be focused. Our primary relationship is with the government of Quebec. Some things are going really well. Some things are a bit more challenged. And it’s because our partner understands that they need to make better decisions. 

I will be pushing very hard for Quebec to adhere and to make good on their responsibilities to us. In some areas, I’ve had to grade the government of Quebec’s performance very low. I want to be clear: we have a partnership, we have a working relationship. We have put a lot of effort into maintaining good relations. 

There has to be more clarity on Quebec’s part in understanding what their role is in a relationship with us. Because we are a key partner, and we’ve had a lot of successes. So it’s important for Quebec to engage with us right now. I am looking for a better performance from some of the ministries. Some are doing really well but others are struggling. So this will be an area where a lot of energy needs to be put forward by the Cree Nation.

The Nation: How has the relationship between the Cree Nation and other Indigenous leadership evolved?

Grand Chief: One of my goals as Grand Chief was to try to build these relationships with our neighbouring nations and with other nations throughout Quebec. So I feel that we’ve had a very successful relationship with the Innu nation to the east of us. We’re very closely related. We also signed an MOU to have a permit form with the Inuit and the Naskapi. 

One of the huge priorities is to connect with and have dialogue with the Moose Cree. This is a file that has been very challenging for previous leadership. I feel that there’s a lot of things that are not clear, in terms of understanding the position of the Cree Nation. 

I’m really happy that Chief Peter Wesley’s office has stated that he’s looking to hear from the Cree Nation and understand what our position is. So I’m excited to connect with them. I hope to build a good working relationship with them. They are our closest relatives, and I want to be allies with them. I’m hoping that 2024 is going to be the year that this will be achieved. 

We are also working with other nations across Quebec. I’ve had the opportunity this past year to work with the AFNQL table, we do support many of their files. We as the Cree Nation have different mechanisms that we use because of the JBNQA. But I appreciate going to those other leaders who are interesting, and dynamic. They have different approaches. So you’ll see more of this engagement coming from the Cree Nation. 

Relationship building is hard, you have to put a lot of time into it. And you have to try to be open, and you have to try to understand what it is that you’re looking for. And that connection across Indigenous nations in Quebec is really important for us. 

The Nation: What can Crees expect from the Cree Nation Government in 2024?

Grand Chief: In 2024, there are two files that will be big topics of discussion and movement. We have seen from Quebec, the release of their strategic plan. We’ve been having a lot of discussions with Quebec. What is their intention for the Cree territory? 

I sense from Cree Nation members a nervousness. We’ve had a lot of trauma from the development in our territory, so there’s a lot of concern. I do want to reassure the Cree Nation members that we have made our messaging very clear that there has to be no further development of dams in the Cree territory. This is not something that we’re open to, we’ve made our position clear to Quebec. 

They have also come to the table and said, “No, we are not looking to further develop dams in the territory.” It’s been 60 years since we’ve signed the JBNQA. This means that a lot of the infrastructure on the territory is quite aged. So you will see dialogue between the Cree and Hydro-Québec, and discussing how they are going to be managing the upgrades or managing the maintenance of that infrastructure. This is really the only area that we’re going to be looking at in terms of what dams exist in the territory, and how are they going to be maintained and upgraded so that they’re more efficient. 

No new dams, but the infrastructure itself as a point of discussion between Cree Nation, the communities, and Hydro-Québec. So we’ve been exchanging for over a year, you’re going to see some of these things coming forward early in the new year. And what the Cree Nation’s plan is going to be for energy in the territory.

We are all aware of the impact of climate, we are all aware of how important energy is for the province of Quebec, and also for the Cree Nation. We are looking to not only enhance our information campaigns around efficiency and the use of energy, but we’re also looking at evaluating how do we, as the Cree Nation, use energy? And what can we do to contribute to the efficient use of energy in the territory? 

The Strategic Action Plan is a public document. If people wish to read it, it is available online. We are involved in looking at “What is this energy planning for the Cree Nation? And how can we create a Cree Nation driven energy plan that’s going to be sustainable, and to be mindful of how we can take care of our territory in the future?” I’m glad that the communities have been engaged in this process. 

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

Grand Chief: I want Cree Nation members to know that this year, we are working on our Leadership Conference for women. We’re partnering with HEC Montréal to create a leadership forum for women in March. I want to thank the Cree women of Eeyou Istchee for prepping to partner with us and hosting this event. 

And I’m excited to see these discussions with women on their leadership and where they’re going with it, encouraging women to engage in leadership opportunities, or community governance opportunities or representation in any area, and trying to understand what they’ve learned and what it is they’re looking for, to enhance their skills. 

In closing, for 2024, I want to wish each of the Cree Nation members a Happy New Year. All of the blessings for family and health and community to every household in the Cree Nation. Because it’s important for us to reflect on how far we have come as a nation. We’re going to see the 60th anniversary of an historic document that has allowed us to become the nation that we are. 

I want everybody to understand that we each have a part to play, every single member of the Cree Nation. We have to be involved, we have to be engaged. And most importantly, we have to encourage one another, in helping to build the Cree Nation.

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