No doubt, 2019 has been a big year for Abel Bosum at the helm of the Cree Nation. Whether it was reorganizing administration, addressing the housing issue, fine-tuning education or promoting the advancement of the Cree women, Cree families and the health of Crees, the Cree Nation Government has been tireless. The same can also be said for the Grand Chief who has had his own efforts recognized.
Once again, the Nation has sat down with the Grand Chief for a Q-&-A session in order to hear it straight from the leadership in our annual State of the Cree Nation address.
The Nation (TN): Looking back at 2019, do you feel you accomplished everything you set out to do at the beginning of the year?
Grand Chief (GC): To be honest, I think it is part of human nature to have expectations that are greater than what is actually possible, but nonetheless we have been able to move forward on a number of the key issues that we said were priorities for our administration, and we have seen very good progress in achieving those priorities. We have assembled an excellent team that is doing a remarkable job of moving forward on many files and we are seeing results. I am very proud of our core team consisting primarily of young Cree individuals who have risen to the challenge and have begun to make their mark on the Cree Nation. They have also helped give my administration more of a Cree appearance, and by doing so, they are serving as role models for our Cree youth. I am particularly proud of that initiative and I am extremely proud of these individuals.
I also would like to mention the establishment of our Elected Officials Committee, consisting of my office and the chairpersons of the Cree Nation Government, Cree School Board, Cree Health Board and the Board of Compensation. This is a committee that was formed to encourage and support Cree unity as, together, we address common Cree Nation priorities and develop Cree Nation policies. It serves also as a forum to address issues of common interest, such as housing, employment and contracts, data centre, transportation, capital projects, capacity building, and other vital Cree Nation issues.
A similar committee has been established for the executive directors of the Cree Nation Government, Cree Health Board and Cree School Board to ensure coordination at the operational level. These initiatives have created a new closeness and cooperation among these three key institutions of Cree Nation governance.
Also, we have created a Chiefs Committee which has been an additional forum to debate community and nation issues before they reach Council/ Board meetings for decisions. This forum allows our Chiefs the opportunity to engage in the free and prior exchange of ideas and information, and it facilitates smoother decision-making at the Grand Council/Cree Nation Government Council/Board.
We are, I believe, together with our communities and with our central Cree entities, showing our commitment to doing everything we can to effectively “bring home the benefits” and to doing it the Cree way – chiiyanuu – together.
TN: What was the biggest project or governance issue that the CNG was tasked with this year?
GC: The focus over the last year has been to make progress on several of our most important priorities. We all recognize that one of the greatest obstacles to making progress in many areas of the life of our communities is the lack of sufficient housing that is appropriate and affordable. For that reason, we have made the Cree Nation Housing Strategy one of our major priorities. This Strategy aims to address the housing crisis in the Cree communities through a combination of private home ownership, for those Crees with the interest and the means to participate, and community housing, for Cree people with more modest incomes or with special needs, such as Elders, persons with handicaps and youth.
In addition, we recognize that, like everywhere else, housing can become an important engine of the economy of a nation. We have talked about our need to “unlock the wealth” that is associated with housing ownership and construction. We have developed an overall plan on how all our communities can be involved in this, and how we can all benefit from the wide range of spin-off activities associated with housing. We have also begun the very challenging task of obtaining financial contributions to this priority from both the federal and provincial governments. Even with all the challenges in putting a comprehensive housing plan in place, we know it is the right thing to do and we will continue to do everything we can to make our housing plan a reality.
I have always maintained that our single-most important challenge is to ensure that all the progress and achievements that our Cree Nation has made over the course of the last four-and-a-half decades are sustained and continues into the future.
To do this, we must all do everything we can to prepare our youth to continue our very unique and special journey. So, capacity-building is central to making this happen. Our recent Capacity-Building Summit was, I believe, extremely important in mobilizing the entire Cree Nation – individuals, families, communities, Cree entities and the Cree Nation Government – to make this the priority that it needs to be. We will be following up on the recommendations and initiatives that came out of this summit and we will continue to make capacity-building a high priority. I think everyone realizes now just how important it is, and I sense a genuine willingness on everyone’s part to contribute to its success. I am looking forward to seeing all these efforts unfold.
And, as I mentioned, all of our major entities are joining in ensuring that this priority is addressed across-the-board. As an example, our Cree School Board has moved forward with a data-driven decision-making approach to future initiatives. The implementation of a broad scale data plan will allow the board to dig deeply into data about student retention, performance, absenteeism and engagement, allowing the board to target initiatives and resources in high-need areas geared towards student success.
This approach, linked with the Apatisiiwin Skills Development and our overall capacity development initiatives, will give the Cree School Board the ability to gear support for students in areas that will benefit them as they enter the job market in our communities. By supporting students in high-need areas such as math and science, the School Board will be developing a student body that is equipped to take on training and certification in areas where jobs are opening up in our regional economy.
The Cree School Board has also collaborated with Apatisiiwin Skills Development in a survey of needs for adult training and vocational studies in the communities. Data gathered from the communities through the adult learning needs assessment will allow our Adult Education Plan to target programs that meet the needs of our adult learners and thereby contribute to enhanced delivery of educational services to our people.
Of course, our Post-Secondary Program is key to capacity development as we qualify our own people in key areas related to nation-building and economic development. We have also implemented measures to support entry into the job market after post-secondary completion through partnership with Apatisiiwin Skills Development and a liaison position placed in the Post-Secondary office in Gatineau. This position helps graduates connect with employers in the region and the communities so that graduates can go straight from graduation to employed positions.
The Cree School Board has also re-activated its CEGEP file in order to begin studying the feasibility of developing our own post-secondary institutes to better meet the needs in our communities. Many people in our communities wish to pursue post-secondary education but are unable to leave their communities for a variety of reasons. With the development of our own CEGEPs we will be able to meet the needs of our communities by targeting programming to develop our work force in areas key to economic and community development, and to meet the needs of our businesses, local governments and regional entities.
I also want to mention that the achievements our Cree Nation has made over the decades has, in no small part, been made possible by our reliance on our people who continue to pursue our traditional Cree way of life. We owe our hunters and trappers an enormous debt of gratitude.
And beyond that, we also owe them a decent living. We have all recognized the economic challenges for our hunters and trappers in maintaining a traditional way of life. So we have been working closely with them, and with the Cree Trappers Association, and with the Income Security Board, to make important changes to the fundamental economics of the support for our traditional Cree way of life. I have also been working with the Cree School Board and the Cree Health Board about engaging our land-users in carrying out some of the land-based education and healing programs as a way of enhancing their sense of belonging in our nation-building agenda by promoting their traditional knowledge and experiences.
As we go forward, it will become easier for our traditional hunters to support themselves economically, and we will all be richer as a result of that.
As we have just entered the International Decade of Indigenous Languages, we will take advantage of every opportunity available to us to continue to support our people on the land, and we will all benefit from it.
I should also mention that I am extremely proud of the fact that the first piece of legislation enacted by our Cree Nation Government was the Cree Language Law, which will greatly contribute to the revitalizing and strengthening of our Cree language, and is in keeping with our nation-building agenda.
Our efforts to continue to build our communities has also been central to much of the work of our administration and that of all local authorities. I am pleased with the progress we have achieved in implementing the paving program, a need which all communities have long recognized as critical to community development. Our other new initiatives relating to landscaping and beautification will build upon the successes of the paving program and will continue to change the look and feel of our communities. New programs for landscaping and beautification as well as local playgrounds and related facilities have been developed over the past year and we hope to implement these programs over the coming year.
TN: In a year that was so highly focused on climate change and crisis by youth, leadership and the media, how has this fared for the Crees?
GC: I applaud all the recent efforts on the part of youth globally to express their concerns about the absence of sufficient commitment on the part of all countries of the world to step up their efforts to address what I believe is really a crisis. I am very moved to see our own Cree youth involved in this global initiative. As Indigenous people, we have a lot to offer in addressing the challenges posed by climate change and the potential environmental catastrophe if this reality is not met head-on.
It is my belief that our Cree culture which is derived from our intimate connection to the land, and Indigenous cultures more generally, may be vital to the preservation of the human species. In a period of human history marked by virtually unchecked industrial activities and inadequate measures to prevent further climate change, Indigenous cultures may become the well that humankind will need to draw from to find the path to our collective survival. So, we in the Cree Nation have a profound obligation to share our wisdom, participate in discussions on how to address the urgent crisis of climate change, and to intervene wherever we can to make this contribution. And we will, of course, support our youth who want to be involved in this issue and who want to participate in global initiatives to protect the planet.
TN: Hydro-Québec is currently trying to sell more power to Massachusetts and New York State through a hydro line they want to build through Maine. How do the Cree view this in light of Hydro’s previous attempts to sell more power to New England?
GC: As we understand this project to sell more power to New England, it does not entail the construction of more dams within Eeyou Istchee. What we understand is that existing hydroelectric facilities may be upgraded so that they are more efficient and can produce more power than they currently produce. We are always keeping a keen eye on Hydro-Québec’s plans to ensure that they are in keeping with our own objectives and priorities. As always, we will have a voice in any projects on our traditional Eeyou Istchee territory that have potentially negative impacts on the land. We will always remain vigilant so that we can protect Cree interests.
TN: How is the Cree Nation faring economically in terms of investments as well as the wealth of the Crees?
GC: On the investment side, we are doing very well. We have also been able to address most of the obligations that our Cree Nation Government assumed in the New Relationship Agreements with Quebec and Canada. In fact, we need to be preparing very soon to re-negotiate, starting in 2026, the Federal New Relationship Agreement for another significant period of time. I am confident that the efforts we have made collectively to implement the Federal New Relationship Agreement and to enhance and better define the obligations of Canada will have a long-term positive impact on JBNQA implementation for the future. How the Cree Nation implements Canada’s assumed obligations will, in part, help to define future obligations and funding levels. Our record will help to define the scope of a new Agreement which will be key to operating and maintaining our communities for the future following the termination of the current Federal New Relationship Agreement.
But the true wealth of our nation lies in the degree to which we can ensure employment for our people. It remains a challenge, and maybe this is our permanent challenge, to identify opportunities for the continued employment of our people, to ensure that our people are prepared to take on the employment opportunities that are currently available within our region, and those opportunities that we see on the horizon. In the short to mid-term, the situation as I see it, is that if we ensure that our people have the training and the skills to take on the jobs that we see becoming available – jobs within our local governments, our regional entities, and in the private sector as a result of economic development activities within the territory – we will be in good shape. But this is our challenge, and that is why we will continue to make capacity-building a priority. It is capacity-building that is at the heart of our ability to ensure the longer-term economic health of our people.
TN: How is the Cree Nation fairing in terms of health?
GC: We all know that there are continuing challenges to the physical health of our people related to a changing way of life. As our people are more and more involved in activities within our communities, rather than activities on the land, we have become more vulnerable to diseases associated with a more sedentary lifestyle. Diseases which not that long ago were rare in our communities, such as diabetes and coronary diseases, have in some instances become epidemics. According to the latest data from our Cree Health Board, more than 1 in 4 people over age 20 live with diabetes in Eeyou Istchee. Although this number is increasing every year, the good news is that the number of new cases diagnosed every year is remaining relatively stable over time. This means that many of our people have learned to manage their type 2 diabetes, while living for many years with the disease. At the same time though, over a third of people with diabetes in the region have very high blood glucose, putting them at risk of complications such as kidney disease or amputations.
Through our Cree Health Board, together with knowledgeable individuals in our communities, we have established some initiatives to emphasize the importance of maintaining a healthy weight, traditional diets, the importance of physical activity, and other things that we know contribute to our physical health. Our Miyupimaatisiiun initiatives in all our communities have played an important role in developing new programs to address these realities.
At the same time, we know that much more needs to be done to address a number of social problems that are still prevalent in our communities. Some of these will eventually be lessened by implementing a comprehensive housing program, and some will be eased with an aggressive job creation program, but we cannot pretend that all of our social problems will magically go away with new houses and jobs. So, our strategy must be that at the same time as we are addressing those fundamental issues of employment and housing, we need to address the problems that are there, and we will do that with the resources available to us, with careful targeting of issues and identifying appropriate solutions, and with sensitivity to the needs of our people. Over the long term, with such a strategy in place, we should see a very dramatic decrease in these issues in our communities.
TN: How have Cree women advanced in 2019?
GC: I believe that the women of Eeyou Istchee are advancing very well. Our women are entering and completing courses of study at a very high rate and are taking on many of the positions within our local and regional governance institutions. We have women in significant numbers at every level of governance in the Cree Nation, in economic development projects throughout the territory, and in many cases, their numbers exceed their proportion of the general population. In fact, at this moment in time, women constitute the majority of the Cree Nation Government employees.
Starting with the leadership of the Cree Nation Government, our Deputy Grand Chief is, of course, a woman, and we have five Directors who are women, responsible for Quebec Relations, Federal Relations, Human Resources, Apatisiiwin Skills Development, and Child and Family Services. Beyond the CNG, our Cree women are increasingly present in many leadership roles. Just as examples, we currently have three women Chiefs of our Cree First Nations – Wemindji, Whapmagoostui and Washaw Sibi. And, we have women Chairs of both the Cree School Board and the Cree Health Board.
So, I would have no hesitation in saying that the women of Eeyou Istchee have been advancing, are continuing to make significant advances, and are showing the way in exemplary fashion through their dedication to their studies and in their employment.
TN: What was your biggest high point as Grand Chief?
GC: Of course, every day when I see our Cree Nation making further progress and advancing our agenda, I am energized and motivated to work even harder. This is particularly so when I see the growth and development of the potential of Cree individual after Cree individual. It really warms my heart.
On a personal level I was deeply touched when I was appointed to the Order of Canada. I was very moved, as a representative of the Cree Nation, to be placed in the company of so many amazing and talented Canadians in every walk of life. To me, this appointment was an affirmation that the Cree Nation as a whole has been on the right track, and that we should continue doing what we have been doing. So, that’s what I intend to do.
TN: What was your lowest point and how did you overcome it?
GC: I am always saddened and upset when I see pictures posted on social media of our members who are in various hospitals in the province being treated for one of any number of illnesses which are relatively new to our people. I am referring to diseases such as diabetes, coronary issues, kidney diseases and a range of cancers. Maybe because I, like many of our people, see these in my own family, and when I see more and more pictures posted of the many Cree people being treated for these illnesses, it hits close to home.
As much as I understand how this has come to be, I still feel some anger at the colonial history of Indigenous people that has produced this. I know, though, that the only responsible way to deal with these feelings is for us all to continue to work as hard as we can to overcome our colonial legacy, to put into place initiatives that restore, as much as possible, our original sovereignty, and to put into place solutions, based on our traditional knowledge, that can lessen the incidence of these diseases. I know we have within us the ability to change these realities. I appreciate the hard work of the senior management of our Cree Health Board who are working closely with our Cree land users to find the solutions that will work for us.
TN: Is there anything you would like to add?
GC: At the time of this interview, we are approaching the holiday season. I want to express my personal gratitude to the people working in our local governments, in our regional entities and in the Cree Nation Government who work every day to improve the lives of our people and who help to create a solid foundation for the continued growth and development of the Cree Nation.
May everyone have a joyful and restful holiday and I wish everyone the best in the New Year. May we all return after the holidays rejuvenated and with renewed energy and commitment to continue the important work of nurturing the foundations for the future of the Cree Nation.