Waswanipi First Nation has chosen new leadership with the election of Chief Irene Neeposh and Deputy Chief Rhonda Oblin Cooper; both won on their first ballot with 54% and 57.7% of the vote respectively. In doing so, Waswanipi became the latest Cree Nation with an all-woman head office, after Chisasibi elected Chief Daisy House and Deputy Paula Napash in 2020.
Mandy Gull-Masty, who was born in Waswanipi and became the Crees’ first female Grand Chief last year, congratulated Neeposh in a Facebook post. “I am excited to see what will come from my community and to welcome Chief Irene to the CNG Council Board table in a new role,” she stated. She also applauded outgoing Chief Marcel Happyjack for his contributions.
Neeposh told the Nation that she was “humbled and honoured” by the election results and that her focus was set on establishing a connected community.
“We have always existed as a society of balance, and we need to maintain this,” she explained. “Balance is about making sure that I, as a leader, am not pulling in one direction all by myself. It is about ensuring that community members are informed and involved in the things that impact them.”
She says that establishing social networks between herself, community leaders, businesses and youth will help her initiate new projects to help Waswanipi members “become informed, educated and engaged.”
One priority is to organize public events that include for question/recommendation periods, discussions, or group planning and problem solving.
“I believe that the ‘inform, educate and engage’ process will create real change,” Neeposh stated. “Informing is about telling people what the problems are and who is affected. To educate is to show the community what the possible options and solutions are. Engaging is making ways for the right people to actively participate in the things they care about and have knowledge in.”
With almost half of Waswanipi population aged 30 years or younger, involving the next generation in today’s politics is a force that should be embraced, Deputy Chief Oblin Cooper told the Nation.
“Our youth need to know that their vote made a difference and that they have a large and real impact in the community,” she said, recalling how her political journey started at a young age when she joined the Cree Nation Youth Council.
“Everyone is at a different stage in life, and everyone gets involved in their own unique way. My advice to the youth is to get connected and take action, however you feel you can. You might feel like you are not ready, but you just got to be brave and trust yourself.”
Oblin Cooper said that the election campaign wouldn’t have been possible without the support of her four children. Aged 14 to 24, they were responsible for the campaign’s social media presence, helped with organization and planning, distributed stickers and set up posters.
The campaign poster, which features a hand-prepared moosehide surrounded by flowers with a blue paddle crossing the centre, references Oblin Cooper’s early motivations and current goals in Cree politics.
“The moosehide symbolizes my struggle to regain the Cree culture and language that I lost as a child. Just like preparing the moosehide – it was a tough job requiring a lot of mental strength. Both are a long process, something you do over several seasons… and in the end, both are perfect in their imperfection.”
Oblin Cooper left Eeyou Istchee at age eight, when her mother found a job in Montreal. She returned in her early 20s, feeling isolated from her culture but motivated to reclaim it by relearning the language and reconnecting with Cree traditions.
“The paddle, which was made by my daughter, represents the way my journey is interconnected with my children’s. As we pass on the passion for Cree culture and learning Eeyou iitwun and Eeyou kaashuwin to the next generation, we must remember that we are giving these tools to the community’s future leaders.”
Both Oblin Cooper and Neeposh said that they feel like Waswanipi is a place where people are motivated and ready to make a difference.
“People want to be involved in community decision-making,” said Oblin Cooper. “I am looking forward to that connection and promoting an inclusive government style by reaching out and nourishing our grassroots communities.”