It was no coincidence that the historic inauguration ceremony for Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty was held on November 11, the 46th anniversary of the James Bay Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA). This “first modern treaty” was a frequent reference point throughout the prestigious event, proudly held in the Grand Chief’s home community of Waswanipi.
During her moving speech, Gull-Masty remarked that the Cree Nation had elected not only its first female Grand Chief but also its first leader that is second generation to the JBNQA. As she affirmed her determination to continue fighting for Cree rights, she reflected on the profound transformation that has occurred since the agreement’s signing.
“Our way of living has completely changed in only one lifetime,” said Gull-Masty. “Now we take a moment and evaluate how far we’ve come. Most importantly, we create a clear vision of the path forward together united.”
The local sports complex was filled with past and present Cree leaders, including most community chiefs and the two surviving JBNQA signatories. Robert Kanatewat and Dr. Phillip Awashish described the journey that began 50 years ago, when young chiefs and leaders first decided to unite as one nation to oppose the announced hydroelectric project.
“There is tremendous power in the unity of the Eeyou people as one nation and one voice,” said Awashish. “We have been through many tough times and emerged stronger because we never stopped believing in our collective vision. It has indeed been an amazing journey that has led to the rebuilding and resurgence of the Eeyou Nation.”
Like the late Billy Diamond, Awashish was in his early 20s when this movement began and he reminded the young leaders present of their responsibilities to continue preserving the culture. A new ceremonial transition of youth leadership was introduced this year, before Youth Grand Chief Adrian Gunner and Deputy Jordan Masty delivered powerful speeches in the Cree language.
Deputy Grand Chief Norman Wapachee emphasized the “sacred obligation” to protect the Cree lands and way of life in a highly industrialized world, achieving that delicate balance between conservation and resource development. He intends to promote participatory democracy and communication between organizations to strengthen the fundamental Cree right of self-determination in aspects such as land management.
“We will continue rebuilding our nation out of the ashes of colonialism and industrialization,” Wapachee asserted. “We must not forget that nation building is not only about the physical development of our communities, it also means the building of our people. It is about capacity building, empowerment, investing in our Cree economy. This is the pathway to self-reliance and independence.”
Wapachee pledged support for Cree trappers and finding meaningful ways to incorporate traditional values into current realities. He also commended the recent movement of Indigenous women chosen as leaders, “the mothers of our Nations”, and said he looked forward to working with the Grand Chief.
Earlier in the week, Gull-Masty had joined other recently elected Indigenous women – Kahnawà:ke Grand Chief Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer and Assembly of First Nations’ National Chief RoseAnne Archibald – to meet the new Canadian Governor General Mary Simon in Ottawa. The four leaders discussed issues such as climate change and mentorship, including the idea of creating a national forum for Indigenous women in all types of leadership roles.
At the inauguration, Gull-Masty expressed her goal of empowering future leaders and paid tribute to Violet Pachano, the first Cree female community Chief and Deputy Grand Chief, “for her opening remarks and for opening the door for me to stand here.” In thanking her team, Gull-Masty shared particular gratitude to Kristen Moar and Flora Weistche for helping manage her daily tasks.
“Leaders develop other leaders,” said Gull-Masty. “This has been my mantra since the moment the people accepted me and entrusted me with leadership roles. It is truly an honour for Norman and me to share the stage with the Cree Nation Youth Council.”
Weistche and Michael Neeposh hosted the ceremony, which also included a special address from former Grand Chief Abel Bosum, prayers from Elders Irene Otter and George Neeposh, and traditional music from Charlie and George Ottereyes. Before sharing his prayer, former Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come encouraged the new leaders to be innovative, not holding on to the way things have always been done because “greater things are yet to come.”
Gull-Masty has said that one of her objectives is to analyze the effectiveness of current governance tools to determine how systems may be improved. She reiterated her four election commitments: to continue protecting Eeyou Istchee “because the health and beauty of our territory is central to our identity”; financial planning for future security; developing a Cree mixed economy; and maintaining Cree culture and language, including for those who don’t speak Cree but wish that they could.
As she compassionately conveyed the changes and challenges experienced by each passing generation, Gull-Masty touchingly referenced her own family members. She thanked her husband and children for their encouragement and sacrifices, expressing gratitude for the presence of her extended family, including her late mother in the spirit world.
Throughout her emotional address, the love and respect held for the new Grand Chief was demonstrated by the audience’s rapt attention and ensuing standing ovations. Perhaps the most stirring moment came with the recollection of a prophesy shared by Elder Robbie Matthew 10 years ago that she still pictures “like a vision in my mind.”
“He said to me, ‘I don’t know who you are, but it has been shown to me that a woman is going to lead the people on a path,’” Gull-Masty recalled. “’Many will want to take a shortcut on a path over the mountain. That is not the way. Not everybody will be able to climb that path. You will take another longer path that will take you around the mountain. It will be longer, but everyone will be able to successfully complete that journey.’”
After sharing that story, Gull-Masty declared that she was ready to lead the Cree Nation on a new kind of journey that will go through the land and include everyone.
“Here I am today, ready to begin my journey with the direction and guidance from our Elders and the hopes of the youth to lift me up,” said Gull-Masty. “It may be a bit longer, but we will succeed in getting there together. It is only with your support and trust that I can take you over that mountain of change.”
by Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter