Kenny Blacksmith is the new face at the Grand Council of the Crees. Just three months into his term as Deputy Grand Chief, he is already deep in discussion with the Quebec government about long-festering problems with policing in Cree communities.

Cree police constables complained of a lack of support from the province and were so frustrated they threatened to quit their jobs.

The talks with Quebec were going smoothly until Premier Daniel Johnson shuffled the cabinet and appointed a new Public Security minister. Now, Blacksmith must forge links with the new minister and is hoping that Quebec still has the will to resolve the problems.

Blacksmith, who is also vice-chair of the Cree Regional Authority, spoke with the Nation’s William Nicholls about a variety of issues, including policing, the Great Whale project and Cree leadership. “I think Cree leadership has to be more open to changes,” he says. “After all, aren’t some of our greatest strengths as Crees the adaptability and co-operation which our elders and traditional values have taught us?

The Nation: I understand you are involved in negotiations on policing of the Cree communities and the problems with it. Could you explain these problems?

Kenny Blacksmith: When I started in this job earlier in the year, I reviewed a number of files to see what my predecessor, Romeo Saganash, had achieved and pursued. Policing was one of the urgent ones. At the time I started, there was talk among police constables that they would walk out or quit their jobs because they got so little support from the province. The provincial police were not too supportive. The basic problem is that the province had imposed control on policing services rather than allowing the Crees to take control.

I know that in Mistissini, for example, there was a high turnover in personnel due to ceilings on police wages. Police also can’t carry guns even though they are as well-trained as the provincial police. Are these problems common to all the communities?

It’s pretty much the same. We’re trying to get the province to recognize them so they can undertake their full responsibilities. That was one of the main problems. The police felt they weren’t well supported. Salary scales were a problem as well as jurisdiction over territory. Things changed a little after discussions began and there is movement from Quebec and Canada to address these historical problems.

Do you feel they will be resolved this year?

At the time when I opened up negotiations with then-Public Security Minister Claude Ryan, there was a lot of optimism that things would pick up.

For two years, there had been a working group set up. Technical discussions had taken place, but no negotiations had gotten underway. We felt that when Claude Ryan finally got a mandate from his cabinet, we were seeing positive movement toward achieving a resolution to the problems.

Things have somewhat changed today. Claude Ryan is gone and we have to pick up on again on the political will and be able to maintain the momentum of the negotiations. We will have to start over again and establish contact with the new minister to ensure that we will continue with the spirit of achieving an agreement-in-principle by March. We have a couple of months to finish the negotiations.

I guess you know we had some difficulties before Christmas from our side.

You’re referring to the fact that the composition of the negotiating team came under question?

It came under question as a result of communication problems in regards to the transfer of files from my predecessor. But you can expect certain difficulties with any change in an organization. Time is needed for adjustment to personalities and to the way people work.

These are all things that have to be worked out with the hope that progress is the final result.

I’ve heard some matters have been resolved now.

Yes. The council board discussed it at length and in great detail – with great emotion, you might say. Nevertheless, I think we’ve achieved an understanding. Also, we maintained the same composition as before, but we added a couple of chiefs. Chief Henry Mianscum and Chief Billy Diamond were appointed and I am co-ordinating the political end of the discussions. We have resumed our negotiations with our new additions to the team.

One of your initial successes with the policing file was the Ouje-Bougomou Band.

A lot of work went into that. But I think Quebec was stalling in aspects of the policing issue with all natives, including the Crees. The Quebec government was discussing some kind of working relationship with the federal government on providing services to the Crees. There were some problems with the Ouje-Bougomou because Quebec didn’t want to recognize them officially.

But didn’t they set aside land for their community?

There are still matters to be worked out between Mistissini and Ouje-Bougomou. Nevertheless, they are still entitled to police services. Claude Ryan made a big effort before Christmas. He instructed his people to achieve an agreement on interim policing for the community of Ouje-Bougomou as quickly as possible. We saw this as a test case to determine how serious Quebec and Canada were in police negotiations.

Whatever happened to the Amerindian police we used to see?

I’m not sure. Under our policing negotiations, we basically hoped to get two types of policing services.

One is the local police, which we now have. And in the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, there is a mention of a regional police force. This has never been properly followed through.

Quebec is very skeptical about this so-called regional police force. Certainly, they didn’t want to create another situation as there was with the Amerindian police force. This was a poor example on their part as the Amerindian police came under federal jurisdiction. So there is a lot of work left in setting up the proper police force in our communities, especially when you start talking about the entire region. We need to have control and ensure there’s protection and security for our communities. As always, our people understand our people best. The type of police force we need is one composed of our own people with jurisdiction over the entire Cree territory.

Would such a regional police force have jurisdiction over non-Cree areas such as Radisson, which is located in Cree territory?

It would probably have to work in co-relation with existing police services. In Ouje-Bougomou, for example, we had an understanding with Quebec and the federal government that there would be a concerted effort toward exchanging support services between the provincial, Chibougamau, Chapais and Ouje-Bougomou police forces. It’s a little more than policing just the community itself; the eventual goal is going into Category II lands, and perhaps even Category III lands. The important thing now is resolving the jurisdiction issue.

What other issues are you dealing with this year?

There’s quite a long list. One thing I did was meet with the Minister of Income Security, Andre Bourbeau, to resolve some problems in that area. We talked about the need to review and update the existing Income Security Program to meet the current needs of the people. During the holidays, we received a letter from the minister saying he is open to a review of the program. We need to set up a task force and a committee to work on that.

Some of the files I can’t go into any detail at this time – dealing with the Ministry of Fish and Game and the problem of the commercialization of wildlife. We need to sit down with the communities to discuss forestry problems. And there’s the Quebec regional development policy, which was initiated recently. We are in the final stages of implementing that program after having resolved some problems in that area. Once we have that in place, our people can access funds to assist them in starting small businesses.

I’m only in my third month and these are new responsibilities. It takes time. I’m quite new on the job. I’m also a new face in the crowd of Cree leaders. I have to take some time to review the history and understand where people are coming from.

Do you find that, occasionally, you get tested because you’re a “new face”?

I think to some extent, yes. When I think about some of the difficulties I’ve encountered up to now,

I see them as positive constructive criticism. I think that, in the end, it will help me tackle other problems. But I also think that in a way it’s disappointing. I think Cree leadership has to be more open to changes. After all, aren’t some of our greatest strengths as Crees the adaptability and co-operation which our elders and traditional values have taught us?

What major challenges do you see coming up this year?

One of the main challenges is to follow up on Annual General Assembly resolutions, like the Cree Nation Gathering. We have to sit down with all the chiefs and, more importantly, with the local people to have them assess where we are going as a regional Cree government. There seem to be clashes between local government and the efforts or vision of the regional government. That’s something that needs looking into. In the end, I hope we’ll come out with a stronger mandate and a vision of one regional Cree government.

As well, there’s a lot of talk about Great Whale. In the past, the Crees have maintained a strong position on Great Whale. That needs to be reinforced and reiterated. At the same time, I think people look at the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement as an agreement that has somewhat failed the Crees. We need to look at that as well.

People have to learn to deal with the past. If there were problems in the past, we have to admit those problems. People are still reluctant to discuss the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. Before we go into the future, as we all want to, we have to do a little house-cleaning so we can get a good look at where we are going.

As I say, I’m just learning the ropes to understand where people come from in the past. When I understand the past I guess things will be a lot clearer to me.

When do you see the Cree Gathering taking place?

Like with this year’s Annual General Assembly, I think people want it in the summer when everyone is around in the villages. Perhaps it will take place before the up-coming Annual General Assembly, sometime in early summer.

What can we expect from you in the coming years?

I have a lot of interest and a sincere willingness to do all that I can to do in terms of fulfilling my mandate as Deputy Grand Chief. I’m there to support Matthew [Coon-Come] in all aspects. There’s a lot that has to be learned, but at the same time there’s a lot that has to be done.

I hope that a lot of support will be given to the Grand Council. At this point, I feel the Grand Council is put into a position where it isn’t supported by the people. Perhaps it’s not really the people, but the leadership and I hope we will be able to put aside personal differences and really start to work together to the benefit of the people. We are there for the people, whether you’re a chief or councillor elected by the people from your community, or the Grand Chief and Deputy Grand Chief elected by the people as a whole. We are accountable and we are totally and directly responsible to the people. I hope we can make sure the people are always put first. That’s what I hope to see this year and in the future – that we learn to work together.

I hope that in pooling our resources, our strengths, setting of proper priorities we can instill in our people and in our youth more than hope for a better future. It remains our aim as Cree leaders to deal with the never-ending threats to our traditional life. One of the many challenges ahead is to ensure full implementation of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement of 1975, and to implement it to meet today’s needs.

Not much has changed in today’s governments. Like in the past, agreements are reached but rarely implemented in the spirit intended. We can only remain optimistic for better days ahead, and hope that with all the changes in Canada and with the new Quebec government, there will be positive progress.