It’s been almost 40 years since the Grand Council of the Crees first met at the Pal’s Hotel in Val-d’Or. On October 16, 1974, Chief Billy Diamond was elected the Grand Chief by a vote of 9-7, Chief Robert Kanatewat was elected as Deputy Grand Chief (10-6) and Abel Kitchen became the Executive Chief with a vote of 11-5. Violet Pachano was the recording Secretary at the time.
Things have certainly changed since those early days. All adult Cree members now elect our Grand and Deputy Grand Chiefs. The yearly meetings are held in one of the nine Cree communities. Those Cree who cannot make it to the AGA can listen to it over the Cree Regional Network on radio or follow the live streaming on the Internet.
The 40th Annual General Assembly of the Grand Council of the Cree of Eeyou Istchee (37th Cree Nation Gathering) was held in Waswanipi August 5-7.
Waswanipi was a great host, setting up a camp by the river and offering a free feast that included moose stew, rabbit stew, smoked sturgeon, walleye, duck, goose, bannock, fresh blueberry jam and a host of other country food delights. The cooks were exceptional and I regretted there was only so much room in my stomach.
One of the first events by the river was the arrival of a canoe expedition. Seven youth and guide Louie Saganash paddled about 120 kilometres from Lac La Sarre to Waswanipi on a 12-day journey. Thanking the Youth Council for their support, Saganash said he loves his culture, the hunting, being on the land and that he had fun sharing it with the youth.
“My dad taught me about the land and I wanted to teach what I learnt to the youth,” Saganash explained. “All those things like iPods and iPads are like an addiction for our youth. A lot of them say they don’t want to go on the land because there is no Wi-Fi in the bush. I told them I can still contact people with my bush radio!”
Saganash emphasized how nice it is to be on the land and how easy it is to sleep in the bush. He added that they came across two moose and a bear while traveling. “I could have killed a moose but the meat would have gone bad by the time we got to Waswanipi,” he said. Fishing provided a tasty addition to the young paddlers’ meals, however.
Three of the youth on the journey were Saganash’s own children. “Dad, we’d like to do this one more time,” they told their father. He’s planning another trip with them for this fall. Saganash said he was proud of all the youth, especially as one of the three portages was eight kilometres long.
Another canoe trip was organized for later in the week: the Broadback River Canoe Expedition. This effort is intended to promote the proposal for the Assinica National Park Reserve.
Chantal Otter Tétreault, the Grand Council’s Protected Areas Coordinator, said Crees are concerned not only with the protected areas but with having buffer zones around them. Youth from all of the communities are part of this journey into the heart of Eeyou Istchee. The 15 youth will take 20 days to arrive in Waskaganish around August 26.
The journey, while starting on the Broadback River, will switch over to the Rupert River at Old Nemaska. Cree communities, the Cree Regional Government and Cree entities, such as Niskamoon, have all come together to fund the expedition. The trip is part of the recently released Cree Conservation Strategy.
The Plan Nord sparked Cree interest and emphasis on conservation. The strategy combines both traditional knowledge and scientific expertise. While the Broadback River was seen as an urgent priority because of the Woodland Caribou the strategy includes other parts of Eeyou Istchee. For Crees wishing to know more, go to www.eeyouconservation.com.
Most of the AGA went quite smoothly. There were no real surprises in most of the presentations and they can be found at www.creegovernment.org. Both the user name and password is Waswanipi for those wanting to check them out.
But there was disappointment that new funding could not be found for children with special needs. The Kate Sharl Foundation assists children up to 18 years old who have special needs.
Judy Nakogee, Regional Special Needs Adviser for the Cree Nation Government in the Child Service Department, was surprised no one stepped up to the plate to make donations to the foundation.
“I am very disappointed,” said Nakogee. “I don’t know if you recall that kid from the Starfish Foundation who wants to build a playground for Attawapiskat. They gave got a donation of $5,000 from each chief, $10,000 I think from the Grand Council and other donations from here and there. It didn’t even benefit the Cree of Eeyou Istchee. I was hoping Cree money would benefit Cree children.”
Of course, there was what is becoming a traditional practice at Annual General Meetings, with Sol Awashish leading Waswanipi community members in a pots-and-pan mock protest. This year the emphasis was on creating healthy environments. It was a peaceful, well-behaved demonstration, and when Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come asked the protesters to be patient and wait until the AGA finished, they settled down. That speaks well in itself to taking a step towards a healthy environment through respect for others.
Another protest, however, was unexpected. It involved the awarding of school-bus services to a single company for all eight Cree communities, the first time a global bid had been tendered.
Many people were upset as the company that won the contract is only 51% Cree owned, and the Cree part of the ownership has no industry experience or assets (i.e. buses). However, the non-Native partner in the company is a large organization.
The smaller Cree entrepreneurs felt they did not have a chance as the mega-company had numerous buses and assets that made it easier to underbid the local bus service companies. Evelyne Cooper of Waswanipi’s Cooper Transport Inc. said the firm her family started 15 years ago would soon be out of business. She added that another Cree company brought three buses last year but would also soon have no use for them.
Cooper felt that the Cree partner was just a front for the non-Native company and actions like this would harm local Cree economies. “The awarding of this contract will effectively kill eight Cree businesses,” she said. A more in-depth story will appear in the next issue of the Nation.
This development put the Cree School Board on the hot seat at this year’s AGA. Adding to the heat was a discussion on the 10-year clause, which says that a Cree who resides out of the territory for 10 years or more will lose beneficiary rights and benefits. To re-establish them they have to return for a period of at least six months.
Joanne Willis Newton wrote the resolution found later in this article. At one point she tried to have a rider attached to the resolution forbidding the Grand Council to take any action on the 10-year clause without consulting the people. Grand Chief Coon Come’s reply was a curt “no way in hell!”
Coon Come said you could not tie the negotiators hands in this manner. Many agreed with him. One interesting point Newton brought up was that the 10-year clause should not start until a beneficiary reached the age of 18 as they did not have a say in where they lived because of their parents. This is another subject that will be explored fully in a future issue of the Nation.
All in all, it was an interesting AGA. The next one will be held in Oujé-Bougoumou.
To read this year’s resolutions, go to http://www.nationnews.ca/resolutions-from-the-2014-cree-nation-government-annual-general-assembly/