Nothing could have prepared the Crees of Eeyou Istchee for this year’s Annual General Assembly of the Grand Council of the Crees and Cree Regional Authority. It would have been unthinkable 20 years ago to see Hydro-Québec’s (HQ) top people and smiling Crees in the same room, but that’s what happened. Like any good magician Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come pulled a rabbit out of the hat. HQ President and Chief Executive Officer Thierry Vandal and Hydro-Québec Generation President Richard Cacchione were welcomed guests. Waskaganish Chief Gordon Blackned said, “Today these gentlemen are our guests and we will treat them with respect, as is our tradition with all guests.” Blackned talked about the need for jobs and the need to grow. He added that there was also a “need to preserve the land, the need to protect our language”.

Blackned said, “To me this Agreement you are going to sign with us here today symbolizes a very important tool to help us in the struggle with this challenge.” Another Agreement was in the works and ready to be signed. This Agreement Concerning the Re-Appropriation of Territory Affected by the Eastmain-1-A/Sarcelle/Rupert Project though was different as it dealt with ongoing operations and a steady income to carry them out. Once again the Cree have stepped into the breach and as with the Paix des braves and New Relationship Agreement are taking on more obligations. Blackned is pleased with the Agreement but knows it will be hard work. He said, “The challenge is not over and will not end for a long time. It will take every member of community, every trapper and every young person to reclaim our river.”

Coon Come said people have asked him about how he felt about dealing with HQ. He said, “This is a normal question because I was such a vocal and strong opponent in the opposition on the Great Whale Project. Well nothing has changed. I am the same Grand Chief who loved the land, who cherished everything he learned from his father about caring for the land and his family. I am the same Grand Chief who will do the best he can to protect his people and their rights. I haven’t changed, through our years of struggle.”

The Agreement will be in effect “for as long as the Rupert River partial diversion is in operation….” Coon Come said, “This means the funds and a real relationship will be in place so long as the project is in operation. This is the change we fought for.” The Nadoshtin and Boumhounan Agreement only guaranteed $540 million in contracts for the Cree, but even there were signs of the changes. To date Cree contracts total $1.2 billion and Coon Come praised HQ for using the $540 million “as a minimum”.

In describing the Agreement, Coon Come said, “The construction phase is over and the machinery is gone. It is time to go back, back to the land finding new ways to care for it, most important to go back with the youth of community to make sure that our traditions and values live on. This Agreement will give us the tools that we need to ensure so long as our community members and, more importantly, the youth of today need help, it will be there.”

Waskaganish will see a communal boat landing area, channel markers, channels and portages will be fixed and work done on the first rapids (Smokey Hill). As well $9.75 million will be given to Waskaganish to work on the Northern Channel. $1,389 million is set aside for Environmental Sciences training. A fund will be created where the Cree will assume certain HQ obligations on human impacts in the Rupert River Basin. Waskaganish, Nemaska and Mistissini territories have been affected and HQ will deposit $2.75 million per year to the fund. There will be a review of the diversion project every three years.

HQ President Vandal said he was pleased to be in Waskaganish to sign this agreement with the Cree Nation. He said the continuing and growing relationship between Hydro-Québec and the Cree is something we can all be proud of now and in the years to come.

Of course we cannot forget Sol Awashish, tireless fighter against the diabetes epidemic in the Cree Nation. He walked many a kilometre from the James Bay Highway to Waskaganish, where local residents joined him. The message was simple – exercise and eat healthy. The last part though was difficult as prices for healthy food is high, while pop and chips cost about the same as in the south. (See Health Matters on page 30 for more on diabetes.) The arrival of the marchers was louder than usual as they were banging pots and pans. Queenie Stephen of Waskaganish said, “We are bringing our pots and pans to show everyone here, many times they are empty because many families cannot afford healthy foods.” She added that “junk food is cheaper than healthy food” and asked the leaders to find government programs that would subsidize the high cost of food “so we can feed our families and children good food”. Stephen said this would go a long way to dealing with the high rate of diabetes locally.

The day wasn’t over and delegates were invited to a feast hosted by CreeCo and Air Creebec to celebrate their 30th anniversary. CreeCo President Jack Blacksmith said he was pleased to be a part of the successes achieved in the past 30 years and gave credit to the employees and leadership that made it all possible. Blacksmith pointed out that Air Creebec was one of the very real Aboriginal success stories. “In the beginning, the attitude was that Crees couldn’t fly,” Blacksmith told the Nation. “Air Creebec and CreeCo showed we could not only fly, but Crees can do business with the best of them.” When someone joked about the cost of a ticket they were told buying a ticket seven days in advance there was a 50% reduction.

After honouring 35 employees who had been with Air Creebec 20 years or more, the Albert W. Diamond Foundation was pre-launched. Pierre Ouellet, coordinator of the Secretariat to the Cree Nation – Abitibi-Témiscamingue Economic Alliance and Dr. Ted Moses hosted the launch. Remembering Diamond Ouellet said, “For all his people, for the people of Abitibi-Témiscamingue, he was a true friend. He provided time for everyone. It was not for money, it was not for his own results, it was to help.”

Moses added, “Considering that Albert was dedicated to support education, Youth and business development, he was always there for others with his values. The Foundation will also follow in his footsteps….” Moses said the Foundation will work with the family and others to continue the work brought about by Albert Diamond’s vision and values. A cheque for $150,000 was presented to get things going.

The night was far from over as back at the Gathering Place in Waskaganish, Air Creebec hosted an evening of entertainment beginning with comedy from Queenie Stephen and James Jonah. They were followed by local talent Darryl Salt, Vincent Beauregard and Ben Lim. Well-known former Juno winner Lawrence Martin wowed the crowd. Ending the night were Mariame Hasni and then Cree Rising. All of this and it was only the first day of the AGA.

On the second day, minutes and financial statements were looked at and approved. No big surprises there. Reports from various Cree entities were presented with little fanfare.

Mistissini delegate Thomas Coon though remarked that while he didn’t understand all the numbers in the financial statement, “it’s Cree money and we must tell them (Crees) what we have done with it”. He said the stories of what succeeded and failed must be told, “because we are accountable to the people”.

A guest speaker who had a real impact was 13-year-old Wes Prankard from Niagara Falls, Ontario. The quote “a child shall lead them” was never so true as when he spoke. This young man went to Attawapiskat and felt he had to do something. Prankard said Pepsi had a contest. His idea was to build a playground and he won the top prize of $25,000. That was when Prankard found out a playground costs $100,000. He raised the rest of the money and created Northern Starfish in the process. This foundation will be looking at creating two foster homes for Attawapiskat at a cost of $500,000. Another goal is 10 more playgrounds for other disadvantaged northern communities.

While a bag went around for people do donate money, the Grand Council started the ball rolling with $2500. Mistissini Chief Richard Shecapio said he was touched by Prankard’s action and encouraged him to continue with Mistissini matching the Grand Council donation. Waskaganish Chief Blackned felt inspired and said, “People on the West Coast deserve this help adding another $2500. Chisasibi Chief Davey Bobbish said, “I hope our Youth follow in your footsteps,” and pledged $2500 as did Waswanipi Chief Paul Gull, who added $2500 to the growing pot. Cree Health Board Chair James Bobbish said the issues in Attawapiskat relate to their social issues and mandates pledging $2500 as did Eastmain’s Deputy Chief Johnny Tomatuk. Bobbish said he would work on a series of volunteer visits to help out in Attawapiskat.

Cree School Board Chair Kathleen Wooten was glad to add another $2500 followed by Washaw Sibi, Oujé-Bougoumou and Youth Grand Chief Joshua Iseroff matching the amount.

Wemindji Deputy Chief Dennis Georgekish said his community was good for $3000 and Darlene Cheechoo of CreeCo matched them.

Nemaska Chief Matthew Wapachee added another $2500 and said his community had signed an allegiance agreement with Attawapiskat and would be visiting the community next month. Whapmagoostui Chief Stanley George said, “We were touched by your efforts and vision as a youth.” He hoped his community’s $2500 would help Prankard to keep going and spread his message. Aanischaaukamikw Foundation president Abel Bosum along with $2500 said to Prankard, “If you ever run for Prime Minister, you have my vote.” Prankard replied, “I don’t want to run for government. They argue and argue and meanwhile we need to get things done.”

The Regional Council of Elders said the “goal of the Elders is to encourage and support youth such as yourself ”, backing their words with another $2500.

Both Grand Chief Coon Come and Deputy Grand Chief Ashley Iseroff personally threw $2000 each into the growing total.

When the bag finished its rounds another $2544.24 was added bringing the final tally to $52,799.24.

Air Creebec told Prankard they would provide airfare and transport of items to Attawapiskat. The Nation donated a quarter-page ad to Prankard and the Northern Starfish Foundation for those who wish to help out. Prankard is asking that people donate their soon-to-be-obsolete pennies to continue the good works he sees as necessary.

The evening saw three people honoured by the Grand Council: Eeyou Police Director Reggie Bobbish (received medal from the Governor General of Canada); the Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute President Dianne Reid; and former Youth Grand Chief Stacy Bear. Then it was time for a little square dancing to kick off the night.

The next day saw a Memorandum of Understanding signed between the Grand Council of the Crees and Dr. Denis Lamblin on Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). Lamblin said he came to the AGA “because there is a real desire from the Cree Nation to address a very serious threat that it faces”. He said the Crees weren’t alone and that other countries were having to deal with it. But “many countries in the world are afraid to tackle this major public health issue although it affects millions of people.”

Lamblin expects Crees to be an example for the rest of the world and would “implement measures that can guarantee equal opportunities to all babies at birth”. There will be a story on FASD in the next issue of the Nation as it could not be adequately covered here. It is one that affects more Crees and communities than you would expect.  When asked for a show of hands if they knew someone who had been affected by FASD, a majority of the attendees raised theirs.

And yes Crees did respond and passed a resolution declaring a permanent moratorium on uranium mining, exploration and waste emplacement in Eeyou Istchee. Strateco was quick to respond saying only the Quebec government could do so. Even so the uranium presentation included a section on Cree Rights in Eeyou Istchee, which stated, “The Cree Nation has always asserted its fundamental human right to consent or withhold consent to industrial or other development in Eeyou Istchee.” Coon Come said six out of 10 Crees polled were opposed to uranium mining. A Cree Nation Uranium Strategy is the next step for the Crees, which could see the same level of mobilization that the fight against the Great Whale hydroelectric project saw. (More on this topic in a future issue of the Nation.)

All this and more was packed into only three days of hard work. Congrats to Waskaganish for being such a great host of this year’s AGA.