It began August 8 and ended five days later on August 12. Past Annual General Assemblies may have only run three days but the new weeklong format was more relaxing for those who attended this year’s Grand Council of the Crees/ Cree Regional Authority assembly in Eastmain. That community may be one of the smallest but they showed they had heart and could host with the best of them.

To be honest a few technophobes looked shell-shocked when Eastmain lost power to half of its community. The internet was down and for many this was their main way to communicate. Currently Eastmain has no cell service (though it will be in the near future) and the one payphone in the community centre saw a lot of service by those wanting to call home, loved ones and, of course, the office.

The power outage was apparently caused by a Whiskeychan flying into a transformer. Perhaps the land was reminding people of the power of the environment they were a part of for so long and still are. At least that’s what a little birdie told me. It did affect the proceedings from being broadcast throughout the nine Cree communities though.

Eastmain stepped up to the plate and showed, power or no power, Crees still are the best when it comes to hospitality. Smoked fish was handed out to delegates and guests. Not only was there smoked white fish but they even had smoked Speckled Trout.

So there was fish but what about the meat you ask? This is the one time of the year when Crees can question the past year’s actions by entities, organizations and leaders or are the checks and balances we put in place just a myth?

The answer isn’t as simple or as black-and-white as one would expect. The actions by Oujé-Bougoumou in taking down a sweat lodge went against the previous year’s resolutions on traditional and spiritual practices (by the way the issue is close to being resolved) showed a lack of teeth in what is decided by the whole Cree Nation. On the other hand, resolutions pertaining to the actions of the Grand Council and other regional entities are a different story. New agreements relating to governance will see other changes where resolutions leading to by-laws will be enforceable strengthening our Cree democracy.

In the meantime, Monday, August 8, was the usual financial and acceptance of the minutes snorefest until CreeCo and the Board of Compensation found themselves dancing on the AGA spotlight hotspot. The AGA agenda had them presenting on Tuesday but with Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come’s ability to make things move, there was time available on Monday. They were not as prepared as they could be with most heads of the Cree Crown Corporations only arriving for Tuesday. Nevertheless they did the job, including a corporate video that had the AGA clapping enthusiastically.

Another presenter, the Cree School Board, also made use of the video format but theirs was much longer than the five-minute CreeCo presentation. The CSB had close to an hour-long video on what was happening with them. In a truly amazing move they fully embrace the past years of few graduates and problems in the schools. It was well received by all. One school commissioner said changes are in the works with the CSB that will reflect the hopes, needs and desires of the Cree people and communities.

This year saw five recognitions by the Grand Council. First off the axe was CerAmony for their Juno win this past year. The award was accepted with the aloof panache one expects from those in the music business. Then they tore the house down with music from almost every genre known. They played reggae, country, pop, rock, rap, hip-hop and, of course, the raw talent and their own sounds and songs we all know. Given their uptempo rendition of The Beatles’ “Let it Be”, I would let them know there is a new TV talent show called Cover Me Canada, for which they are naturals.

The late Billy Diamond’s wife was honoured for her life. Not only did she give credence to the saying behind every great man is a great woman, she proved it in more than one way. She was the confidant who helped Diamond shape and form his ideas and policies.

Former Washaw Shibi Chief Billy Katapatuk received an accolade for being instrumental in making his community the 10th First Nation to be a part of the Grand Council of the Crees.

Dr. George Blacksmith was honoured for completing a PhD. Blacksmith is one of the few in the Cree Nation who has earned his title rather than receiving an honorary one.

Ginette Lajoie, from the infamous environmental department of the Grand Council, found herself in front of the Assembly to receive honours and a plate attesting to her dedication and appreciation of her service to the Cree people. She retired earlier this year and will be missed.

Wednesday night saw square dancing Eastmain-style. Was it disappointing after Tuesday’s CerAmony? Not at all, as it was refreshing to have this traditional moment shared with all the delegates. Did I mention it was the second wedding dance as the first happened before everyone dropped in to visit Eastmain? I slipped outside as my square-dancing skills encourage youth to commit vile and disgusting crimes as to forget the horror of my best attempts to master that form of dance.

During the day I was told some presentations had been cancelled. One of them was the Cree Nation Trust. One might question that decision as the CNT had a deficit of $33 million or so this year. The Nation certainly did, so we had the fund’s annual report analyzed by a part-time employee.

The findings were shocking or at least it felt like you stuck your tongue on a nine-volt battery. From out of the capital the CNT has, it could only make money in good market conditions our specialist decreed. Imagine the response from the yellow journalist crowd warming themselves at the Nation’s campfire. If we had any capital then we too could make money given good market conditions. As for that deficit, under the Agreement surrounding that money, certain funds have to be dispersed to different organizations every year and this has to be done no matter what. It isn’t that much of a surprise then that from time to time there will be a loss and when you are playing around with a billion dollars $33 million isn’t so bad after all.

One caution given to us is that while the CNT does what it can to minimize its risks in investments it should be more aware of the global market. It will affect the CNT since about 50% of the investments are in foreign currency. The global market isn’t impressed with either the US credit score or the European Union’s high indebtedness ratio. Not looking at the present or the future closely could lead to a lack of financial resources when the Cree need them.

Of course, the Cree Board of Health and Social Services came out looking healthy. They staged a Walk Your Talk rally composed of kids and adults walking from just outside of the community accompanied by live music from local traditional drum group Northern Medicine. They talked about some of the alarming statistics concerning health and the Cree communities. Opening the door fully didn’t lead to criticism but rather thoughtful discussion on the problems.

All this is just the tip of the iceberg of information and disinformation that happens at every AGA. People were talking governance, framework agreements and the Plan Nord just to name a few topics. So to try to get a better idea of what was going on, the Nation managed to interview Grand Chief Coon Come. We caught up to him near the complex’s washrooms.

The Nation: I think this is the longest AGA to date – Monday to Friday.

Coon Come: You are correct. It is the longest because our members from the past two assemblies raised a lot of issues related to social and health concerns. Included in that was the status of our educational system. So both entities (health and education) had to do research to address the concerns. So when the CSB made their presentation it was very revealing. On the one hand when you want to begin discussions you have to admit we have a problem here. Before it was defending using your policies, your bylaws or someone else but when you admit you have a problem you can get serious and that’s what I think these two entities did. Now people feel they are part of the process and their concerns are being heard. I think people respond to that.

TN: It’s a change as in past AGAs you guys were going late into the night.

CC: I think that’s good. We’re not getting younger and I’ve sat through many AGAs where we went into the wee hours of the morning. I remember one time in Eastmain where we were up until 4 in the morning. Now times have changed and everyone’s conscious of their health. We try to have health breaks. There are problems with diabetes and people have to eat. So getting some real rest is good for everyone.

TN: Do you find that people are more focused with this new way of doing the AGAs?

CC: I think so. People have to have some time off. Even the Grand Chief has to go to the bathroom. [laughter]

TN: One of the things I noticed with this AGA and people have said it may be due to the Summer Games in Mistissini, but there is a lack of youth delegates this year.

CC: I had hoped when the chiefs and councils appointed their delegates they would have included some youth and Elders. I was a little disappointed that didn’t happen. They are the ones who appoint their delegates to attend this AGA. But I do know everyone was talking about the Cree games that were coming up and the youth were getting ready for them. When the assemblies were in Waskaganish and Mistissini, the youth were really excited about them. They prepared and got ready for them. That’s good for them and good for health, mind body and soul.

TN: I know there was supposed to be a message from the Prime Minister of Canada, but due to the power outage that it didn’t happen.

CC: I guess being in a small community like Eastmain there are still things that are needed. There was no cellphone service, internet wasn’t everywhere and the power went off. It was very difficult and at times we felt lost. But on one hand the presentations that were made on governance, on the Plan Nord, on the Cree Nation Working Group and the tour were limited to just the members who attended this assembly. I felt bad about that because we lost an opportunity because a lot of people listen to the AGA on the radio. Normally it is a chance to spread the word so people can be aware of it, think about it and digest it. They know we will come up with some kind of final agreement and we don’t want them to feel like “why are you coming to us now.”

TN: What would you say is one of the important things for people to consider concerning governance and the working group?

CC: The Cree Nation Governance Working Group is imperative if we go down the path of regaining and asserting control and jurisdiction over our lands that people have their input. This is so those Cree values and principles would be incorporated into the thinking of governance. That’s why there is a need for the community tours. The framework agreement on governance is crucial because the provincial government through legislative process actually stole the land. So we are regaining what was taken from us where we will have full control. It is done in increments of establishing a Cree Nation government on Category II lands and a regional government on Category III lands. That way Crees can be full participants and nothing can be done without Cree consent and Cree involvement. That’s the message and how we set it up are details that we hope Cree leaders and Cree people will contribute to.

On the Plan Nord itself it was important that the Crees be involved and sit at the table across from Quebec Premier Charest. Which we did and being on the inside we were able to say hold it we have major institutional governance structures here that have displaced us in which we were excluded and you are pushing a policy of exclusion and now you are trying to put us back into Category I lands? That is totally unacceptable. If we had not been involved on the Plan Nord then today the Crees would be in court now against Bill 40. Now because we were there we were able to advocate what our former leaders have insisted: this is Cree land. We certainly want to work towards changing the institutional governance structures so Crees can be full participants. That’s the main thing that came out of Plan Nord. There will always be developers. There will always be forestry companies, Crown corporations and international corporations who will come into our lands and try to take our trees, the ores and the waters. They will always be there but we have to decide for ourselves how we can be involved in the process and decision-making and have a say in how development takes place.

TN: What about MBJ? I know it was discussed that Crees would become part of a regional government structure, is that going anywhere?

CC: With our framework government structure MBJ will be abolished and no longer exist. All the entities that were created from Bill 40 will be abolished and will be replaced by how we define to govern ourselves by the Cree Nation government on Category II lands and a regional government for Category III lands. We will have by-law powers over the municipal, the lands, the zoning, and watersheds. That means we will be able to develop five-year plans on how we want to develop Eeyou Istchee. If we’re talking about protected areas, well which ones do you want to protect and which rivers do you want to maintain? I think the dream of our people to have full control and a say in what happens in Eeyou Istchee I feel we are almost there. There is still a lot of work ahead of us but I think we can do it.

TN: I know you had a chiefs’ meeting concerning wind power and other alternative energy sources the Crees may get involved in. What came out of that meeting?

CC: As you know former Grand Chief Ted Moses had an understanding from Hydro-Québec that about 500 megawatts would be set aside exclusively for the Crees. Over the years the Crees have tried to get that back. I’ve managed to secure the 500 megawatts. Now the Crees will have to decide what projects to put forth. Now every community has their own little projects whether it is Mistissini, Chisasibi, whether it is run of the river or whether it is in partnership with another developer of wind, run of the river or solar energy.

What came out of that meeting is we decided to have a Cree Nation approach because some of the projects won’t happen today. They may happen three to five years down the line so what projects do we submit today? Within two weeks we will have an idea of what projects will be submitted. So we are talking about the justification that Hydro-Québec is saying why we should go for a PPA. This actually has to do with the upgrading of the turbines at LG-4. We need to have answers to our questions concerning the upgrades to the turbines. That would be the justification for the PPA. We do have a table and Hydro-Québec has appointed negotiators and we have appointed our negotiators. It’s internal since this is all in our backyard so we have do decide which projects to submit.

TN: There have been some concerns that the upgrades will create extended dead zones along the shores because of the new rise and fall of waters?

CC: Yes, under the La Grande complex of 1975 in the technical description there are certain guaranteed water levels and flows of water. Presently the La Grande project has increased by five times its flow. With the new technology we have to ask if there will be another increase in its flow. The increased flow could cause all kinds of erosion downstream to the riverbanks. If this affects the water table then we might be looking at an amendment to the Agreement. These are questions we have and can’t answer but we have developed those questions and put them forth to Hydro-Québec.

TN: Is there anything else?

CC: Just tell everyone I am tall, dark and handsome and doing well