Youth Grand Chief discusses the two-day meeting devoted to Cree history


Two jam-packed days in Ottawa focused on passing on Cree history to the future generations. This landmark meeting couldn’t have gone better, said Youth Grand Chief Joshua Iserhoff.

This event was held at the Westin Hotel in Ottawa March 16-17 to allow 200 Eeyou-Eenou college and university students to mingle with Elders, chiefs and Cree entity representatives, as well as political leaders including Liberal MP Justin Trudeau, NDP MP Romeo Saganash, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Shawn A-in-chut Atleo, New Zealand Maori politician John Tamihere, Cree Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come and former Grand Chief Ted Moses.

Over 500 Crees participated in roundtable events, panels and discussion cafes devoted to sharing the collective history of the Crees of Eeyou Istchee, and how this should be transmitted to the generations that will take over the Cree world.

“It was incredible to see all of these people come together for this cause, about how to educate the post-secondary youth about our collective history. We are trying to merge our past with our future here and I even found myself learning a lot,” said Iserhoff.

As there is no specific textbook on the Crees of Eeyou Istchee and so much of the history of the Cree people is in the minds of those who experienced it firsthand, Iserhoff said that even during the planning stages the committee was discovering new things about the Cree Nation.

A prime example of this is the fact that since 1975 the Cree have actually signed 75 different agreements. And, while the creation and signing of each of these agreements was a tremendous accomplishment, the question then becomes how to convey that pride in the success achieved to another generation when in fact it may just look like a bunch of legalese to a young person who was not there to experience those events.

What was most pleasing to Iserhoff was that the members of the Cree Nation Youth Council (CNYC) have been asking to hear these stories.

Iserhoff said former Grand Chief Billy Diamond and entrepreneurial mastermind Albert Diamond had spoken to a CNYC event but now they are both gone and with them a huge part of Cree history since the crucial years of the 1970s.

“When these two men died their momentum continued along with the youth and this got back to Abel Bosum who wrote a letter to Grand Chief Coon Come requesting that we come together like this. And so we have formed this Round Table on Capacity Building to educate our youth,” said Iserhoff.

In his opinion, the most valuable thing that happened at the event was that the youth got to meet individuals who were and are at the forefront of the Cree Nation to hear their stories firsthand. This made important parts of Cree history come to life.

Iserhoff said the event also made way for the stories of lesser-known individuals who played roles in events like the signing of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement in 1975. Prior to the event he had never known that Elder Edna Neposh had a large part in it, and now he got to hear about it directly from her.

Getting to hear firsthand how Robert Kanatewat experienced the signing was another incredible moment, Iserhoff explained.

“What was achieved here was that we were suddenly able to feel what they felt like at the signing. We got to know our leaders on a personal level and connect with their spirit,” said Iserhoff.

Isheroff said he was told by many of the youth how amazing it was to get to know their leaders in a more candid context. As many of the leaders of the Cree Nation are living historical figures, that is the context in which the youth see them. Hearing their stories brought this history to life and broke down those barriers.

On top of that, all of the attendees at the Round Table got the opportunity to hear people like Liberal leadership frontrunner Justin Trudeau and National Grand Chief Shawn Atleo talk about education in the context of First Nations youth. As Iserhoff explained, the focus of both talks was post-secondary education as both had previously worked in education.

Discussion of employment needs and shortfalls was the topic of a major presentation by Nian Matoush. For the first time ever, these post-secondary youth and the leadership from the Cree nation had the opportunity to look at important statistical information on education levels in the Cree nation, where the job market demands are, and how well the Crees actually stand when it comes to filling those positions.

Isheroff served as the moderator throughout the event, asking planned questions to motivate the telling of this history and asking questions on behalf of some youth who felt too shy to address the leadership directly.

He laughed, saying that he felt like the Cree George Stroumboulopoulos or Oprah Winfrey, helping the stories come out of the various panels on the agreements, governance, employment and other major issues.

At times he said he had to ask the panels difficult questions about sovereignty over the territory and waters but, because the whole event was about hearing Cree history from a first-person point-of-view and understanding the emotion behind these major events, it was eye-opening to hear the reasoning behind those who signed the actual agreements.

Reports will be published on the event and a committee will be set up to carry out the many suggestions and decisions that resulted. But, as Iserhoff admits, it was a lot to process.

“There were about 10 major meetings at the event and the thing is that we can’t just step away from this event and say that is it. We are going to have a second phase to this where we go into each of the communities for those who were not able to come so that we reach everybody in the Cree territory,” said Iserhoff.

According to Isheroff both of the youth of the CNYC and the local youth chiefs as well as the GCC will be spearheading this initiative.

Closing the event, Grand Chief Coon Come summarized much of what took place. The following includes excerpts from his speech.

“Please take the time to reflect on what you have been told this weekend, talk to each other and talk to your families. Each and every one of you has been challenged this weekend to take on a great responsibility and to make a contribution to the further building of our Cree Nation.

“You have been challenged to grasp just what the mission of your generation is and you have been asked to rise to the occasion and meet that challenge head-on. What you have been challenged to do is to be responsible for the future of the Cree Nation. And I know this is not an easy burden for you to think about. It is, however, the truth. The future of the Cree Nation… our ability to build on the struggles, the achievements and the historic agreements of the last 40 years… our ability to create an Indigenous Nation as a model for the world… seizing the opportunity to be the major economic and political force of northern Quebec… fulfilling the vision of becoming the ‘masters of our destiny’… all that will rest on your shoulders.

“What is common to both your generation and my generation is that destiny has called upon us to be pioneers. My generation – and we were all very young at the time – was called upon to protect the Cree way of life, to protect our land and resources, to bring the living conditions in our communities out of the Third World, and to take on the responsibilities of operating and managing our communities, our new entities and our regional administration. We had a huge responsibility placed upon us and we also needed to reflect on how to respond to the challenge. We needed to reflect on what it all meant for our collective futures as communities and a Nation, and we needed to reflect on what it all meant for us as individuals.

“You have heard this weekend what the challenge is for your generation. It is no less difficult a challenge and no less an important challenge than what my generation faced.

“When the challenge was placed before my generation, we were not ready for it. We had not expected or anticipated it and we didn’t see it coming. The James Bay Hydroelectric Project was announced and when we heard about it everything changed. The day when we heard about the project was profoundly different from the day before and our world, suddenly, was very different. Some of us had plans for our futures, some of us had ideas of what we might like to do with our lives, and some of us were simply exploring all kinds of different possibilities. All that changed, and we needed to reflect, to re-orient our lives and to go in directions we never imagined we would go.

“We were all called upon to put on hold our personal plans, our individual goals, and to blaze a new trail and to enter uncharted territory on behalf of our Nation. It is that pioneering spirit that your Nation is now asking you to take on.”