It was intended that once a permanent council of Elders was established and its role and mandate were finalized, a report would be sent to The Nation explaining the purpose of the Council. However, the confusion that is starting to develop regarding the Council of Elders and the increasing number of requests for support on different issues have convinced us, with permission from the Elders, to present a brief report on the history and the current status of the Regional Council of Elders.
The Cree Regional Authority held the first special gathering of Cree Elders in 1981 and it was at this meeting that the idea of a regional council of Elders was first discussed. A recommendation was also made by the Elders that these meetings continue to be held periodically.
In 1982 the James Bay Cree Cultural Education Centre was established as a program under the Cree Regional Authority and the Centre was mandated to find funds to hold another Cree Elders’ conference. Since then, the Elders have met on an annual basis. At each of these meetings, the subject of a regional council of Elders was discussed.
For many years, the Elders were hesitant to form a regional council for many reasons and it was only after they themselves determined what their role might be that they began developing a structure and guidelines. They chose their coordinator—Robbie Dick— four years ago and mandated him to assist the Elders in those communities which did not have a council of Elders in establishing local councils, only if requested by the communities.
A provisional Regional Council of Elders was established at an elders’ meeting in Waskaganish in March 1996. The elder representatives present at that meeting appointed elders from their respective communities to sit on the Regional Council until such time as a permanent one was established.
Thoughout 1996 and up to now in 1997, the elders have continued to work on their mandate and guidelines. They have determined that there will be areas in which they should not be involved and they are religion, politics, and local issues. Their role and mandate, as determined by themselves is:
a) to oversee regional and/or common concerns and interests of the Cree Nation in cultural development;
b) to assist in the development of a common Cree Nation mission statement to ensure compliance with Cree traditional customs and values;
c) to assist the Cree leadership in all issues in order to reflect Cree values and traditions in dealings with governments and nongovernmental bodies;
d) to establish and maintain a regional cultural centre or Cree knowledge centre;
e) to establish and maintain a research and development program on Native culture;
f) to ensure the continuation of our cultural heritage and to ensure the use of our traditional language in all our organizations and our dealings with the rest of the world;
g) to uphold the spiritual teachings which have been passed down by our people from generation to generation- whatever spiritual teachings are deemed appropriate and agreeable to the elders; and
h) to be the traditional voice of our nation and the wisdom keepers of our people.
Elder representatives were chosen to meet with the Cree Regional Authority/ Grand Council of the Crees Council/ Board to request formal recognition, but we were informed that official recognition or sanction has not been discussed again at the top political level. Although the Regional Council of Elders is still in its infancy and it has not been officially recognized by the Chiefs and the Cree Regional Authority/Grand Council of the Crees, the elders have already met with or received requests from different groups seeking guidance or support on issues such as trapline/ hunting game management, youth suicides, various social problems, organized religion vs. traditional teachings and/or ceremonies, and many local problems.
The elders have stated that the communities are experiencing upheavals that cannot be addressed by the chiefs alone and that it is time for them, the elders, to become involved. They are not saying that the chiefs and councils are incapable of dealing with the social and other problems facing Crees; they are saying that all Crees need to be involved, including the youth, the elders, and the women, such is the extent of our problems. Our chiefs need our help and support; this is what the elders say.
They want to ensure that the Council is established properly; therefore, they are taking their time in determining how they can help their people. At each meeting the elders keep repeating that the Regional Council must not allow itself to be used to fuel hatred and misunderstanding among its people, that it must not do anything that can be pointed out as an example of what is creating confusion among our youth and people. In other words, they say, the Regional Council must operate at all times with respect, wisdom and love.