Celebrating their own leadership, determination and courage, the Cree Women of Eeyou Istchee Association (CWEIA) congregated for the fourth consecutive year for their Annual General Assembly in Val-d’Or on September 17 and 18.

According to Regional Coordinator Holly Danyluk, a good time was had by all, though, by holding elections for a new executive board, it did get a little tense for a while.

“Having an election never makes anything easy,” Danyluk joked.

But, in the end the CWEIA emerged with a brand-new executive. It includes: Virginia Wabano as the new President, Carmen Faries as Vice-President, Noreen Moar was reelected as Treasurer as was Irene Bearskin House as the Elder Representative, and Mary Ann Katapatuk elected as the Youth Representative.

While the women of the Cree nation had the opportunity to meet, greet, discuss and learn at their AGA, Danyluk said this year’s events were toned down due to financial restrictions. As a result, the CWEIA decided to put on galas every two years instead of annually.

Despite the rollbacks, the gals managed to have a good time. While they spent their days at the Cégep de l’Abitibi-Témiscamingue Aboriginal Pavilion taking in lectures and presentations, the CWEIA also enjoyed a dinner prepared by a local caterer and featuring homegrown Cree entertainment.

“Annie Blacksmith’s young daughter sang for us and we had a little gift exchange. Charlotte Ottereyes was our comedian/emcee for the evening; she managed to throw in a few jokes here and there. The night went on for a few hours and then we parted ways,” said Danyluk

While the two-day event may have been smaller and more sombre than the previous year that did by no means diminish the opportunity for learning and sharing that CWEIA members participated in.

The main focus for this year’s speakers was the health of Cree women, particularly where obesity and diabetes were concerned. Catherine Godin from the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay (CBHSSJD) made a presentation on diabetes and women in the Cree communities, showing just how affected the women are by Type 2 diabetes.

“She talked about how the epidemic has grown in the past 10-20 years. This really provided a wake-up call to all of us who were in attendance,” said Danyluk.

Godin’s presentation was followed by Theresa Ducharme of Lemon Cree, who has helped hundreds of Cree women lose weight and several inches around their waistlines in phase one of this CWEIA endeavour.

“Her results were very inspirational to the group because many people have lost a lot of weight in the last year and we want to continue this to the second phase. But what needs to be done before that can happen is we have to go out and find new funding,” said Danyluk.

The problem with trying to get the second phase off the ground of the Lemon Cree exercise program however has been that to date, Danyluk has been unable to acquire the kind of funding needed from the federal government. While she has managed to get some funds from the CBHSSJD, they are not enough to get the second phase started which would see a great deal of enhancement to the existing Bounce-Fit program as well as widespread programs throughout Eeyou Istchee for Elders and men.

“I presented the report on Lemon Cree, the recommendations from that report and also the successes that we have had in the communities. I pointed out, for example, that Oujé-Bougoumou, since March 2011, as a group doing Bounce-Fit has lost 112.5 pounds collectively.

“One woman, Pricilla Bosum, has lost 31.5 pounds and 12 inches.

“The community of Eastmain has also, as of May 21, lost 39.9 inches,” said Ducharme.

According to Ducharme, while the CWEIA was able to provide for her to make only one training visit per community, the Lemon Cree program has taken on a life of its own. Some of the communities have managed to sustain their Bounce-Fit programs by coming up with local funding to pay trainers and the community of Nemaska even managed to get a men’s program running through Lemon Cree as there was such a demand for it.

“Power-Fit came from the requests made by the men in the communities since there were programs running for the women and they wanted something for themselves. So, my son Christopher, who is a certified fitness trainer, created Power-Fit, a strength and cardio program for men. We now travel once a month to Nemaska and this is just for the guys,” said Ducharme.

Ducharme has also since developed a Dance-Fit course in Montreal at the demand of younger Lemon Cree clientele.

“Dance-Fit was something that came from the younger people. I call it the Cree-style version Zumba, a new dance craze that is a mix of salsa and different Latin American dances,” said Ducharme.

Considering the fact that Lemon Cree only partnered with the CWEIA back in the summer of 2010, the success of the program is proof that with the right funding and proper support, a major success story has already emerged that has changed the face of the Cree nation.

Getting back to the AGA, arts crafts and tradition were also discussed at the event with a presentation made by Lloyd Cheechoo of the Cree Native Arts and Crafts Association (CNACA).

Though Cheechoo spoke mainly about CNACA’s mission and its vision of the future to showcase and sell Cree handicrafts to the world, he also appealed to the Cree women at the event to share the products they make with the association.

Native women from the south of Quebec also had their time to speak at the AGA as Quebec Native Women Inc. made a special presentation to CWEIA delegates. Michèle Audette and Marie-Eve Lachapelle Bordeleau spoke about the importance of assembling Quebec’s Native women as a whole as that will be their mission come this November 18-20 in Kahnawake when they host the Gathering of Nations.

In terms of resolutions, Danyluk said the first major one to emerge from this year’s AGA was to ensure that the Cree Elders be involved as much as possible in whatever endeavours the CWEIA is pursuing.

More information on other resolutions being passed is still pending.

In terms of the CWEIA’s new President and Vice President, the Nation had the opportunity to sit down and speak with Wabano and Faries a few days after the AGA.

While the women were both nominated simultaneously by the members of the CWEIA, they are ironically both school teachers who hail from Moose Factory, Ontario and have known each other their entire lives though they now live respectively in Waskaganish and Wemindji.

“I have known Virginia my whole life. She used to be my babysitter, or okay, one of my babysitters,” Faries laughed.

Wabano joins the CWEIA executive with a long history of experience in similar organizations from when she lived in Ontario, working first as a regional coordinator for Aboriginal Women’s Solidarity, a local group that was established under the Mushkegowuk Tribal Council within the James Bay Region of Ontario. Through her work with the women in Moose Factory, Wabano began to participate in provincial events with the Ontario Native Women’s Association and eventually became part of its executive council.

“I am looking for this organization to become an independent network so we can collectively tackle some of the concerns and issues that we have in the communities of Eeyou Istchee. This can only be accomplished by having people work together and by getting local women in place to support to each other and CWEIA’s overall mandate. This has already been set out in the CWEIA’s action plan by the previous president and supporters, and I would like to continue with that work,” said Wabano.

As for Faries, being an Aboriginal Studies teacher and being very schooled in the history of Aboriginal people, she is hoping that as the new Vice President she will be able to champion many of the issues that the communities have faced as a result of the history of the Crees, particularly where colonization is concerned.

“It’s about bringing issues to the forefront, those that are of dire concern in our communities and more specifically in the organization that we are going to be working with: the women. We want to be able to empower them and to uplift their spirits,” said Faries.

The bond that these two women already share may be an even bigger ticket for success within the CWEIA as they feel that they are frequently on the same page, particularly where teaching has been concerned.

“Our connection is very strong. I have already received comments from people who know the two of us and think that we are going to make a good team. At the same time, we have very strong local women’s groups that are very vocal and they will give us feedback that we will build upon,” said Wabano.

While there are numerous issues facing Cree women today, both Wabano and Faries said that coming to the table as teachers, they want to stress the importance of education, particularly amongst the youth.

Working in these roles, they are hoping that they can help the youth to aspire to bigger dreams in becoming the kinds of professionals their communities need: such as doctors, lawyers and teachers. They hope to set an example themselves, since both are successful professional career women.

In all, they are both very excited to be in their new positions.

At the same time, Danyluk could not stress how grateful the organization has been to outgoing President Doris A. Bobbish, who has blazed the trail for many of the CWEIA members to come. While Wabano feels confident that she will be able to continue Bobbish’s work, she knows that Bobbish has left some pretty big shoes to fill.

And with that, the Nation would like to congratulate all the members of the CWEIA’s newly elected executive.