Youths may be the majority of the Cree population, but their views are often overlooked.
Jobs, traditional values and future hydro-electric development – those are the main concerns raised by youth leader James Shecapio in an interview with the Nation’s William Nicholls. Shecapio is the chair and spokesperson for the Cree Nation Youth Council, representing all nine Cree communities.
He struck a defiant tone against future hydro projects planned by Hydro-Quebec, including the Eastmain-1 project. “The viewpoint of the youth is: Enough is enough. Enough destruction of ancestral Cree lands. The actions of Cree youth will demonstrate and reflect that,” said Shecapio, who is also an elected band councillor in Mistissini, and is active internationally as the co-chair and president of the World Indigenous Youth Council, a new organization created three years ago. Cree youth were instrumental in forming the council.
Was there someone who had a big influence on you when you were younger?
I was raised as a young person by the late Issac Shecapio, who was a chief for about 14 years. We talked a lot about how he maintained a traditional way of life as well as being a very visible leader in the community. Other leaders like Chief Henry Mianscum and other people in the community have been my inspiration.
This year there was a joint Cree Elders-Youth conference. Were you involved in it?
Unfortunately, I wasn’t at the actual conference. I did meet with the elders who attended just before this year’s Grand Council Annual General Assembly. I got feedback from the youth as well. This summer’s conference was very unique. This was because of some of the specific stands that the youth and the elders took. We discussed how we have come to view our relationship with non-Crees. We also discussed our relationship with the land and our traditional way of life.
I understand at this time the Cree Youth Council is the only Cree body to have an advisory board of Elders.
Yes. Since the Cree Nation Youth Council was formally established, the elders have always played a role even in the development stages of the council itself. The elders have contributed in many ways. They have always been part of our council, sitting as advisors. They are themselves appointed by the general members at annual general assemblies. Robbie Matthew from Chisasibi and John Matches are the elders who are sitting with us today.
It seems strange that a Youth Council would have elders on its board. Do you find that there are conflicts between the youth and elders?
To the contrary, we complement each other. The elders give us a lot of background on where we come from as a people. Not only what they remember as young people, but also what they remember from before the Crees had day-to-day contact with the non-Crees. This is unique in itself and very instrumental in helping to deal with the issues.
Two summers ago, the Cree Nation Youth Council held its general assembly in Nemaska, and the main theme was attempting to regain traditional values. The elders are essential to this goal. When we reviewed our constitution, that was the main question the youth had. They didn’t want to see the Youth Council assimilated or controlled by the Grand Council of the Crees and the CRA. The youth themselves say the council should be based on different principles and values.
Do you think youth leaders will work to change what you described as the non-traditional values of the Grand Council and the CRA?
At the latest Grand Council/CRA Annual General Assembly, you could see it wasn’t just the youth’s concern. I think the elders share our concerns. Chief Billy Diamond was also calling for a resolution to have a Cree Nation Gathering, which is a change from some of the previous assemblies. It’s not just the youth who are calling for our traditional values to be respected.
The Youth Council has presented a resolution opposing all new hydroelectric development to the Grand Council Annual General Assembly. What was the resolution and response?
The resolution presented to the assembly was the youth position toward development that happened in the past and the proposed development happening today. In that resolution, the Cree youth clearly stated that we oppose further development in the territory. That opposition specifically included the proposed Eastmain-1 project.
The EM-1 steering committee discussed your resolution and suggested that Crees discuss how far they are willing to go to stop these projects. How far do you think the youth are willing to go?
The youth feel that there have been a lot of failures and breaches with the agreements signed in the past with non-Crees. They are long-running statements of broken promises. We understand that the Grand Council itself has compiled a document that is thicker than the original agreement on what they consider to be breaches of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement and the supplementary agreements.
There is a definite need to review this relationship and closely study it. When you’re asking how far the youth are ready to go, I can say that the youth and others are concerned about our future. Our future is based upon the land, and on the use and respect of that land.
The viewpoint of the youth is: Enough is enough. Enough destruction of ancestral Cree lands. Our actions will demonstrate and reflect that. In this way, we will also demonstrate that as a non-Cree, you cannot disrespect agreements made with us and keep breaking them. We are concerned not only for ourselves, but also for the youth of tomorrow, our offspring. There is no question that it should not be just the youth that are concerned, but the leadership as well.
Kenneth Gilpin, the chief of the Eastmain Band Council, has said he would invite members of the Youth Council to Eastmain. He also wondered to what extent you had an opportunity to hear an explanation of the EM-1 court case and the position that has been taken by the Grand Council. How much do you know about that?
We understand that their meeting [the EM-1 steering committee] was held sometime in early December. At this time, I haven’t received anything. I think in the statements they made, they may have insinuated that the youth don’t really know
what they are talking about.
There are a lot of people who may disagree with that. There a lot of youth who are concerned enough to meet and look at the status of the relationships that we have with non-Crees. One of the important reservations arises from the previous agreements we have had with them. Not just the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, but also the other agreements.
My view on this is that it is clear the agreement hasn’t been respected. I also fail to see why only three communities should be involved in a process like this. This process I don’t agree with, but I think there are things that people need to see and study. Not just the previous agreement but all other documents and materials of such nature. We must include the views of all the Cree communities.
Nobody should think the Cree Nation Youth Council just sat down and passed a resolution without considering past or proposed agreements. We have concerns about what happened not only in the past, but also today. The Cree Youth Council’s position is that if we oppose, we clearly oppose. We don’t halt our opposition. Crees oppose EM-1 and took it to the courts. Given all the money we’ve spent, we want to continue opposing it. That is what we are saying as the youth.
Some people are saying jobs are at stake in opposing these projects. Would these be jobs for Cree youth?
There has been a lot of concern over jobs that might be jeopardized by continued opposition. Even Cree Construction mentioned it in its annual report. For me as a Cree youth, it is evident there are a lot of breaches to the James Bay Agreement. Some of the breaches are related to economic development, like the number of jobs Hydro-Quebec guaranteed Crees. Hydro promised more than 150 jobs. To date, I don’t think there are even 25.1 don’t think we can view this as a way for the Cree Nation to solve its 70-percent unemployment rate.
We have to deal realistically with this statistic. My view-and I know other people feel the same way – is that the governments that were party to this agreement didn’t act in good faith. At the time, the trappers stopped opposing the projects for reasons of Cree employment and in the name of progress. They have been betrayed. I think that, as Crees, we have to examine whether or not we can trust the other parties in any future agreements. What is the use of giving up our land and rights if they don’t keep their word, yet still take what we agreed to give up? I don’t think it’s logical for anybody to say that if we negotiate now, we can secure jobs for the Crees. That is why I say that hydroelectric projects aren’t going to create jobs for the Crees.
Do you think it’s costing too much money for the Crees to fight these types of projects?
I think it’s costing way too much money and that some of that money could have been better utilized to create employment for the Cree people. Perhaps they could have spent it on a study on job opportunities for the Crees present and future. I know there are millions of dollars spent annually opposing the projects. The costs just associated with the EM-1 court case for lawyers, consultants and so on are phenomenal.
I don’t think we can just continue to oppose projects, taking them to court and then sitting down and coming to an agreement. Then the next one that comes around, we start all over again. This seems to be somewhat of a formula for Hydro-Quebec.
We need to re-examine how our relationship with Hydro-Quebec is progressing.
What are the Youth Council’s priorities for this term in office?
There has been a lot of discussion about how specifically we can integrate our traditional way of life with its unique customs, cultural values and the principles that make up Cree society into the Youth Council. There is a lot related to that in terms of economic development, education, health, native issues and the justice system. There is a lot of commendable work that the Grand Council has done with regards to that.
There are concerns about the implementation of the various studies and we understand it takes time to do that. Considering the majority of the Cree population consists of youth, I think we had better start to seriously look at job creation differently than before. The past shows us that whatever we were doing, it’s not working and so are most of the Cree youth. We should be looking at job creation that respects our traditional ways of life.
I think it is wrong that the elders haven’t played a role in this. When we talk to them, we know they have ideas and aspirations not just for the Crees, but also for the people who have relations with us.
Do you see higher education playing a role in this?
In any society, human resources play an important part in our future and there are definite needs that require higher levels of education. In terms of our development as a people, I know there are over 300 students in post-secondary schools. There are also a great many high school students preparing themselves to take that avenue of higher education. They are preparing themselves for their future and ours as a community, society and a nation.
It is also not just the Cree youth who need education. There are people who are presently working in Cree entities, band councils and businesses who need to upgrade their education or job skills to perform better for the benefit of all our people.
Do you have any final comments?
Just a general comment for the Cree youth. No matter what level you are at: Challenge yourself and fufil your dreams, because within those dreams is the true vision of the Crees for today and tomorrow.