While the rest of Canada may still be reveling in the many historic and record-breaking moments of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic Games, the James Bay Cree have their own Olympic legacy to celebrate.
Not only did the Cree have their own James Bay Cree Day at the Aboriginal Pavilion on February 16, but many Cree businesses had the opportunity to showcase their own successes at the Olympic Aboriginal Business Showcase and many other Crees, young and old, got to take in the sights and sounds of the games.
Members of the Grand Council/CRA, CREECO and their many businesses, COTA, CNACA, the Cree School Board, the Cree Nation Youth Council, artists, Elders and many youths all came to Vancouver for the Olympic Games and to share their culture among other things.
The story goes back to two years earlier when former Grand Chief Billy Diamond envisioned sending youth from the Cree Nation to the games to take in the Olympics as for the first time, First Nations communities would be serving as official hosts for the Games. Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come acknowledged the work of Donald Nicholls, director of justice and correctional services in Eeyou Istchee, as the official Olympic liaison for the Cree in realizing this dream.
The Four Host First Nations (FHFN) ¬– consisting of the Lil’wat, the Musqueam, the Squamish and the Tsleil-Waututh First Nations – were even granted the honour of having their Chiefs regarded as heads of state at the event, an honour Canada has never granted previously.
One year later, the Crees signed on as official partners with the FHFN and in doing so were actually offered their own cultural day to showcase their people, traditions and beliefs which has rarely been seen by the public outside of the James Bay area.
James Bay Cree Day
While many of the Cree delegation members poured into Vancouver a few days prior to get their bearings, the first major event for many was James Bay Cree Day which went off without a hitch.
Prior to the four cultural showcases that ran back to back in the Aboriginal Pavilion for the general public, the Crees were invited into the adjacent reception hall for a welcoming ceremony put on by the FHFN.
Traditional drummers and singers from the FHFN greeted the Crees to the Olympic Games as did their Executive Director Tewanee Joseph and Leah George-Wilson from the Board of Directors.
To welcome the Crees, Joseph presented Coon Come with a traditional blanket while Coon Come presented Joseph with a traditional carving knife modeled after an original made by Albert Mianscum. Coon Come said the sentiment was to “carve a history in this world.”
In his speech to the Crees, Joseph said, “We are carving a new future together. It is exciting today because for the first time Indigenous people are full partners in any Olympic or Paralympics game and you are with us, it is not just the Four Host First Nations.
“The Cree people are standing with us and that is a part of history our young children and future generations will learn from. It is how we came together in the spirit of humanity and the spirit of celebrating our cultures with the world and this is pride and it is honour.
“There is a lot of good in our people and the people around the world need to see that. We are humorous. We are strong. We have a lot of pride and honour. We come from esteemed protocols and traditions but we are living in the 21st century and we can throw a celebration better than anybody in the world!”
Those words were met by uproarious cheers from the audience, particularly as the solidarity between the Cree and the FHFN had never been so evident.
Coon Come then took the podium and spoke on behalf of his proud people. After acknowledging many prominent Crees in the audience and his wife, Maryanne, Coon Come congratulated the FHFN for the tremendous work they had carried out in pulling off the Olympics and putting forth Indigenous and traditional culture to the world.
In his address, Coon Come stated, “When we were asked to participate, it was with great honour that we accepted. We felt that we too had the opportunity to show our history, our culture and our way of life to the world. We knew that we could offer something where there is celebration, the spirit of cooperation, where there is no shame to share the spirit of the flame… I am talking about my wife. When you say stuff like that you really bring it home.
“And so I think that the Four Host First Nation have really brought us pride, especially with the opening of the Olympics. When I saw those young people expressing themselves in their own way, dancing around that huge stage that was shaped like a drum, it brought great pride. I am sure not only to the Cree Nation, but also to the Indigenous community.
“And, today we have an opportunity as Crees to show our culture and history. We hope that this will be a memorable one so you are all welcome to come out and join us to see our people sing, dance and share our way of life with you.”
After the ceremony, Coon Come spoke to the Nation about the Crees being at the Olympics. Despite the fact that he had just given one speech and was about to given another on stage at the pavilion, Coon Come said being in that moment almost made him speechless with pride and joy. He also expressed his delight in so many of the Crees being able to take part in the event.
Part of what had led to the Crees coming to the Olympics is their international reputation for being the first Native group in Canada to sign Canada’s first modern treaty, in that vein Coon Come was asked if was bringing any of that experience to other First Nations at the Olympics.
“I think in the spirit of the Olympics we are really trying to showcase our history, our culture, our way of life and who we are. I am trying to stay away from politics but the Olympics are politics.
“It is an opportunity to tell the world what we have done and what we have accomplished and how far one nation can go in nation building if they do not give up and if they have the determination, and the desire just like these athletes out here who are very well disciplined. I think if we stay united we can do things and go places that other people only dream of. I think that we have succeeded as the Crees of northern Quebec,” said Coon Come.
Shortly afterwards, Coon Come took the stage at the first audience in the pavilion for the first showcase which was dedicated to Cree life and survival in the springtime. Each of the four presentations represented a season, beginning with spring.
Coon Come told the first audience, which was comprised of many Crees and also international delegates attending the Olympics who had lined up to get into the prestigious show, that the Crees were there with their youth to honour and show tremendous respect to their heritage.
“My people are hunters, fishermen and trappers. Our culture is thriving and we know who we are. We did not have an identity problem. I think our young people are proud to be able to share what has been passed down to them by their fathers and their mothers, from their grandmothers and grandfathers and from the generations that have left us.
“To the Cree Nation, this is a proud day for us. Like the Olympics, in the spirit of great determination, great discipline and great desire, we the Cree Nation came here with the same spirit, to showcase who we are. To be able to have that opportunity, to tell others of our culture, of our way of life, of who we are,” said Coon Come.
For Cree Day at the Aboriginal Pavilion, the stage was decorated with various arts and crafts from the Cree Nation, including snowshoes, pelts and tamarack decoys. Two Cree Elders, who were making these crafts, sat on the stage towards the back wall and continued to work on their various crafts while the performances went on. At the same time, images of Eeyou Istchee were projected on the pavilion’s inflated dome-shaped ceiling.
CREECO’s Rodney Hester served as an emcee throughout much of the presentations while Cree Native Arts and Crafts Communications and Marketing Director Gaston Cooper shared responsibilities presenting the artists as they took the stage. The performers alternated between performances so that each artist could come on stage fresh and offer something nuanced to each of the seasonally themed presentations.
Elder Thomas Coon served as a storyteller, giving the international delegates a Cree language lesson and telling the story of Cree survival and traditions in each season while images of that season were projected.
Coon told the story of how in 1974 the Cree hunters of Mistissini were asked by outsiders what the best season was to hunt. He said an Elder answered the question by responding that all seasons were good to hunt.
Coon took the stage between the performances to explain different elements of Cree culture and provide some demonstrations. None was more notable than when Drake Bosum, 14 months old, proudly took the stage in traditional regalia to simulate a Walking Out ceremony with his mother, Angel Mianscum, in tow.
After the presentation, Mianscum admitted she was nervous but that it felt great to bring Drake up in front of the world’s audience and show off her culture. She said her son enjoyed the experience more than she expected.
“He had a good time, but he was ready to go right back up on stage,” said Mianscum.
Bosum and Mianscum were not the only ones to take pride on the international stage, award-winning singer-songwriter Melissa Pash was also exuberant about performing at the Olympics.
“I just went up for my first performance of the day and it was magnificent! They were a fun and receptive audience. The dome with the projections was just magical too with what I could see from the stage. It was just as exciting to be on the stage as it was to be observing the stage.
“I sang my song, United, and we projected my new music video simultaneously, which was very exciting,” said Pash.
Though her video had already aired on APTN, Pash said the performance served as a video premiere as it was the first time she had appeared publicly while it played and to have the honour of showing it in that context was an unparallel experience.
For Pash, being in Vancouver wasn’t just about Cree Day but the overall experience and privilege of getting to be at the Games on behalf of the Cree Nation.
“Everyone has been in such a friendly mood, meeting and greeting and just so excited! The energy here is practically tangible with all of the excitement of gathering and meeting new people. We all have this feeling of pride inside. This is one of the most positive experiences I have had where everyone seems to just be on the same positive vibe,” said Pash.
During her final performance at the Aboriginal Pavilion, which was also the fourth showcase that closed up James Bay Cree Day, all of the Cree performers along with Coon Come, members of CNACA and many other Crees all took to the stage to stand behind Pash as she sang.
Cree Nation Youth Ambassador Joshua Iserhoff, who also sang in the showcase, said that though he felt excitement, the whole experience had not yet really hit him despite having already taken to the stage once that day. He said performing felt like an out-of-body experience for him.
“I have performed so many times and I always want to be humble about it to be the best I can be as a Cree artist and to be able to participate in these events. And, they are big events.
“Coming from a humble home, a small community, to be able to go on stage with lots of people, it is home. With the venues I have sang in, it is never an overwhelming experience because I am humbled by it. For me to be here, I am very happy and content. I am so glad that my Crees are around here with me,” said Iserhoff.
For those taking in the performances, there was so much to rejoice in, particularly in cultural pride and how far Canada’s Indigenous population had come. Also in attendance at Cree Day was Willie Littlechild, a Commissioner from Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Littlechild has been serving as an ambassador for the Olympics for the past three years.
“What the Vancouver Olympic Committee has done with the organizing committee, along with the Olympics is actually a big act of reconciliation itself and I say that because they have really involved the participation of Indigenous peoples in a huge way. We see this as a world model of reconciliation,” said Littlechild.
When it was all said and done, Cooper said that with Cree Day they had pulled off a lot more than he had originally expected, despite how little time the event was organized in.
“If I can put it in just a few words, they would be that it was heartwarming and straight from the heart. It was a very emotional event for some of our artists. I think they really put all of their hearts and their energy into their Vancouver 2010 performances and I find that a lot of the artists were very happy with their results.
“I can tell that the public was very moved and touched by what was going on. We talked a lot about our culture. Our Elder, Thomas Coon, really described everything from walking out ceremonies to the other events that take place within our nation, such as our seasonal activities. He talked a lot about what we do on a day-to-day basis in Eeyou Istchee,” said Cooper.
The Youth of the Cree Nation
Cree School Board Chairman Gordon Blackned came to the Vancouver Olympics with the delegation from the CSB. The CSB members were on hand to promote their school system and learn what they could from Vancouver-area schools with high Aboriginal populations.
Blackned said he was proud to have the youth there and was excited for the kids from each community that were selected to go to the Olympics on behalf of the CSB. He explained that those children were chosen because they had performed well academically, had good behaviour and good attendance. Rewarding them with this trip was a way to promote this kind of behaviour amongst the Cree schoolchildren back at home as there will be other trips to other events.
“This trip has not just been for pleasure or leisure, it is a learning experience for them to be a part of something so huge in their young lives. This is the opportunity of a lifetime. We are looking forward to them bringing home a lot of souvenirs, not just materially but in their memories. The things that they have learned and experienced here, they will pass on to their peers in the Cree territory,” said Blackned.
The Cree kids from both the CSB and the CNYC were thrilled to have had the experience of being at Cree Day and to have taken in the many sights, sounds and major events at the Vancouver Olympic Games.
Donnie Neposh from Waswanipi said he was having a great time in Vancouver.
“My favourite part so far is Cree Day, the feeling is unexplainable. It is really a lot of fun and you get to meet a lot of people,” said Neposh.
“I think it is fantastic to let other people know that there are other Crees, Natives, in other provinces so it was really amazing,” said Dana Kakabat, a student from Wemindji.
During their time in Vancouver, the kids, along with their chaperones, managed to take in some of the very best of the games. The kids were able to attend a Victory Ceremony at BC Place where some of the athletes were awarded their medals. The event was preceded by a concert put on by the Barenaked Ladies.
Sarah, a 17-year-old student from Wemindji, said that witnessing the Victory Ceremony had inspired her to become a better hockey player back home.
“I look at this and know that this could be me (a medal-winning athlete) if I wanted it. They are just like us but they have worked all of their lives to be here and do this. It is really amazing,” said Sarah.
According to Interim Youth Chief Joey Blacksmith going to the Olympics has left its imprint on the youth who were lucky enough to attend.
“I think that it is great that they get to see the Olympics because it is a once in a lifetime opportunity to get to go to an event like this. I am sure this trip is something that will really broaden their minds. I know they are going to enjoy this and will be talking about it with their children and even their grandchildren one day. Coming here is something that these youth are going to cherish,” said Blacksmith.
Many of the kids and their youth council chaperones had the opportunities not only to attend the Victory Ceremony but to also attend one or two Olympic hockey games, explore urban Vancouver, take a gondola ride up Grouse Mountain and even get into some hardcore Olympic pin trading.
Blacksmith said attending the Victory Ceremony and concert was amazing for the kids as many of them had never been to anything like it in a place as large as BC Place.
While the Grand Council was able to obtain tickets for the kids to attend the Germany vs. Sweden hockey game through the Olympic committee, many of them really wanted to see Team Canada play. Though it was not in their budget, Blacksmith told the kids to call their local Youth Councils to see if they could be sponsored to see Team Canada play Norway and the successful ones managed to score the coveted tickets.
In terms of how life changing this event was for them, Blacksmith said one student from Mistissini, Warren Mattawashish, who was quite shy during the earlier part of the trip, really came out of his shell to embrace Vancouver. At the end of the trip, Blacksmith said Mattawashish was even asking about how he might able to attend college there after he finishes high school.
While in Vancouver, Blacksmith said the kids also attended Métis Day at the Aboriginal Pavilion, go to a fashion show that featured creations by Kaigani Haida designer Dorothy Grant and Mohawk designer Tammy Beauvais, and soak up lots of Vancouver culture.
The Aboriginal Business Showcase
Just down the street from the Aboriginal Pavilion, the Aboriginal Business Showcase was being held at the Vancouver Community College.
Throughout the showcase, Aboriginal businesses and artisans lined the two-storey hall to sell their wares and display how some of these traditional crafts were made as well as to raise their profiles and drum up new business.
Both CREECO and representatives from their entities along with Mistissini’s Eskan Company had their own separate booths to introduce themselves to the world.
Rodney Hester, Business Development Coordinator for CREECO, was at the showcase the day after having taken the stage at the Aboriginal Pavilion.
According to Hester, the showcase was an ideal venue for CREECO and its subsidiaries to present themselves because at this point in time they are all looking to expand and not wanting to limit their business solely within Eeyou Istchee. Staff was also on hand from Air Creebec, Cree Construction, ADC and Valpiro.
More so than anything, Hester said that, like in many of their experiences across Canada, other First Nations groups and people from around the world are all interested in the CREECO story, from its origins in the 1970s to its formation in the 1980s. He said this is because there is no other story like it in Canadian First Nations history.
“I think sometimes it takes somebody on the outside to remind us of that because when we see it every day and are part of it every day, there is a tendency to lose the excitement about it. We are getting people from the outside who don’t know us saying that we have something really good here,” said Hester.
CREECO had selected one employee from each of their entities to attend and present and answer questions about their respective business at the show. Those selected were chosen because of their dedication to their jobs and their many years of service to reward them for their efforts.
“This is a great experience to be here at the Olympics and having the Crees at this kind of event is excellent because people from around the world can see us,” said Daniel Collin from Valpiro.
His colleague, Chantal Arbour from Cree Construction, said she felt like she had won an award to have had the privilege to represent the company at such a prestigious event.
For CREECO President Jack Blacksmith, Cree participation at any of the events was positive.
“We were very pleased initially to have been invited by the Four Host First Nations to be part of the showcase. I was very surprised to say the least as I had only anticipated that we would be part of Cree Day and the cultural aspect of the show. We were tremendously pleased and happy to be a part of the showcase,” said Blacksmith.
The opportunity to raise CREECO’s public profile also fit perfectly with the new strategic plan that they have been working on as talking to people from across Canada and around the world is a great way to get the name out there.
“When you look at the whole situation in terms of CREECO, when CREECO was born in the mid-’80s, I think that people generally assumed that we would only stay within the Cree world. I think we have come to understand as business people, that staying within our own world will only get us so far. Our world is very small compared to the entire world and if you want to go out into the rest of Canada to do business, you have to have vision. You have to be able to say to yourself that you want to expand your company.
“You always have to be open to new things, new ideas and new challenges in terms of a business and that is what CREECO has done. We are doing a bit of business in Manitoba, we are talking to people in the Northwest Territories about new business opportunities, though there might be a setback at the moment, we are still in talks. We have even been in talks with certain groups in Labrador. So, we are still very much going outside of our world to expand and create more business for our operations,” said Blacksmith.
Over at the Eskan table, James Lazore was manning the booth to inform the public about the Mistissini-based holding company and what their businesses do.
Lazore was particularly anxious to talk about the incredible deal the Cree Nation had struck with Sodexco Canada to have Cree workers employed in food service and housekeeping services within the Olympic village throughout the duration of the Olympic Games and the Paralympics Games.
According to Lazore, though Eskan made the deal through Sodexco, the work program would never have happened had it not been for wage subsidies provided through Cree Human Resources Development.
“They made an incredible contribution to the project and we couldn’t have done it without their help,” said Lazore.
Lazore said that being able to showcase the Eskan businesses signified just how ready they are as a company to be at the forefront on behalf of the Cree Nation of Mistissini.
“The impact of this will be that we are showing the world that First Nations can operate businesses all across Canada and that First Nations can take those opportunities to work in any new development together as partners. We are no longer victims, if you will.
“At the Eskan Company, we are looking at perhaps even taking a different role whether it be financing or sharing business relationships outside of Quebec. We are definitely open to working outside of the province because in this unique situation we are providing value to Sodexo Canada. In turn, we are going to be future developers of this kind of service.”