Darlene Cheechoo, elected Chief of Waskaganish August 26 with close to 80% of the vote, is the first woman to lead her community. But she’s no stranger to leadership: she was a commissioner to the Cree School Board and a representative on the Board of Compensation for the community before she becoming Chairperson of the BoC and President of Creeco.
“I’ve always had a heart for our people, and for service,” she told the Nation. “I was always encouraged by my parents to give back. When I decided to go out for schooling, they supported me 100%. Part of that was that they wanted me to return home to help the people.”
She went first to Ottawa, then to Queen’s University in Kingston before getting a Master’s degree in Los Angeles. She then returned home to the James Bay region, where she began her rise to prominence. Her next challenge is guiding the development of Waskaganish over the next four years.
“I’m no different than any other chief, and our communities have the same struggles,” she said. “For some, it’s more evident than others, because of our population. Housing is always an issue. Social issues are very key as well. There’s such a broad range of issues that I want to deal with, but I think every other community faces these as well. And not only First Nation communities have social issues.”
Non-Native communities, she noted, often have large populations distributed over a vast geographical area, making their social problems less easy to notice.
However, in Eeyou Istchee, she said, “We’re very linked: if one of our community members is not doing well, there’s a ripple effect. So if we address some of our social issues and decrease that negative ripple effect, my hope is our people will become stronger, and we will be united in our efforts and press forward in making our community a great place to live. I think it will increase our quality of life here.”
Another ripple effect she hopes to set off is encouraging the community’s economy in a way that will create decent and lasting jobs.
“An issue there is building capacity,” noted Cheechoo. “If we’re going to have a good economy and create jobs, our young people need to have the capacity to fill those jobs. That’s very important.”
That’s why she hopes to encourage young people throughout her mandate to prepare themselves to take on leadership roles.
“Should I not be successful years down the road,” she said, “then someone else can take over the mantle. I want to ensure young people have the skills, knowledge, and experience to do so. When I’m an old lady, I know that I can have full faith and confidence in our young people to deliver services and provide leadership – to take care of our issues in our communities.”
Cheechoo emphasized her optimism for the future of Waskaganish, which she noted is a very historical community, having made the first contact with European sailors centuries ago.
“Even before the election process, I felt a peace and a calm. I believe that our people are hopeful, and I’m hopeful and grateful for our future. I’m very positive. I think when your leadership has positive attitudes, our people can sense it.” She acknowledged her predecessors on council, saying that they have delivered Waskaganish to its present-day position.
“What I want to emphasize,” she concluded, “is how I would like our people to be strong and united. I would love our Nation to be prosperous and self-reliant. I want to see that our people are being a blessing to each other, and to others – our brothers and sisters in other Eeyou Istchee communities and other First Nations. Also to the province, to our nation, and internationally. I’m not limiting the scope in which we would like to work.”