Ashley Iserhoff launches campaign for Grand Chief
After two terms as Deputy Grand Chief, Ashley Iserhoff is now bidding for the top job at the Cree Grand Council. Iserhoff is challenging Matthew Coon Come for the position of Grand Chief in the July 15 Grand Council elections.
The Nation spoke to the experienced but still-youthful Cree politician to find out why he believes he should be the next Grand Chief.
The Nation (TN): Remind the public of your lengthy political experience: what other positions have you held?
Ashley Iserhoff (AI): I started off with the Cree Nation Youth Council (CNYC) in 1988 and from there I became the president of my student council in Montreal. I came back home after I finished high school and became a CNYC member again and then later became Youth Chief. I was eventually elected to the Council of Mistissini and I did that for eight years, serving as Deputy Chief there as well. Eventually I became Youth Grand Chief.
Following that, I took a few years off from office but then I ran for Deputy Grand Chief and won, serving as Deputy to then Grand Chief Matthew Mukash and I am now just finishing off my second term with Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come.
TN: I remember that, in the last election, you originally wanted to run for Grand Chief but wound up running for Deputy instead. What is different this time?
AI: It all has to do with what our Nation has accomplished. The late Billy Diamond said in a video that we have developed our communities in a way that we have grown our economies and developed our infrastructure but we really need to build our people up. I agree with this.
I have a strong belief in our people. We have people of all ages going to universities and colleges with the goal of coming back to our communities to help our Nation and I really want to make sure that these people come back and that we are able to use their service.
There has been a huge dependency on consultants and now we need to utilize our people to help our people.
A lot of the areas where we depend on consultants are ones where we have capable people already who can do these jobs and so we need to use our own people here.
We have to build our people up and encourage them to pursue higher education so that we have Crees going into areas like nursing, medicine, law and engineering, as we really need professionals in the Cree nation.
We have to build these opportunities for them and when it comes to mentoring them, allowing them to be part of our Nation’s growth.
TN: But what about those who are not able to pursue these professional goals if they may have lower reading levels due to previous problems within the school system when it came to language transmission?
AI: Education starts at home and with mom and dad. It is up to them to start their children off right and help them achieve their education goals.
At the same time, I recognize that there was a period in time within the Cree School Board where the curriculum that was being used was not meeting the needs of the individuals. There were a few things that needed to be addressed by the school board and they are working on that right now to address the education shortfalls so that the curriculum better fits the needs of the students.
There was a time when a lot of people fell through the cracks of the system but now is a time when we should really be trying to bring them back into the school system so that they can meet their education goals.
There are many stories about people who have struggled and did not have the support that they needed when they went to school but returned later on in life to complete their education.
We need to make sure that our children and our youth know the value of the education that they are getting. We are able to muster a great deal of enthusiasm and passion for other areas, especially for things like hockey. We need to show the same passion for education.
We need to make sure that we are focusing on the right things for your children and our youth.
TN: This has been a period of intensive negotiations between the Cree and Quebec, particularly where it comes to development in the north. How do you plan to carry on these negotiations?
AI: I have been involved with the GCC for the last eight years and so I have a well-established and strong working relationship with the federal and provincial governments as well as several MNAs and MPs so I can say that this work will continue.
With the negotiations that have been happening I can say that we are close to finalizing a great deal of them.
The message is clear, we will make sure that the work will continue despite the fact that there may be a change in leadership; it does not mean that things will change radically right away.
Even though people might be afraid of change in terms of leadership, I think that the opportunity needs to be given. I believe that it was Justin Trudeau who said at our roundtable discussions in Ottawa that it is time to trust our young people to take lead.
TN: Give us an example of an area that you have championed or negotiated on behalf of the GCC or a scenario where you have really shined?
AI: I don’t like taking credit for things. All of the accomplishments that we have made here are things that we have done together as a Nation. We receive our directions and our guidance from the Cree people through consultation.
The work that we have done as leaders has all come from the people and they are the ones who have championed these causes and the things that we have accomplished as a Nation. So, I don’t want to take personal credit for this as I believe and have always believed that it was the people’s decisions and the people’s guidance that have provided the tools and the ideas to pave the way for our agreements and ensure a future for our children.
Everything we have done we have done as a Nation.
TN: The current role of a Cree leader isn’t just about building up its people, another essential part of it is standing on guard for the rights of the Cree people, how would you fight for your people?
AI: I will give you an example. A couple of years ago at one of the AGAs (Annual General Assembly) I brought up the issue of uranium mining in Eeyou Istchee before we ever started looking at passing a resolution about it.
I said that the Nation needed to stand up against uranium mining on our territory and what it could potentially do to us as Crees through the long-term impacts on our land. This project could have major consequences for both the people and the environment.
I said over and over again that whatever decisions we were going to make on that day would have to take our future generations into account.
This is the concern I have when it comes to any kind of development on our territory – what will it mean for our descendants? We need to make sure that whatever decisions we make are done through proper consultations throughout our nation and do not impact future generations negatively.
TN: Would you have a particular economic plan to implement as Grand Chief?
AI: For sure: it is to have a self-sustaining economy.
A fantastic example of this is the Tim Hortons that just opened up in Mistissini in April. It created 40 new jobs locally and I think that a lot of Crees want to have their own opportunities to run businesses within the communities because it provides jobs and fuels the local economy so that these jobs are secure.
Rather than meeting our needs with sources from outside of our communities, we need to support local businesses. I know that we have created a fund where these local businesses can be supported at the CRA level. This is really important to us as a people because we want to be around our families to watch our children grow up and take part in our communities and supporting local economies is all part of that.
I am not a businessperson but it is the business community that is the one that takes the lead when it comes to our economy and plays a major role in whatever doors we can open as leaders. It is because of them that our economy is strong. We have had a long history of a sustainable economy. We have done it before, we are doing it today and we will continue to do it in the future.
TN: What can you do at the helm of the Cree Nation that currently isn’t being done?
AI: One thing that I am very passionate about is our Nation’s youth and I think that our youth are really struggling to be heard. In every election there is a lot of campaigning about youth and listening to the voices of our youth, but does this really happen?
When the elections are over it seems as though the needs of the youth once again fall on deaf ears. This really concerns me. We have to address their concerns and carry through with this.
At the same time, we have to empower them and work with them to help them get what they want and teach them how to take on these responsibilities; how to work for it and how to take on initiative. Mentoring projects are very important.
I have been part of the CNYC and when I was there, we worked on projects to get dialysis treatments that are happening now in the inland communities. Our Nation came together for this and I think it is very important for our youth to stand for something like this.
The Journey of Nishyiuu is a prime example of where young people took the lead and said that they were going to do something big and then did it.
I would really like to help our youth and show them that if they can dream it, they can become it.
I appreciate all of the work that has been done in the last era of the Cree Nation but I think that this is the beginning of a new era. We need to change the way things are and the way we develop as a Nation. We have done incredibly well but there is still much work to be done. There’s a housing crisis and a number of social concerns, including drug and alcohol addiction. We need to pay more attention to these issues.
As leaders we need to take responsibility and make sure that the voice of the people is being heard and as leaders, we have to come up with solutions.