Hotly contested run-off elections July 26 for the top two spots on the Grand Council of the Crees resulted in the re-election of Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come and a victory for former Wemindji Chief Rodney Mark in his bid to become the new Deputy Grand Chief.
The Nation spoke with the winners and their run-off opponents: former Deputy Grand Chief Ashley Iserhoff, who challenged Coon Come for the top job; and Linda Lillian Shecapio, who finished 400 votes behind Mark in the second-round ballot for Deputy. The four candidates reflected on the campaign, the results and the future political challenges for the Cree Nation.
Matthew Coon Come
Matthew Coon Come: Over the last four years we have undertaken several ambitious and innovative initiatives. What comes to mind is our Governance Agreement and our opposition to uranium mining. Very often, with innovation comes certain risks – risks that the people we serve might not find these innovations in keeping with their values and not in keeping with their visions of the future. For me, this election represents a confirmation that we have been on track and the things we have done are in keeping with our people’s expectations of us as their leaders.
These elections also took place against a backdrop of important events that were taking place on the national stage. We had the Idle No More Movement, the hunger strike of Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence and we had the remarkable march of our own Nishiyuu walkers. Important issues were raised nationally and all these ideas were swirling around as our own elections were taking place. The fact that we were re-elected in this context represents, for me, a vindication and affirmation that we have been leading in accordance with the highest aspirations and the highest ideals among our own people and also among Indigenous peoples across the country.
TN: What remarks would you like to pass along to those you ran with?
MCC: Very often, over the course of the election campaign, I said that to achieve the goal of a strong Indigenous Nation we will require all of us working together. We will require all of us striving to be the best we can be in our chosen fields, and all of us working to make a real contribution to the building of the Cree Nation. When I say that we will now need everyone’s contribution to the mission of continuing to build the Cree Nation, this includes my fellow candidates as well.
So, I say to them that their nation needs them. There are many ways to make a contribution to that goal and even though they were not successful in their quest for the role of Grand Chief I would encourage them to apply their skills, their values and their commitment to continue the journey of the Cree Nation. We cannot afford to have anyone feel alienated or apart from this important journey, especially when they have so much to offer. I would also say the same thing to those candidates who were not successful in their bids to become Deputy Grand Chief. We need you all.
TN: What would you like to say to those who voted you back in?
MCC: What I would say to those who voted for us to continue our leadership, and what I would say to all those who participated in the election, is that there is no more humbling an experience than to obtain the confidence and the respect of your own people. Through this election you have expressed your trust in the path that we have taken over the past four years and you have expressed your wish to see the mission of building a proud, a prosperous and healthy Cree Nation continue. For this I am deeply and humbly grateful. I promise that the vision that we have been working hard to bring into reality will remain in our hearts and in our minds and will continue to sustain us and to guide us.
TN: What are the most important things on your to-do list and short-term goals?
MCC: During the campaign I announced a platform that described the important issues that we need to focus on to continue building the Cree Nation. Some of these issues require our attention in the short term while others, though no less important, are more long term in nature.
In the short term, we need to move forward on the effective implementation of the Governance Agreement. We need to work on the enhancement of our Cree Nation government regarding our new responsibilities on Category II lands, both in terms of structures and personnel. We will also need to work on the establishment of the new regional government.
One of the key pillars in my election platform was to encourage and support our youth to bring their energies and talents to the task of Cree Nation-building. Following on the success of the Roundtable on Cree Capacity-Building, we will bring the message of that important event to all Cree youth.
We will take the message to the communities’ youth that the future depends on them and they must prepare themselves, and also, that we will be there to support them.
We will be coming forward with an approach to addressing the housing shortfall in our communities. This is now our responsibility and we will solve it ourselves.
We will continue to do what needs to be done to protect the land and our people from uranium mining. We will remain vigilant and make sure that nothing is done at the level of the mining companies or the governments, which could jeopardize our position on this important issue.
During the campaign, I said that as we move forward in building the Cree Nation we would leave no one behind. There are a number of groups in this category. In the short term, we will focus on moving the agenda forward on Washaw Sibi. The community is now in the process of selecting a site for the new village and we will be there to support them and help them to achieve their dream of having their own home.
TN: And what will you be adding as long-term goals?
MCC: There are a number of initiatives described in our election platform which could be called long term. By calling them “long term,” it doesn’t mean that we will only start working on them some time down the road. We call them “long term” only because it may take a bit longer to achieve them, but we will start working on them immediately. In reality, everything is short term.
We will start working to develop some innovative and pioneering approaches to deal with the serious social problems in our communities. As a beginning we must acknowledge the social problems in our communities. We will appeal to individuals, families and our communities to acknowledge the problems so that effective solutions can be identified. We will need healthy families and healthy communities if we hope to build a healthy nation.
In the area of economic development, we must ensure that our people are prepared to take advantage of the economic opportunities coming from all of our agreements and all the resource development that will be taking place within Eeyou Istchee.
Whether we are talking about youth, young adults or older adults, we will continue to emphasize the importance of human-resource development so that we can become the major economic and political force in the region. This is our long-term goal.
Because we have been successful in our pioneering work in translating our Aboriginal rights into tangible benefits for our people, many of us feel a sense of responsibility toward our Aboriginal brothers and sisters across the country as they struggle to assert their Aboriginal rights. We will reach out and offer our help to those First Nations and nations that are grappling with the same issues we have faced in the past. We will share our experiences and offer our advice where it is asked for and where it is appropriate. This will be our way of giving back.
TN: Is there anything else you would like to say?
MCC: I would just like to say a few words about elections. In addition to elections being the way in which people can express their views about their leaders, and in addition to providing the means for bringing about change when that is desired, elections can also be an opportunity to renew our sense of purpose and to renew our sense of unity. Although we may have different perspectives and different viewpoints, elections remind us that we are all in this together and they remind us that our unity is more important than the different views we may have. This was really at the heart of the message that our Nishiyuu walkers reminded us of this past spring.
Our Nishiyuu walkers brought this message from Eeyou Istchee to Canada and around the world. I would like to say to the people of Eeyou Istchee, let us now come full circle and remind ourselves of this important message. As we embark on the continuation of our journey to build the Cree Nation let us, together and in unity, commit to encouraging each other to be the best we can be. Let us commit to encouraging and supporting our youth to dream big dreams and to achieve beyond their dreams. Let us, together and in unity, enter the future with a sense of mission and purpose. This will be the best legacy we can leave for the next generation. Meegwetch.
Rodney Mark: I wish to thank everyone who voted. My warmest regards to all the candidates – I know how challenging this was. Please don’t lose that excitement; other adventures will come. I want to express my deepest thanks to the individuals who nominated me and to those who believe in the issues I addressed during my campaign. Thank you so much.
TN: Do you have any reflections on your campaign that you would like to share? And, was there anything special that happened along the way that will influence your thinking as you begin your new position?
RM: I am grateful. I believe we have a lot of people in our communities who care about our nation and our communities and entities. People want clean and safe communities. A reflection of all of this is the excitement people had about what is possible in our communities and what we can do.
TN: How will you be implementing your campaign promises?
RM: I didn’t make any promises. However, I brought up issues that need to be put as a priority for our communities. A team approach is how I plan to do implement them.
TN: What excites you most about becoming Deputy Grand Chief?
RM: What is exciting about this is working with the Grand Chief, the chiefs on the Grand Council and the Cree Regional Authority directors. I can’t wait to get going.
TN: What is your plan to support the Grand Chief?
RM: Team approach is the plan. This is how I worked as a chief and that’s way I plan to achieve my goals and the Grand Chief’s goals.
TN: Is there anything you would like to add?
RM: Our lives are awesome. We should have awesome lives. Let’s build a kickass Nation.
Ashley Iserhoff: The campaign was interesting. I had a great time going out to the communities and being involved in the debates and being able to share my ideas with the people. This is something that I will always remember.
Wherever I went, I always had someone to talk to and it was great to have them share their ideas with me and to be in continuing service to the Cree Nation.
The loss was something that was pretty well expected. I began to see that there was a movement to ensure that there was continuity in terms of the work that was already being done. That was the message that I was getting.
In terms of being out of office now, when I woke up the morning after the election, I expressed a big sigh of relief. The responsibilities I had as Deputy Grand Chief were a lot and I knew that I would have been dealing with a lot more had I become Grand Chief. So, I am very happy that the election is over and I look forward to all of the other new opportunities that will be coming my way soon.
TN: How many years have you spent in public office now?
AI: As Deputy Grand Chief I was in for eight years and then I was involved locally with the Youth Council – it’s been about 25 years in total.
TN: Could you see this as a sign from above that maybe it’s time to do something different?
AI: I have always had dreams. Serving the Cree Nation has been an honour and a privilege. Whenever I spoke in schools, I would tell the youth that there are over 7 billion people in the world and so the world is waiting for them to get out and see it. Don’t limit themselves to Eeyou Istchee, but show the world what their talents are.
Age should never be a barrier. When you limit yourself with a number, you are just limiting your potential. I have a lot of things to look forward to. It may not be within the Cree Nation, instead I may be doing something for the outside. This is something that I have talked to the young people about, their chance to get outside of the Cree Nation.
At the moment I have the opportunity to do a Master’s program to finish my degree in Public Administration and they would take into consideration all of my years of public service. I studied Public Administration with several professors who had come up to Mistassini nine years ago. While I started this back then, a year into it I was elected as Deputy Grand Chief and so I couldn’t continue to work on the degree.
In the past, there were misconceptions about me and my education as there were lots of rumours circulating that I had never completed high school, which isn’t true. I did.
Rumours are pretty nasty, but they are just rumours.
During the election there were rumours that came about both Matthew and I and at the time I was flabbergasted. There were people I met face-to-face who had written things about me (on Facebook) who wouldn’t say something to me.
TN: What would you like to say to the Crees who voted for you?
AI: I would like to thank them. I would like to thank not just my supporters, but also everyone in the Cree Nation who was so very passionate about this election. There passion inspired a lot of discussions and I hope these discussions continue.
Just because there is an election happening, that does not mean that this should be the only time when people get involved. The work doesn’t finish at the end of a general assembly or community meeting. People need to be passionate and continue to be passionate about the various endeavours happening throughout the nation and these are things that need to be remembered.
The Cree School Board needs help from parents and with all of the social stuff we are going through, we really need help there. We shouldn’t be waiting for the person who is in power to do something for us, we need to get out there and do these things too and get involved. This was something I really learned during my eight years as Deputy.
TN: You really inspired passion in so many, how did it feel to ride this wave?
AI: It was quite an experience to be able to inspire (people). I have always believed that my parents have been my best support and they were a huge support of me in this endeavour. I want to thank them for that as well as my brothers, my nieces and nephews and my friends. They have all been there for me since day one when I was Deputy Grand Chief and in other positions too.
I don’t think I would ever be able to do what I did before if it wasn’t for all of the support and encouraging words that I was given by my loved ones and friends. I will always remember all of the stuff that I learned from our people. And I will always remember all of the meetings I sat in, both formal and informal, as well as the sittings down with Elders.
What I have learned over the years has had and will continue to have such an impact on my life. I will use the teachings of our people wherever I go.
TN: Is this it for you and politics?
AI: I don’t know. You try to do good and you try to do as much as you can in politics, but I find that no matter what you do, people always try to find ways to make you look bad.
TN: This is public life though.
AI: Yes, I know that there was a focus on my love of travel and how I would spend a few days here and there wherever I went. I found that there was a huge spotlight on that.
Yet, when I tweeted out where I was for meetings and all of the other successful stuff that we accomplished and all of the great things we were doing as a nation, there was never much attention given to that.
I am used to public life and the ridicule and the accusations that comes with it, but for right now I would like my life to focus on something else.
If my dreams do come true and that door opens for me, I am going to go for it.
If I were ever asked to run again, I would really have to think about it because of what has happened with this last experience. I don’t really know if I want to go through this again. I want to focus my energies on things that are good and I want to do something different.
TN: Any short-term and long-term goals?
AI: Right now, I will probably take a month off and look at the opportunities that are out there for me. I have to evaluate where I want to go and what I want to do.
I have always enjoyed speaking and motivating people to do well and so this is something that is also a possibility for me. My new website may just open up this door for me.
I am not limiting myself to doing something local either, I would like to go world wide with this. I have spoken at schools in the Cree Nation and in Toronto. It looks very promising and I have a lot of support.
I want to go wherever I can go to inspire people. Where I am invited I will go. My life in politics has temporarily come to an end, but I will continue to find other ways to help people.
Linda Lillian Shecapio
Linda Lillian Shecapio: My experience in running for the Deputy Grand Chief has indeed brought more abundance and enriched my life and I had the privilege to connect and interact with the grassroots of Eeyou Istchee. It has provided me with greater depth of understanding, in terms of their multiplex and unique challenges that they face in their respective communities. I can now say, the majority of the Cree Nation now knows me and has heard my message for healing needed in Eeyou Istchee, in which I was amazed with the support I received. Overall, my heart was open and receptive to all good throughout my experience and it has provided me more supportive and nourishing choices, as I continue healing in my life for a peaceful, healthy and happy one. I am enjoying the feeling of just letting me be who I am.
TN: Do you think you would you run again?
LLS: It was an exciting run in the run-off elections. Foremost, when I accepted my nomination, I went in there with love and acceptance. Acceptance is giving ourselves and others the ability to just be. I also believed that Chimaandou/Creator already chose the two leaders beforehand, in which I am really grateful for my peaceful journey and humbleness throughout the whole election process.
At this point in my life, I ran twice in elections at the local and regional level, and it provided me with wonderful experiences, and I was courageous enough to give it a shot at the regional level. However, I believe that this is a sign for me to go and discover my other opportunities, other than politics. I strongly believe that Chimaandou/Creator has other plans for me, for whatever my life purpose may be.
I will leave you all with this positive note that, in trying times, these are stepping stones towards one’s life purpose and acknowledging more of one’s powerful gifts, as one co-creates his/her life and for the discovery of higher self. In all experiences, there is always a hidden inside every lesson… it is the being of willing to change.
TN: Is there anything you would like to say to the other candidates?
LLS: To our chosen leaders – congratulations to Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come and Deputy Grand Chief Rodney Mark, I believe that they are both remarkable men and they will be a great team, along with all our Chiefs and Council Board members of Eeyou Istchee. I simply wish them the very best and whatever the experiences they may encounter, only affirm that good will come. I also know that both of our leaders are supported and loved by their beautiful wives. From this support and guidance will embark both men towards their commitment and responsibility in Eeyou Istchee. May Chimaandou/Creator continue to bless you in abundance and guide you and your families in the positive direction for all your actions and commitment towards Eeyou Istchee.
TN: What are your plans for the future?
LLS: Presently, I am back in action at the Cree Women of Eeyou Istchee Association to complete my contract work with them in Gatineau, Quebec. On a personal note, throughout my healing journey, it has tremendously grounded me with inner peace and I choose not to worry but to live in the moment because it is what makes my life beautiful and lovable. Recently, I was given a spirit name, “Queshquen-sqwueh” meaning “Cloud Woman,” which I am yet to discover and to be guided towards my life purpose. I will continue to advocate those issues (my campaign platform) that are set in my heart.
However, in the meantime, I will continue to knock on the many available doors of the Cree organizations and entities for consulting services, as my heart is for my people of Eeyou Istchee. But I also plan to expand my horizons to other organizations in the Ottawa-Gatineau area and beyond.
What I know for sure, I will have to re-visit my vision board. Like I mentioned, I am not worried at all… I honestly feel there is something extraordinary coming my way. With acceptance, I believe that I am where I am meant to be in time and space. All is well… all in Chimaandou’s/Creator’s timing.
Once again, Misti-Meegwetch to all my supporters and encouragers! Love you all.