As the election race for the positions of Grand Chief and Deputy Grand Chief heats up, more candidates accept our invitation to speak about their dreams for the future.

With perspectives from just about every point on the spectrum, some of these candidates have already run governments while others have had a hand in running smaller organizations and departments.

Which of the various candidates will be the new Cree leadership duo is a question for the Cree people to decide. To help this process along, the Nation presents interviews with the remaining candidates for the 2013 leadership race.

Matthew Coon Come

Grand Chief candidate

Tell me about you first and your career/political history.

MCC: At the start of my political career, I served two terms as Chief of the Mistissini First Nation. During my tenure as Chief, Mistissini had a new arena, an adult education centre, a bank, new administrative offices, new health facilities, and major improvements to its housing and community infrastructure. I decided then to leave for a while so I could work with my father on his trapline.

After spending considerable time with my father, I became Executive Director of the Grand Council. I was first elected as Grand Chief of the Grand Council of the Crees and Chairman of the Cree Regional Authority in 1987, and served for four terms of office. During that time, I was directly involved in the Grand Council’s successful effort to gain consultative status at the United Nations, and supported the Grand Council’s use of its international status to being issues vital to all of the world’s indigenous peoples before the international community. I also led the successful Cree campaign against the Great Whale River hydroelectric project.

While Grand Chief, I insisted that the voice of Eeyou Istchee be clearly heard in all constitutional processes, and I organized nationwide and international support for the right of Aboriginal peoples in Quebec to choose our own political future if Quebec tries to take Aboriginal peoples and lands out of Canada. When the rights of all of the Aboriginal peoples in Quebec were endangered by the 1995 Quebec Referendum, I insisted on respect for the Cree right of self-determination through our own historic Special Referendum.

I always insisted that the question of Cree rights needed to be central to all of our political positions. I brought this same message to the national stage when I became National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations from 2000 to 2003. I focused my efforts to end the federal policy of extinguishment of Aboriginal peoples’ human rights of self determination.

I returned to Eeyou Istchee in 2009 and was again honoured by our people to once again serve as Grand Chief. It was my belief at that time that there was unfinished business in fulfilling the Cree vision of nation building. I believed that we needed to get back on track to fulfill that important vision which was vital to our future as an indigenous Nation. I said that we needed to abolish MBJ and put into place a new governance regime which reflected the reality of the Cree presence in the territory and that is what we have done.

Why do you want to run?

MCC: There are important things that still need to be accomplished which are related to fulfilling the Cree vision of nation building. We are now in a critical phase in our nation building agenda. We need to ensure the proper implementation of our Governance Agreement and put into place the various new organizational structures that will be required. On the Cree side, our Cree Nation Government will be exercising new powers and jurisdictions over our Category II lands, approximately 70,000 square kilometres. We need to be prepared and we need to do that properly. We will be establishing a new regional government in which we will be playing an important role in exercising powers over Category III lands, some 350,000 square kilometres. We need to prepare ourselves for that as well. The next few years will be critical to the success of our governance initiatives.

We need to make sure that Cree people ourselves are prepared to take on these new challenges in a way that will help us work toward the achievement of our objectives and visions. In particular, we need to focus on inspiring, encouraging and supporting our youth to make their contribution to this noble Cree vision.

All this will require focused and experienced leadership and I have made this a priority for me personally, as a citizen of Eeyou Istchee, as well as a political objective if I am re-elected as Grand Chief.

What can you do for the Cree Nation that others can’t?

MCC: It really isn’t the Cree way to answer a question like that. I will not say that I am better than any other candidate nor will I imply that others are not capable. We will need all the talent and skills of all the people of the Cree Nation to accomplish the vision of Cree nation building, including the other candidates. We will need them. I can only show what I have accomplished and that I have a vision of what the next four years should be like and what we need to do to get there. I will explain to people the depth of my commitment to achieving a very long-held Cree vision of becoming the “masters of our own destiny.” The people will decide the rest. It is for the people of Eeyou Istchee to answer that question.

Give me your thoughts on an issue like education. There are many Crees with lower reading levels or who have dropped out. How would you address education for the Cree youth and adults?

MCC: Education, training and skills development will be critical to the success of our nation-building vision. I am pleased that our Cree School Board has begun to show more successful results than in the past, and we must not only build on that but we must also develop new and innovative ways of ensuring that our youth and our adults are in a position to make positive contributions to the goal of making the Cree Nation the major economic and political force in Northern Quebec. The only way to do that is to learn to master the tools of governance and to further develop our economic development capacities.

It is precisely for this reason that I authorized the Cree Roundtable on Capacity-Building. This past spring we brought together Cree post-secondary students to inspire them to stay in school and to acquire the skills and education so that we can take the next step in Cree Nation-building. In a very real way, the success of all our historic agreements to date rests on our ability to take advantage of the opportunities created by those agreements. The realization of the dreams contained in those agreements will rest with the next generation who will need to rise to the occasion and make those dreams a reality.

What is your plan to stimulate the economy in Eeyou Istchee?

MCC: In the area of economic development my plan for moving forward has three major thrusts. First, as our involvement in the governance of the region increases there will be a great need for our people to become involved in the technical realities of land-use planning and environmental management. There will be new employment related to the increase of Cree jurisdiction throughout the territory. This new employment will be in addition to the employment opportunities that will continue to be available to our people in our various Cree entities.

Second, we know that resource development will continue to expand in Northern Quebec and we will need to be a part of that to ensure that there is adequate protection of the environment, to ensure that our communities participate, and to ensure that our Cree people benefit from that resource development. In addition to mining development, there will be development in other sectors as well including tourism, forestry, energy, biofood production, transportation, wildlife, protected areas, and a number of others. These are all sectors that we are interested in as well, and we will continue to explore opportunities in all of them. We are also very interested in the different kinds of infrastructure projects that will be needed to promote these sectors. We will need to be involved and we will need to benefit from them, while at the same time, ensuring that development will be sustainable and in keeping with our approach to social acceptability.

Thirdly, we will, over the next few years expand and fully develop the role of the Cree Development Corporation in relation to development activities within Eeyou Istchee. This entity will become the major economic development arm of the Cree Nation and will allow us to fully participate in the development of our region. It will be through this important entity that we will be able to take advantage of opportunities within our territory and to create the employment and income that our people will increasingly require. We are preparing ourselves to become the major economic force in the region.

Is there anything that you would like to see happen for the health of the Cree Nation, given that there is still a diabetes epidemic happening and many are also suffering from other illnesses related to obesity?

MCC: I have always maintained that our success in building a dynamic and healthy Cree Nation requires that we have a solid foundation to build that Nation on. We need to have healthy individuals, healthy families and healthy communities – healthy in body, healthy in mind and healthy in spirit. If the foundation of a house is not built solidly then that house will not last long and it will crumble. It is, therefore, absolutely essential that we focus on the problems facing our communities and that we apply the same determination and creativity to addressing our health and social problems that we have applied to our political challenges over the last 40 years. This is an absolute priority. We can no longer sweep our social problems under the rug hoping that they will go away. They will only be solved if we are honest in admitting the problems and apply our creative energies to dealing with them. There is now too much at stake and we cannot, as a Nation, afford to ignore those problems. As with education and the need to inspire our youth to rise to an important challenge, we need all the energies, commitment and dedication of the entire population of Eeyou Istchee to contribute to our collective mission of building a healthy and prosperous Cree Nation. This is the challenge before us and we need everyone.

This has been an era of intensive negotiations. How would you carry this on and how would you stand on guard to ensure that the rights of the Cree people are maintained?

MCC: Ensuring that Cree rights are maintained and protected is, of course, something that I have a great deal of experience with. It has been at the core of my activities for every one of the terms of office I have served as Grand Chief, and it continues to be the basis for all of our dealings with both the provincial and federal governments. That will never change. We are currently in the implementation phase of the Governance Agreement with Quebec and my representatives are working very hard to make sure that it is implemented in accordance with our expectations when we signed that Agreement. Similarly, we are concluding negotiations with Canada on a Governance Agreement, which will address a number of issues related to our governance of Category I lands. In all cases, Cree rights are fundamental to our approach and we will not permit any erosion or dismissal of Cree rights.

Give me an example of an issue you have championed and how?

MCC: I think that my entire career in Cree and Aboriginal politics has been about championing the cause of Cree rights. I think the highlights of my career in championing important Aboriginal issues are the struggle we waged against the Great Whale hydroelectric project during which we coordinated local, provincial, national and international pressure to achieve the recognition of our rights. Also, we mounted an effective campaign to ensure the respect for Cree rights in the context of possible Quebec secession from Canada, which culminated in our own Cree Special Referendum. With these important campaigns, as well as others, we demonstrated to the world that the Crees have rights and those rights will never be ignored.

What can you do at the helm of the Cree Nation that currently isn’t being done, or in your case, what would you do differently with a new term?

MCC: As I mentioned earlier, a number of important initiatives have been put in place over the last four years that build on the historic agreements of the last 40 years. It is important to maintain our momentum and maintain a steady course to ensure that all the pieces of the puzzles related to the creation of our Cree Nation are put into place. It is my belief that we cannot afford to lose that momentum and that we cannot afford to veer away from the direction that we are following. Much remains to be done. As I mentioned earlier we are now in a critical phase in our Nation-building agenda and we must stay the course.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

MCC: I would like to encourage all of our citizens in Eeyou Istchee to participate in the upcoming election. It is through these elections that people can express their views and shape the future of the Cree Nation.

We have all been deeply inspired recently by the march of the Nishiyuu walkers when they embarked on their journey from Whapmagoostui to Ottawa in order to show their support for the need for change in the way in which Aboriginal issues are dealt with in this country. They also reminded us of the need for unity among Aboriginal peoples as we face a difficult moment in the history of our relations with governments. In the same way, we in Eeyou Istchee must hold dear that message of unity as we approach this next election. Regardless of the outcome, we must remember that we have an important mission to fulfill – the mission of Cree Nation-building – and in order to fulfill this mission we must remain united, we must remain strong and we must never forget the core Cree values which have brought us to this point in history and which have sustained us through the difficult struggles of the last 40 years.

Virginia Wabano

Deputy Grand Chief candidate

Tell me about you first and your career/political history?

VW: My first recollection of getting the taste of politics was when I attended Timmins High and Vocational School. During our history class we had debates on Aboriginal issues and rights and to my surprise we were actually divided by our ethnic race. The debates were very intense and yet very disheartening to hear the views that other groups had on Aboriginal people.

From there I felt that we needed to defend our sovereign right as Aboriginal People. As time went on, I become actively involved with student councils and elected as president in the educational institutions I attended to support the Aboriginal student population in various areas; such as advocating for recognition and respect for our values and traditions.

Later on when I began employment with various organizations such as the Mushkegowuk Tribal Council, it became more evident that Aboriginal issues were of great concern. I became eagerly involved as much as I could and gained political status on various provincial organizations such as the Ontario Native Women’s Association, Ontario Aboriginal Counselling Association, Aboriginal Woman Solidarity, President of Cree Women of Eeyou Istchee Association and a Board Director for the Quebec Native Women, representing the Cree Nation.

Why do you want to run?

VW: I feel that from all the experience I was given and the different employment capacities I held in my life, it is time I give back to the community and to the people. I want to acknowledge my deepest appreciation to my children for their support in encouraging me to take on this big role. They said to me, “Mom, you can do this, you always did help people.” With those words, I decided I would accept my nomination. With that being said, I want to extend my gratitude to Gerti Murdoch for nominating me and as well to those that supported her nomination. Meeg-wetch.

What can you do for the Cree Nation that others can’t?

VW: The Cree Nation has accomplished many triumphs and I am proud to continue on the work that former and current leaders have set for us.

One of the challenges is engaging youth to become active participating members in the future of the Cree Nation. Youth can play an important role in the development of the Cree Nation; therefore it’s time we give power to the youth to become involved in developing programs and services that are geared and who have the understanding of what our youth of today need in regards to social and health development, political and cultural aspirations, education and community development.

Give me your thoughts on an issue like education. There are many Crees with lower reading levels or who have dropped out. How would you address education for the Cree youth? Adults?

VW: Speaking from the experience as a teacher, I have seen many challenges that our students face in regards to reading and dropout rates. Many times I have seen the on-going changes in the CSB education system that adds to their challenges as well.

I am a strong believer that sports and education are complementary to each other because mental and moral development is not possible without physical development. Sports should be given special status in educational institutions and the benefits gained from engaging in exercise contribute much in academic success and achievement for all students. As well, my coaching experience with youth sports teams has proven to reduce the risk of dropping out at the secondary level, and as a result, become engaged in their efforts to become successful learners; and as well it lowers the related costs to welfare and other social services.

How do you see yourself contributing to Cree economic life?

VW: All Cree communities have the capacity to build self-sustaining economies. It is necessary to identify the resources available within the community, identify the economic opportunities that can be accessed and develop an environment where the entrepreneurial spirit can prosper. We need to dedicate our support to providing micro businesses the knowledge, support, and connections they need to become successful business owners. The goal of micro businesses is to succeed and my role as Deputy Grand Chief is to make sure they are successful.

Is there anything that you would like to see happen for the health of the Cree Nation – rampant diabetes, obesity and illnesses stemming from that?

VW: Sport is very important in our community life. People do exercise, jog, train themselves in fitness programs and fitness centres, and take part in sport competitions. There is no doubt that taking regular physical exercise reduces the frequency of obesity, diabetes and heart diseases to some extent, so that increasing the number of sports facilities in the local communities can help people to establish an active lifestyle, thereby improving their health condition. Diseases are caused by various factors, such as eating unhealthy food and neglecting regular check-ups. It is important that Cree entities such as Cree Health Board, Cree School Board, and Cree Regional Sports make health education a priority and continue to raise public awareness. Physical education is an important subject at school. Youth show endless energy; this energy can be transformed into creativity through sports. Physical education, games, sports and arts in educational institutions can be promoted right from the beginning of the school year.

This has been an era of intensive negotiations between the Crees and the province. How would you support the Grand Chief in this area?

VW: As Deputy Grand Chief, I would support the Grand Chief in maintaining and advocating the best interests for our people in the guardianship of a culturally, socially, environmentally and economically viable society for our Cree Nation and future generations.

Give me an example of an issue you have championed and how?

VW: For me, one issue that has been a great success is the continuity of maintaining and supporting the need to create an environment for those to freely practise their beliefs. We live a in a world of diverse beliefs and to be accepting to one’s beliefs is challenging for many, however, my motto is “if it changes your life, then let it.”

The support we provide to practise our beliefs is the core of our wellbeing and contributes to leading healthy lifestyles. Being actively involved with the “Carrying our Traditions” movement for the past 10 years has given me much pride and admiration to see youth growing up living healthy lifestyles because they were given the opportunity to practise and live the life of their beliefs and practises.

What can you do at the helm of the Cree Nation that currently isn’t being done?

VW: Social change is an issue that has been neglected. The heart of my political stance has always been the value of community, its solidarity, social justice and equality. Social change is an issue that requires mobilization in order to begin seeking methods to generate equal social change. We live in a fast-changing society and these changes can play a role in the life our Cree Nation, some good and some not so good.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

VW: Yes, I want to thank my guardian angel, my mother Alice, who is near me in everything that I do and in the end it all works out, her presence guides me to do what is right. I also want to thank my dad, Oliver Small (Kapashesit) who encourages me every day to live a life of respect and filled with laughter. My humorous side comes from him. Last but not least, one thing that I am very proud of is getting the education I needed to be where I am today. It’s been a long and challenging road but with the support of family and friends I have achieved my education at all levels: elementary, secondary, post-secondary and university.

I surely appreciate the long-standing relationships I have developed over the years with countless people. Some of them refer to me as mom, as I was a foster parent for many years and as well took many youth under my wing that faced challenges in their personal lives.

Meeg-wetch and May the Great Spirit continue to guide and protect you daily. Take care of yourself and each other. Wachay.

Roger Sandy

Deputy Grand Chief candidate

RS: I am from Whapmagoostui and I went to school as far as getting my management certificate from the Université de Sherbrooke.

My first involvement with the community was becoming a police officer and so I was a front-line worker (in that respect). I worked as a police officer for seven years and then I became a police director for another seven years and so that is my background.

I was also the Director General of band operations for over three years. I am also a local official as a council member. I am also a school commissioner and the president of the local Economic Development Board of Directors and so I am in charge of the economic file in the community.

I am a married man, have been for the last 22 years and I have six children as well as three grandchildren. I have also been clean and sober for the last 23 years and so alcohol and drug abuse are not a part of my life.

Why do you want to run?

RS: I accepted my nomination because I want to make a difference at the CRA administration level. I also want to be part of the changes that are happening in our Cree world. For example, for me, accepting my nomination means that I would like to prepare the path for the next generations that will be taking over our Cree nation.

I am confident that I can be beneficial to the Cree Nation with all of the administration knowledge that I have gained.

Also having been a front-line worker, working with these social issues and so that is why I have climbed the ladder in trying to make a difference.

This is why I have accepted to run, a very big part of it is to help the Cree Nation.

What can you do for the Cree Nation that others can’t?

RS: What I can say is that I have commitments to my platform that I will be addressing to the Cree nation.

The Cree once owned the power and I want to give them back this power. I want to amend some of the bylaws at the CRA level to accommodate certain things.

I would like to amend the Council Board bylaw as well as the construction bylaw that exists by creating some new seats: one for women, one for Elders and one for the youth as I think that this will bring about balance.

I would also like to amend or create a Cree construction bylaw, depending on what already exists. If one exists I would like to amend it, or create one anew with the idea of accommodating more of the Cree companies that exist in our communities as well as the smaller entrepreneurs.

Give me your thoughts on an issue like education. There are many Crees with lower reading levels or who have dropped out. How would you address education for the Cree youth? Adults?

RS: I was only involved with the Cree School Board for one year and I like the style that they have.

I also like the way they want to change education in the Cree nation and so I am 100% supportive of the Cree School Board and their vision.

For me, with the young people who are having difficulties learning and those who have dropped out, a lot of this has to do with social issues within the home.

So, in order for us to motivate these youth, we need to create programs to assist those youth who are struggling. We need things like graduation celebrations in the communities and create sponsorship programs to help motivate parents.

This is something that could be reflected by the recreation departments in every community. For example, there was a young child that has been in and out of foster care since he was a toddler. As it turned out, this kid has a very remarkable gift at hockey and he is about to reach the point where he should be playing at a higher level but the support system for that is not there. So, with all of these drop outs that we have; if we focus on creating programs for them where we can identify the talents that they may have it may be the key to keeping them in school. In this case it would have been ideal to have a sport-études program.

My platform touches on this issue and, were I to get in, I would like to meet with the Band Councils for the 10 communities.

How do you see yourself contributing to Cree economic life?

RS: My father owned a convenience store here for 18 years and he did this without an education and he also couldn’t speak English. While he had never even gone to elementary school, he had a vision as an entrepreneur of what he wanted to do and he hired people to help him make this business work.

I grew up in this environment, hearing about small entrepreneurial programs and so I fully support the economic development of the Cree Nation. This is why in my platform I talk about investing in economic development at the regional level so that all of the communities can benefit from this. Economic growth is a major positive thing in our communities.

You get can get a job and that is the thing that will cut away from the crises that so many families face. A job can change the life of a person and really help them feel better about themselves.

I support economic development because I grew up hearing this message every day and it is fact. I have worked in it, I have lived in it and I was there from the day on that they opened up that convenience store.

During that 18-year period, never once did the local or regional government financially support that convenience store. So, if that can work for all of those 18 years, why couldn’t other small business entrepreneurs work through a community-level support network created for them through the CRA?

Is there anything that you would like to see happen for the health of the Cree Nation – rampant diabetes, obesity and illnesses stemming from that?

RS: One of the things that concerns me the most in the Cree world is that there is a real lack of educational prevention programs for our communities. I think that we need to address obesity through a team network that involves certain entities such as the Cree School Board, the CBHSSJB and local/regional governments. We also need to use the recreational departments for this.

We can’t just have our youth striving to become professional hockey players; our youth need to learn the basics of exercise and healthy living from a very young age. They need to understand things like how an individual can turn to emotional eating and abusing food like any other substance.

Healthy living programs need to exist in every community and our entities need to be involved. The goal must be to educate the people.

This has been an era of intensive negotiations between the Crees and the province, how would you support the Grand Chief in this area?

RS: Everyone has a different point of view and mine is that community consultation should take place prior to negotiation in the Cree nation. Our representatives should be telling the people what is on the table and asking the people for their own input.

You don’t just hire a bunch of consultants or get the executive members of the CRA to try and decide what is best for our Nation because sometimes really important matters get overlooked.

The CRA negotiation team has to do community consultations when it comes to negotiating and this means going to the communities and taking the time to listen to what the people want.

Nothing should be negotiated that has not been approved by the people.

Sometimes what happens with these negotiations is that we only find out about certain details at the very last minute and then we don’t get the chance to have a say because this has already gone through. On top of it we hear from the leadership that we have elected them to make these decisions for us. This is why you need the permission from the people and that is why the power needs to be given back to the Cree people. We are deciding our future here.

Give me an example of an issue you have championed and how?

RS: When I was the Police Director I implemented a program called community-based policing. The officers had to be at the same level as the people they were serving. That meant getting involved in community programs to show their presence so that it could be felt that they were working for the community, whether or not they were in uniform.

So, in enforcing their programs, we held a community talk show and had 89 callers and only one out of the 89 calls had something positive to say. Three years later, out of the many calls made in, only one was negative. So, we made an impact in our community and so if it can be done in our community of Great Whale, it can be done anywhere.

The second one: we had a very ugly situation when it came to receiving our sports complex and so I became the chief negotiator there.

I was dealing with a multi-million-dollar construction company and there was only one step during our negotiations during a public meeting and that was it. They had to live with what I wanted. That is the thing with dealing with these kinds of companies; you have to be very careful in what you agree with.

What can you do at the helm of the Cree Nation that others can’t?

RS: The things that I don’t see happening in the communities is consultations and education. There is also a lack of communication between groups like the CRA and the communities and also the regional entities and the communities.

This is an area that I would improve and I would do it through the AGA resolutions.

Anything else you would like to add?

RS: It is time for this generation to step forward and take over for the Cree Nation. At some point our previous leaders will begin their retirement and so I am encouraging the young generation to step up and take over.