Further down the campaign trail….

It’s official! The nominations for the positions of Grand Chief and Deputy Grand Chief have been posted and the election race is on.

Contesting this year’s race for Grand Chief are incumbent Matthew Coon Come, current Deputy Grand Chief Ashley Iserhoff and former CREECO/ Board of Compensation head Jack Blacksmith.

The list is much longer however for those running for Deputy Grand Chief: Robert Kitchen, Kenny Loon, Rodney Mark, Linda Lillian Shecapio, Virginia Wabano, Bertie Wapachee, Christopher Napash and Roger Sandy.

This year’s advance polls will be held Thursday, July 11, between 9 am and 6 pm. Election-day polls are open at 8 am on Monday, July 15, and close at 7 pm.

Only Cree beneficiaries of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement can vote in this election and they have to be at least 18 years old as of July 15, 2013. To vote by mail inquire with the Chief Electoral Officer Lawrence Jimmike (see the advertisement on page 14 for more info).

The last issue of the Nation (Vol. 20, No. 15, May 31) featured an interview with Ashley Iserhoff discussing his candidacy for Grand Chief.

This issue features interviews with Jack Blacksmith, Rodney Mark, Kenny Loon and Bertie Wapachee.

Please note that all of the candidates were asked similar questions in order to give each an equal opportunity to provide his perspective on the same issues.



Jack Blacksmith: I am 57 years old and was born on November 3, 1955, on a cold fall day on Lake Opemiska, on the Blacksmith hunting territory.

I survived residential school and was there for seven years. I have worked all over the Cree First Nation of Waswanipi as I started back in the early 1970s. I also worked for the Grand Council as a beneficiary clerk as well as for the band in Mistissini as an Economic Development Agent.

I worked for the Grand Council in Ottawa as well as for the band in Waswanipi and I also represented Waswanipi on the Board of Compensation, where I worked as a board member for many years before becoming the Vice Chairman back when Rod Pachano was the Chairman. Then, in December 2007, I became chair. My first term was for two-and-a-half years and then I did a second one for another four years.

I have done a lot of other things on the BOC, working at the regional level and when I was Coordinator of Special Projects for the Grand Council in Ottawa. This included working with the bands on the many issues they were facing, including housing and operations.

So, I have had fairly good experience in terms of what I would like to do as Grand Chief and I think my experience will help the Cree world.

The Nation: Why do you want to run?

I want to do more for my people. Various different people in the Cree Nation have approached me and they feel that their issues are not being properly addressed. This goes especially for the youth.

I want to do something special for the people and give back power to the people when it comes to decision making for the future and the well being of the Cree Nation overall.

I think I can really work well with the people because I know how to pass on information and I am not going to be the one to tell them what to do, though I will be part of the process of trying to find better ways and better things for our people.

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

I think that I have newer and fresher ideas and better ways to work with the people. I think that our current government is already very set in place in terms of how they want to do things and I think that I can bring some changes in the direction of the Cree Nation.

I won’t do away with what has already been achieved but I would like to make the people understand that they are the power.

I also think that if you consider what the people’s needs are and trying to be a player in that process, I think what you have to do is you have to let the people be in on all levels of discussion to try and give direction to anything we decide on.

I will not allow someone to just sit in a corner and draft something and then tell the people that this is it. That is not my style. My style is going to be very much in consultation with the people so that I can feel good at the end of the day knowing that whatever I am doing is something that our people have looked at, thought about and has come together from that.

Education is a big issue in the Cree Nations as is the fact that many Crees have lower reading levels or have dropped out of school as a result of their struggle. How would you address education for both the youth and adults who need it?

One of the things that we have to come to realize is that education is very important to us. We have said to our youth that they are going to be our future leaders.

When it comes to this, I think our people need to be more educated professionally in terms of what they want to accomplish and I really do believe that the Cree School Board is probably on their way to doing that. But, they do need to find ways to improve and to do things better.

At the recent Roundtable discussions that took place in March, the focus wasn’t so much on education but what is available to our young people. I spoke to a few young people there who said that they were quite happy with what they had access to compared to what many First Nations get in terms of education.

But, I think we need to tweak some stuff in terms of our long-term goals and what we want to do at a local level because I know that that there are a lot of problems with education when you get to the lower ends. This is where our people get into trouble in terms of coming through the college and university level because they don’t have the prerequisites when it comes to things like language.

The Cree School Board realizes these things and they have been tweaking their programs to help our young people when it comes to getting up to the provincial standards.

What would be your plan to stimulate the economy in Eeyou Istchee?

The Grand Council/CRA did a study a few years ago and while I don’t know whether it is being used, I always talk about it because it is something that we can use. Within it there was a real indication in it on what we can do to supply jobs. The numbers are clear in it.

Yet, I have not seen anyone come out and say that these are the jobs that I need to create. I think what we have to do is that we have to start training our people.

The mining sector has been slowing down a little bit recently and so this is now actually a great time to teach our people the mining skills that they need. Same thing goes for forestry. There is a slow down in our territory and so we can push the skill learning so that they can get these jobs.

There is a lot of development that is going to happen in on Cree territory and for us to be able to access these jobs, training is a must. This is what we really should be embarking on, training programs so that they can get all of the necessary certification and then work wherever they please.

I really think that if you consider those numbers, we really have to work hard to gain the jobs that are out there.

Maybe we should make an employment target, like for however many jobs created, 50 percent of them should go to Crees. This is something that isn’t farfetched either because of the amount of unemployed youth we have in our communities.

Those people are looking for work and once you give people a chance in terms of jobs they are often very, very good employees. They work hard and they prove to the people that they are capable of doing any jobs that are available to them.

So training is very important to us, we should start training our people immediately.

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?

I am a diabetic though not an advanced one. I take pills for it every day. I am really glad that I have not found myself plugged into a machine yet but this is one of the things that we really need to consider.

When my mother got sick, she wanted to go back to the woods, where she came from. A lot of Crees are like that. But, what do we do? We send them to Montreal.

My mother had never even been to Montreal before she got sick.

These are the kinds of things that we really need to look at. For our people to be able to heal properly, we have to put them into environments that they like, where they are comfortable and that they can appreciate so that nature can take its course to help heal them. This is something we really need to be discussing in terms of the Cree Board of Health.

I am part of the BOC and we have been discussing the possibility of building a place in Montreal to keep Crees together while they are healing or seeking treatment. Keeping our people together would be helpful.

One of the things that I would do as part of the government is to show respect for those who have been working in these fields and listen to them because they have been doing their jobs for years and I would be coming in to learn the whole situation, whether it comes to education, health, the trappers’ association, the Elders, the women or the youth. I have to learn from them when comes to the issues that are important to them so that we can be a force in terms of being a regional government and trying to meet their mandate.

This has been an era of intensive negotiations between the Crees and different levels of government. How would you carry this on and keep running with that torch?

For sure, this has been an era of intensive negotiations for the Crees. The new provincial government has just announced their new plan for the north but we have to be part of this process. We will not stand on the outside and allow development to happen without us.

We have our rights and our agreements and every Cree has their rights on this territory when it comes to how they will face development within their trap lines.

So I think that to continue this process I will have to go into the communities without a completed document and just continue to discuss development to get what the people want to do and how they want to face this.

We want to understand Whapmagoostui’s perspective on further hydro development. I understand that they said that there would be no more hydro development but I want to understand a little bit more directly from them.

I also want to understand Mistissini’s position on uranium development. Is there a ban or is it a moratorium? I want to understand this and the whole issue. I want to understand what each community is facing, especially when it comes to mining projects. I want to understand all of this and have a common understanding on how we are going to tackle these issues.

So, once we have that, these would be my marching orders from our people on how to advance our people and what is going to happen in our territory.

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

During my time with the BOC, while we don’t have a lot of money to disperse, but we do when we can.

I think the issue regarding the youth; we have done pretty well for the youth in terms of the money we give them. Last year we gave them grants for their administration and we also gave them a segment of additional monies for business opportunities.

I think this is something that we really have to work with. I keep saying that they are our future leaders. Why would we not try to make programs or assistance available to them to see more what they can do?

If our future leaders learn more as young people they will be better leaders for us tomorrow.

The other issue that I have really championed has been economic development. I have travelled this country, telling people who we are and what we do. There is a lot of admiration out there for the Cree people in terms of what we have done for economic development.

I think that we just have to keep moving forward, always keeping in mind that we have to always protect our rights.

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




Wemindji Chief Rodney Mark is wrapping up an eight-year term serving the people in his community. He also served as Deputy Chief in Wemindji for six years.

In his early 20s, Mark served as Youth Chief for his community for three years. He attended Heritage College and then Carleton University, where he studied philosophy.

The Nation: Why do you want to run?

Rodney Mark: This is good platform for me to talk about the issues. After 14 years of local politics, I thought it would be important for me to discuss what I think is important, such as community economics, community development, environment, health and education.

These are issues that I feel we need to make priorities as a Cree Nation. There are also other issues I would like to look at, in particular, drug trafficking in the communities.

We need to be hard on this issue as this is something that happens a lot. It doesn’t take much however for there to be a major ripple effect in a community.

There is also the justice process we have implemented, I would like to see this go further, take an extra step to make sure that those people who have committed crimes in our communities are held accountable. This is how our justice agreement was envisioned.

I believe that people who commit criminal acts should be put somewhere and be held accountable to someone as it almost seems like drug trafficking has been seen as a victimless crime but it really victimizes a huge amount of people.

I also want to address mining; this is an issue that needs to be pushed in terms of jobs. I don’t think we are in a position anymore where we have been fighting for them. I think that the previous leadership was quite successful at that but now we are just fighting for jobs for Cree people within the resource development.

Housing is another issue. I think we need to deal with this home-ownership program as I really believe that this is something we have to make a priority.

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

I have been community Chief for eight years and Deputy for six and we have been able to successfully implement a housing program here.

It’s always been about community issues for me and this would be the base of my leadership. We need to reinforce the importance of community and making our communities stronger. I want to engage people when it comes to community development, economic development, environment, health and education. Those are the five priorities that I have.

These need to be our priorities at a local level and at a regional level.

What are your thoughts on education, particularly when it comes to addressing reading difficulties among the people and the dropout rate?

I think the most important thing is that we have got to start out very early. We have an afterschool program here in Wemindji called COOL: Challenging Our Own Limits. Within that we have a reading program. I believe that we have to start out early to get those things going.

How do you see yourself contributing to Cree economic life as Deputy Grand Chief?

Well, I think one of the most contentious issues with the Cree Development Corporation and the way it was set up was that this was the wrong approach, going at it from top to bottom.

I felt that we should have gone to the people involved in economic development. Every community has an economic development corporation and I would ask them what they would need. There is a mechanism here that would help to empower communities.

At the end of the day what an individual that wants to own a business needs is collateral and we don’t have collateral in the communities. I think that the Cree Development Corporation could play that role. But, this is through consulting with the local offices and corporations as well as Chiefs and Council to see what they can make happen.

If you want to set up businesses in the communities you will need infrastructure but we have no infrastructure, this is the challenge.

How would you address the health of the people in terms of the current diabetes crisis and other illnesses stemming from obesity?

I think that this is something that needs to happen on an individual basis. I think that we have been doing a lot of collective stuff to promote health, but I think the approach needs to be more to say that ultimately you are responsible for your own health in terms of being healthy and taking care of yourself.

My vision, ultimately, is to have clean, safe and healthy communities as this will attract families and businesses.

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

I have been involved in one negotiation and so I have seen the process. Whatever plan the Grand Chief would have I would try to add value to.

If I disagreed on something I would also express that but at the same time I would ensure that there would be a united front there as that is one of the key things.

Give me an issue you have championed and how?

I am leaving being Chief in good faith because I think that it is time for me to continue and move on to other things. I just feel that it is time.

There are files that I have worked on such as in environmental protection for 12 years and no matter what job I am in I will continue on this.

We also have our after-school program that I saw through from the time I was Deputy. I will take some time off from this but I saw it through and I still plan to participate in that because I really believe in literacy and this is a priority.

These are not just career commitments; these are life commitments.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I have a five-point plan for the communities: community development, economic development, environment (this is an area I have been working on for the past 12 years), education and then health.

I think the idea is to have a theme here. I want to have clean, safe and secure communities because this is what is good for families, children and businesses and what also attracts investments.

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

One of the challenges is to engage the people, whether it is through recreation or sports programming, economic development, capital projects and also through the justice process. We have to engage the communities at this point and this is one of the priorities we need to look at.



He may be a legal eagle now, but Mistissini’s Kenny Loon actually started out as a photographer and a journalist after his studies at Algonquin College and at York University. Loon worked on a number of projects for the CBC, the National Film Board and a variety of First Nations magazines across Canada. This work sparked his interest in treaty law.

After attending law school at the University of Ottawa and earning his Master of Laws from the University of Arizona, Loon was called to the Ontario bar in 1996. Since switching fields, much of his work has been in negotiations with the federal government. Loon has worked for several bands, organizations and entities within and outside the Cree Nation, and for the Assembly of First Nations.

The Nation: Why do you want to run?

Kenny Loon: I think that the Crees need somebody who has the legal training to understand all of these different issues that affect their Aboriginal and treaty rights and in this case, Cree rights and interests. I sometimes feel that these non-Cree lawyers sometimes don’t tell the Cree leaders everything that may have a negative impact on Cree rights and I have actually seen this happening before.

I think that a person needs to have some legal understanding of the impacts that some of these rights on the Cree and I think that a person needs to be able to work with the Grand Chief as he carries the Cree Nation agenda. And also to be able to explain to the people in the communities some of the legal implications that would have an impact on them. You can’t have someone without legal training to try and explain some of these legal situations to the Crees and so I really think that I can be useful in this way.

I also think that the Deputy Grand Chief should be someone who goes into the communities more often than the Grand Chief does because the Grand Chief is very busy. I think the Deputy should be the person doing the grassroots works with the people and be there to get to know them and be available to them.

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

I understand what it means to protect, promote and advance Aboriginal rights and it is very important that these rights are protected and recognized under Section 35 of the Constitution Act. The governments must also be reminded that we have these rights that are protected under the Canadian constitution and that they can’t try to diminish the exercise of those rights. We need someone that will keep reminding the government that we are here in fact to protect those rights and our Cree way-of-life and that we will not allow them to continue to damage the environment.

At some point we need to get a land-management plan in place to protect further erosion of our environment and wildlife and I think that the person doing this needs to understand from a legal point of view how these potential laws and legislations that the government has proposed would have a negative impact on the Cree way of life and Cree rights.

What are your thoughts on education and the Cree people?

While I am not tremendously familiar with the education system up in the communities as I live in the south, I do hear a lot about it and of that I get the impression that the current system isn’t working.

Maybe what needs to be done is have a Cree Education Act developed that incorporates Cree values, Cree teachings and Cree history. If Cree youth know their history they will be interested in the education system.

I also think that the parents need to play a big role in a child’s education if they want them to succeed. It is so important that we be well educated if we want to achieve the objectives of Cree self-governance. These youth will one day be our future leaders and so it is very important that they are not only well educated but also well versed in their language and history and also get a good, formal education.

Once we have our own people well educated, I think the leadership will then have the confidence in their own people to use them instead of the non-Crees to run our own affairs.

How would you help stimulate Eeyou Istchee’s economy?

As we move towards Cree self-governance, we need to understand that we can’t rely on government handouts for small economic development projects. I think that the Crees need to develop a comprehensive approach and we need to look at how we can generate revenues within the communities rather than having money come in, only to see it go right back out.

We have always had a problem with outside contractors coming in instead of utilizing the services that we already have in place. I see these construction companies come in and with them they bring their own people, down to their own cooks to make their own food.

Any money we get from the government goes right back out of the communities and so we need to change this approach and try and find ways to generate money in the communities and part of this is giving our local contractors and businesses more opportunities.

How would you address the health of the Cree Nation?

Obviously we have a very alarming rate of diabetes in the communities. Part of the problem is that people don’t watch what they eat and they don’t exercise, so the communities have to come up with some kind of a fitness program.

Also there is too much fast food in the communities. Not only do people need to learn about exercise, they also need to learn about healthy eating habits.

I hear that traditional food is very good for our people and so I would like to see things like traditional foods like goose, moose and fish made more available to the people, particularly those who don’t hunt. We need to set up something so that people can share more of this stuff instead of selling it to people.

This is one of the Cree traditions that has been lost, the sharing part of things. We need to bring this back.

This has been an intensive era of negotiation between the Crees and governments. If elected, how would you support the Grand Chief in this area?

As a Cree lawyer I know the importance of protecting the rights of the Crees. This is one of the ways that I can help the Grand Chief.

As a lawyer, I know the importance of protecting, advancing and promoting Aboriginal treaty rights. And, that in any agreement or negotiations taking place, whatever we agree to should not diminish the exercise of these rights in order to get something back in return.

We have already given up too much and I think it is time that we protected those rights.

To me, whenever we have a non-Native lawyer negotiate, they are forgetting that important aspect of Cree rights because they are not his rights. They are way more interested in getting an agreement signed and fast tracked without realizing that in going this route they may compromise or diminish the exercise of certain rights.

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

It is important that we work together as a nation. I know that, recently, the current Deputy Grand Chief and Grand Chief have not been working together as a team. I don’t know if it is a clash in personalities or somebody has a different agenda but it is very important that we work together as a nation and have regular meetings between the two.


Currently living in Chisasibi, the Nemaska-born Bertie Wapachee has worked in both politics and business while advocating environmental protection.

Previously involved with his local youth council and then at the Cree Nation Youth Council (CNYC) – where he served as Youth Chief for three years in the 1990s – Wapachee is no stranger to the political arena.

Wapachee also served as Chairman of the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay from 1999-2003, when he says he played a critical role in the ongoing negotiations for the Cree Health Board.

The Nation: Why do you want to run?

Bertie Wapachee: I have been missing the political arena for some time now but more so in this last year. It has been awfully quiet out there and I think that there is a lot that people need to hear and a lot of questions that need asking, particularly at a regional level.

There are also a lot of things that I would like to be involved in – one of them being the development of the territory. It is going to be very important to have our own strategy to ensure that every resource isn’t extracted or developed so that in 10 or 20 years down the line there is nothing left.

What we really need is our own development plan to make sure that nothing happens all at once and to make sure that the environment is being respected at the same time.

We as a nation are not schooling ourselves enough on the agreements that we have signed and on the subsequent modifications that have made to these agreements. These are an important part of our history as a people.

In 2011, I gave a presentation to the CNYC on a concept of youth leadership training. This would include developing a training that is geared towards the youth learning about the previous agreements that the Crees have signed.

Since then I have expanded on the idea so that one day we would see a specific curriculum taught on this issue from elementary school right through until high school. There could also be college or university programs on this for people interested in getting into community politics or First Nations governance or even law.

This is an area that we are really lacking in right now and I think it accounts for a lot of the quiet out there.

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

I really don’t like to just sit back and let things happen when there could have been questions asked or concerns raised. I am not afraid to get my feet wet!

When it comes time to asking questions or voicing a concern, this is one of my strengths; there is no subject matter that I am afraid of and I have learned enough out there not to shy away from a debate.

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

I really don’t want to have a group from the outside develop any kind of program for us.

We need to develop a long-term strategy on education to ensure that the education level amongst our people goes up and we have better student outcomes in the long term, but the answers here need to come from within the Nation. I don’t think we are using our own professionals enough.

There is too much infighting on who is right and who is wrong when the main thing should just be educating our future. Clearly there is still a lot of work to be done to come up with a better strategy in getting young people interested in education again. As of now, we are not really seeing that spirit of wanting to learn and all of that new technology that is out there has taken the desire away from our youth to want to read books. Instead they want to spend all of their time with their iPads.

What if we instead use the technology that is there to promote reading through their iPads or whatever other devices they are using.

How do you see yourself contributing to Cree economic life?

This is an area that I have come to know pretty well. I think that this area has also been tied up too long at a political level.

At some point our nation is going to have to separate the politics from business. If you are a policy maker, then you are a policy maker and if you want to go into business then you are most likely going to need to get the support you need from politicians.

Every community now has the opportunity to do something great. It shouldn’t be just a nation focusing on economic development to be a self-reliant nation but the community should also have the opportunities to do the same. The room is there and communities can invest in anything they so choose. This is an area that will surely need improvement in the coming years.

Is there anything in particular that you would like to see happen in terms of the health and well-being of the Cree Nation, particularly in light of diabetes and other obesity-related diseases that are currently at an all-time high in the communities?

In a way, I think that the Health Board has done a lot in their clinical area. It’s basically been like a garage – you come in, you get fixed and then you leave. But, the part that has always been missing has been prevention. There are all kinds of programs that the communities are getting into, and that is a good thing, but is it enough?

We need an extra push from either the leadership or those who are involved at all levels in the community. Everybody has to promote healthy lifestyles now. We shouldn’t be relying on the Health Board. A lot of communities are doing programs on their own instead and this is a blessing for their people who get to do this.

This has been an intensive era of negotiations between the Crees and other levels of government. How would you support the Grand Chief in this area as Deputy Grand Chief?

You have always got to have at least a bit of a critical eye coming from some place because not everything is necessarily black-and-white and if you see red somewhere, you have to ring the bell.

In my own case it is more about having the scrutiny to make sure that we are not signing on to things because the other side tells us that we have to.

We have to do our best of course and this is what has been happening over the last 38 years of protecting and enhancing our rights and we have advanced quite a bit because of those efforts. We have to continue like this, but also include more of a “critique” aspect.

We have the same people negotiating but we should leave some room so that the critics can have a say on anything that is being developed.

Give us an example of an issue you have championed and how you have championed it?

Going back to my CNYC days, it was a matter of raising the bar for youth involvement at all levels and they have done that over the years. Right now they need to do it again. Aside from that, when I was at the Cree Health Board, it took a long time for the Board to get a terms of reference on the negotiations with the government signed.

But when I got in, I don’t know if it was just luck or effort but I know that part of my contribution was to make sure that the terms of reference was signed. It took about four months, but I got it done.

And, in that terms of reference there was a scientific-needs assessment on the entire organization that the Quebec government kept removing but I kept making the effort to ensure that it be put back on and from that clause alone came the regional strategic plan for the Cree Health Board. This has now become their basis to identify what kind of budget they have needed and this has supported the new agreement.

Contribution wise, I was one of the guys who helped come up with a distribution formula for the Paix des braves agreement.

Other than that I was also one of the key guys involved in starting up Eeyou Power.

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

I like to think of myself as someone who is always ready to raise a concern or question without backing down. It is very difficult for me to just sit back and not say anything.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Like I was just saying, it is basically about representing the grassroots. Nobody should be forgotten and everyone needs to be represented at all times.