Cree athletic programs will now have a unified plan for their future, as a new umbrella organization begins life with a mandate to expand programs and ensure the consistency and quality of sport and recreation activities among all communities in Eeyou Istchee.

The Eeyou Istchee Sports and Recreation Association (EISRA) will become the governing body of all Cree communities’ sports programs. The integrated oversight committee is tasked with maximizing the physical wellbeing of the James Bay Cree.

The EISRA began formulating a five-year plan for sports programs in earnest in December. It starts, they say, with working to improve existing programs. The committee will first assume management of the James Bay Hockey League and the Cree Hockey and Broomball tournament in Val d’Or, then work to create new community projects.

“We want to ensure the association asserts itself as the governing body for [the JBHL and the tournament], but this doesn’t necessarily mean governing recreation departments themselves,” explained John Henry Wapachee, who helped present the organization’s plan to a meeting of Cree band council chiefs in December. “We can partner with them. Ninety per cent of the board members are working in recreation and sports departments in communities, which is a good representation we believe.”

After setting up the early framework of the EISRA – the documents making it a legal corporation under Canadian law – Wapachee presented to the chiefs with Raymond Shanush, president of the EISRA. That presentation was about the other crucial building block.

“Finance is definitely an issue for expansion, which partially motivated the meeting with the chiefs,” said Shanush. “We want to develop a senior hockey league, junior A and B leagues, and a women’s broomball league.”

The mention of programs tailored for girls is significant as in most Cree communities the availability of hockey programs for girls ends after Midget, and there’s not much beyond that level. Citing the rise in diabetes and obesity among the James Bay Cree, Shanush and Wapachee both stressed the broader role of the organization.

“A lot of the programs we do in sports and recreation are mainly to promote physical fitness and healthy lifestyle within the Cree Nation,” said Wapachee. “We want things to be geared towards the physical benefits of the person and community.

“That’s the first thing: getting active them active to combat [the rise in obesity],” added Shanush. “Each community has its own program to promote healthy eating and an active lifestyle, and that’s something we will be able to plan better as a group.”

It’s not surprising that there is a strong focus on hockey. The James Bay Minor Hockey League currently serves as a feeder to the Cree elite program, which Wapachee said the EISRA hopes to expand to include elite-level Atom, Peewee, Bantam and Midget teams. The logistics of this would be impossible without the expanded committee structure, Shanush said.

“We’re a small community: there’s about 16,000 people, but we’re really spread out,” he observed. “Three hours drive minimum, and usually you have to fly. We’re limited during the season with how much we can travel. By getting the organizations together, we avoid all the conflicts and make everything as easy as possible. That way we can budget accordingly, and we can actually plan for the net five years by working together.”

A minor softball tournament is in the works for the summer, as well as a new idea to introducing swim competitions for communities with pools. And though this will provide plenty of fun for Cree young and old, the focus is on a healthier future.

“Aside from health and well being, we put a strong emphasis on education,” said Wapachee. “It’s about making the kids understand education is important for them. There are some communities that have set up rules about doing well in school to be in the league, and we’re going to encourage this. Our prime goal is that students will focus on their education.”