The following is the graduation speech given to the Class of ’99 by Robert Weistche, Chairman of the Cree School Board, in Wemindji on June 25. -Ed.
Watchia!! I thank the organizers of this ceremony for inviting me here today. I would like to congratulate the class of 1999 graduates in all of our schools in Eeyou Istchee. A special recognition given to those who were successful in their post-secondary educational pursuits. The steps you’ve taken are commendable. A job well done. Congratulations to all of you.
I greet the parents and grandparents who have helped the students successfully complete their studies. In addition, we should recognize the dedication of the teachers who work with the students and other school staff who are important part of the operation of the school. We should all congratulate the graduates for their effort and success.
In 1975, the Cree Nation decided to organize itself differently to retake control of our society. We created the Cree School Board to give us control over the education of our children and over the training of our adult population. We created the Eeyou Tabaytachesiw, Cree Regional Authority and Grand Council to give us local and regional services and protection of the environment, some control over the development of our lands and protection of Cree rights. We created the Cree Health Board to give us control over the health services provided to our people. Also, we created the Cree police force, the Cree Trappers’ Association and the Income Security Program, as well as other entities (Board of Compensation, craft and tourism associations. Hunting, Fishing, Trapping Coordinating Committee, etc.)
Why did we do all of this? We did it in part because we had lost control of these things. For many years before we had lived on the land, protected from the changes that non-Cree society was bringing to the lands outside of Eeyou Istchee. Then we saw our children taken away to schools far away and we saw that our parents had nothing to say about what happened to us. In health we saw the sometimes inhumane treatment given to Cree patients. Often families did not know where the patient had been taken or what had become of him or her. We saw our respected leaders, the ouchimouch, today called the “ntohow ouchimouch,” treated without respect by those who would come onto our lands to build roads to take the trees and the water and materials, spoiling the hunt, our traditional economy, because they wanted to take something from the land.
We also created the parts of Cree government because these were the best way to express our rights and the best means to defend ourselves against the governments of Canada and Quebec, Hydro-Quebec, the James Bay Development and Energy Corporations, and all of the other entities used by non-Cree society to take our lands and even our way of life. Never forget that when the government of Quebec fought us in the court in 1972 and 1973, it argued that the Crees were no longer a people, that we had given up our traditions and language, and were now just Quebecers like everyone else and should therefore not have any special rights.
We are here today. 24 years after we signed the James Bay Agreement, to celebrate the fact that we now have students who study in schools we control and run. Our children live at home and when they enter our schools they are never told not to speak our language. They are taught in Cree. We continue to work on increasing the Cree content in our curriculum while also giving the students the chance to learn what they need to understand about the larger world beyond Eeyou Istchee. We, the Cree Nation, make the decisions.
The students who graduate today will be the ones to take Cree society into the future. They have a world of opportunity before them. We need Cree professional people of all kinds: teachers, lawyers, engineers, secretaries, computer technicians, doctors and nurses, pilots, mechanics, forestry technicians, accountants and administrators. We need these people to help us build our society, to improve the services we provide and to help defend our society against the forces that would tear it apart and once again make it subject to the decisions of others.
That is very important to Cree society as we are few in number and we must defend our hunting way of life, our language and culture so they can continue to be important parts of the identity of our children and our children’s children. In order to do this we need
to strengthen our institutions so the Cree Nation can be strong and fight to increase Cree rights.
Some people say we should forget about our rights, give up on our fight for special protections for our way of life against forestry operations and hydroelectric projects and mining. They say. for example, that we should cut the forest the same way that non-Cree companies are doing or that the construction of a dam, the diversion of the river and the flooding of lands are just business decisions and don’t concern the Nation as a whole. We cannot leave the hunters to defend themselves so that a few others in our society could make some money. Who in this room will sacrifice some of their children so the others can live a little better? I don’t think anyone would do this. We need to stand together to protect our lands and at the same time create employment for our people. We must change the way development is done on Eeyou Istchee.
Why is it that we have so much difficulty in our society today in standing together to defend our own rights? I believe this is because we have not supported the office of the Grand Chief and the Cree Nation enough. We have given all our chiefs the power to decide issues that affect all our rights. When one chief sells our rights for what he or she might think of as a short-term benefit for his community, we all lose part of our collective rights. When one person, organization or community is forced by Quebec, Canada or Hydro-Quebec or a forestry company to accept to weaken our rights, we all lose.
If we keep allowing these outside forces deal with us one by one, we will lose our rights to the land, to control our education and to control our health services. Today Quebec refuses to negotiate with the Grand Council on health services. Why? Because Quebec wants to negotiate with the Health Board on an administrative level. Quebec knows it can control the Health Board by threatening it with budget cuts or by threatening the non-Crees who work for the Board. We should not let Quebec divide us like this. If Quebec is to deal with the Crees, it must deal with the Cree Nation through the Grand Council of the Crees.
Even more disturbing today is what is happening with the Rupert River. Hydro-Quebec wants to divert this river to make money by selling electricity to the United States. In 1989 at a General Assembly we decided to oppose future of mega-hydro projects. We reaffirmed this decision in many assemblies following. At the time we opposed the Eastmain, Great Whale, Nottaway and Broadback River projects. We had seen the destruction caused by river diversions and massive reservoirs, and we opposed this.
Then, Hydro-Quebec said it would no longer build projects if they were opposed by the local community to be impacted. They were very smart in saying this. Some Cree chiefs have responded to this by saying, “This means the decision of whether to divert the Rupert and Great Whale Rivers is up to each community and no longer up to the Grand Council.” Hydro-Quebec was then welcomed into our communities and given gifts to show our appreciation. The James Bay Agreement does not include the diversion of the Rupert River. It is not just the communities impacted that have rights in this regard; it is all of the communities, and not just the communities but all of us as individuals who own these rights.
Even more disheartening is that the chiefs of five of the six impacted communities, excluding Nemaska, have now signed a letter to push the Grand Council out of discussions THEY INTEND TO START ON THE RUPERT DIVERSION. They asked for the Grand Council to pay for their own advisors to negotiate the project. There are many questions to be asked:
1. Who in the communities even knew about this letter and who among those approved this?
2. These advisors included lawyers who are new to Cree affairs and so know little about our rights, and consultants who may have interests in seeing this project built. Are these advisors going to defend our rights? I don’t think so.
After the Great Whale fight, our advisors and our Grand Chief, who fought this damaging project, are now to be pushed out of the relations with Hydro-Quebec and the debate over the diversion of the river. Why have we pushed out those who so successfully defended our rights in the past?
3. When the chief negotiates, he speaks for his people. When a professional negotiator negotiates he must go back to the people who hired him for approvals. Why do we put the chiefs at the table as negotiators?
I could go on but I will not for the present. What I will say is I hope the youth coming out of school today understand how fragile our society is. I hope you can all take the larger vision of the Cree Nation and where we are going without forgetting the families that live from the land and without forgetting those whose voice in our society is seldom heard and who need our help.
Your responsibilities in the future will be great. But you’ll want to take them on as they will provide you with a chance to learn more and have a real impact on our society. I encourage you to dream of where we must go and to follow your dreams for in your actions lies the future of the Cree people, the future of the Cree Nation. Do not be afraid to take this step forward. We all love you and we all support you and depend on you to seize the opportunity. There is much to be done with little time to do it. I wish you the best May God bless you all.