After meeting with Ted Moses Indian Affairs Minister Robert Nault accepted an invitation to visit two Cree communities on April 6 and 7. His first stop was in Chisasibi where he looked at the sick and overcrowded housing problems. He also officially opened the fire and police station. During his visit a band of friendly and peaceful protesters showed up. Nault took things calmly and talked to the crowd. He pledged $2.1 million towards more housing. Chisasibi was happy to hear this news and it was off to Chibougamau where Nault would have an informal supper with the Cree chiefs.
The next day I managed to catch up to the Minister as he was visiting Mistissini and quickly latched on to the tour. Part of the tour included a trip to two traplines. The first was Charlie Coon/ Blacksmiths. The family had prepared donuts and tea for us. CTA President Thomas Coon showed Nault the furs that Charlie had trapped explaining that trapping normally slowed down at this time of year due to mating season. Charlie pointed out that the forestry operations were driving animals away from his trapline. Nault could understand as we had seen the devastation from the air. One of Nault’s advisers, Greg Gauld, brought a beaver pelt straight from Charlie. When Charlie was asked how much he deferred to Thomas Coon, a price was set at $40. I was almost tempted to ask Charlie if he thought Gauld was the new Glenn Spears. Gauld told me the pelt would make a great souvenir of the trip. Minister Nault was shown the tamarack punk used to tan hides. It would be the start of his look at traditional Cree life. Our next stop was at Jimmy Gunner’s camp. I almost thought I was back on the trail again when I saw him and Gordon Petawabano. Gunner’s dog Sexy came up to Nault wagging his tail. That dog, Nault was told, had led the way across Eeyou Istchee on the long journey from Whapmagoustui to Mistissini.
Gunner showed the Minister how the dogs were hooked up to the toboggans. Rob Frelich of Indian Affairs brought some moose meat. He said he loved the stuff. It’s nice to know the boys from Indian Affairs appreciate country food as much as we do. At Jimmy’s camp both Frelich and Gauld got a chance to try out a Cree outhouse. I refrained from asking for or making a comment at this point. One comment that I did get later from Nault was that the trips to the camps were the highlight of his trip and that he had enjoyed being in the bush.
Then we boarded the plane and went back to a community meal with beaver, moose and other fine fare courtesy of Mistissini.
Moses said that he was glad that Nault had a chance to see that the Cree way of life was alive and viable. He said that talks with Nault were promising and he was glad that he got a chance to see the effects that forestry and overcrowded and sick housing had on the Crees. Moses said he would be pursuing a new relationship with Ottawa and would be looking at unfinished business concerning the JBNQA. Moses said he wants Cree communities to be developed according to Cree needs and desires.
Mistissini Chief John Longchap said it was a privilege and honor to have Nault visit Mistissini. He said that Elders have taught us respect is the Cree way.
Nault in his speech said, “When Elders are actively involved it shows something about a community.” He was surprised at the amount of Elders and how they are involved in the daily life of the communities he visited. “It says there is respect,” he said. He thanked the Cree for giving him the chance to be on the land. “When I was visiting the trappers I wished I was there. I would rather be there than in Ottawa,” he said. Nault said he understood the traditional lifestyle and enjoyed listening to the trappers. “It was an important trip and worth it for me and my staff.
I’m here because I want to build a relationship. I’m not going to sign something without honoring it,” he said. Nault said he would be back in Eeyou Istchee.
Later I had a chance to talk to Grand Chief Ted Moses about the trip.
The Nation: Were you responsible for Minister Nault visiting the Cree communities?
Grand Chief Ted Moses: Yes, it happened back in one of the briefing meetings. I only had about an hour to go over some of the Cree concerns. The Minister had asked me how things were going. He offered to meet and go over in more detail the concerns we were discussing. We tried to get a meeting going in the fall but it wasn’t possible then the elections came around. In January we got an indication that the Minister was prepared to see me in April. I said it was too far down the line. I offered an informal dinner, a one on one between myself and the Minister in Ottawa. That happened and we talked for about three hours. We decided that the meeting shouldn’t be with just me but include two of the Cree communities. We talked about a one day trip but agreed it wasn’t enough. One day is just barely enough time to go up and make an announcement so we agreed to two. That’s how the trip came about. I decided it should two largest communities to show the scale of the Crees and the circumstances in which we live.
What was the objective of the trip?
It was to have the ministry see the moldy houses and the overcrowding. We visited a few places. It was also to see the communities from the perspective of self-government. The Crees are the first ones to have self-government recognized. With the resources we can make it work and without them it won’t work.
Another commitment under the Agreement was that development in the territory would result in jobs and that hasn’t happened in the communities.
We also talked about the Cree Trappers Association and implementing that part of the Agreement. We included them by showing a couple of camps on the trapline with different trappers. This was so the Minister could have an appreciation of the way of life that still exists and the needs for an organization like the CTA to help coordinate services and programs for these trappers.
At the same time on the way to the camps we got an aerial view of the extent of forestry operations and the clear-cutting. We could see the extent and how it was encroaching on the way of life for the trappers. You could see it was just a matter of time before it was all clear-cut.
The Minister had a chance to meet the Cree people, talk to chiefs and people and go on a trapline. He talked to people who lived in moldy houses that were overcrowded.
We saw some three and four bedroom houses where each room had a family unit staying in them. There were two or three beds, a television, a radio and a dresser in one corner. It was obvious that there was more than one person staying there in the room.
I noticed that the Minister promised 2.1 million towards housing in Chisasibi, was that beyond normal allocations?
Yes. The 2.1 million is what the Minister called the Emergency Fund. I guess they established this fund across the country for situations like this. That doesn’t address the problems of overcrowding and moldy housing.
Do you feel the trip was a success?
Yes definitely. The Minister went away with a good feeling having met the people. He did say he wanted to continue to work with me. He said he wants to work on a new relationship. He wants to have a round table to work on some of the outstanding issues facing the Cree that have been outstanding for a long time.
Do you see hope for a better relationship with the Federal Government?
I think so. There is still the bureaucracy which thinks differently. The difficult thing, even though we get a commitment from the Minister, is that it will take months for the bureaucracy to act or it might even go in another direction entirely. It’s unfortunate.
I think with this trip there will be a better understanding between the Minister and the Crees when we sit down at the table. After 25 years no non-Aboriginal group in Canada would accept such a situation as the Crees have endured. Don’t expect that after a quarter of a century the Crees are going to sit back and do nothing. We respected our obligations and we expect them to honor theirs. We have many challenges and we have a young population coming up that want a decent life.