Grand Chief Matthew Mukash has been at the helm of the Cree Nation for the last four years. As of this May, he has announced his candidacy to run for a second term as Grand Chief.
Born in 1951, Mukash was raised traditionally in the bush outside of Whapmagoostui until he was 15 years old. At the encouragement of his father, Mukash pursued academia and possesses both college and university degrees.
Prior to his life as the Grand Chief, he has served Whapmagoostui as a police officer, an economic development agent, a member on various committees and as a Council board member. Mukash has also served on a series of regional boards, Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay (CBHSSJB), the CRA Board of Compensation, the Grand Council of the Crees (Eeyou Istchee) and the Cree Regional Authority (GCCEI).
In the early 1990s Mukash was also instrumental in fighting the Great Whale River hydroelectric project and worked as a Community Liaison Officer for the GCC, speaking abroad and bringing the issue to the forefront of international politics.
From 1992-99, Mukash was also the Chief of the community of Whapmagoostui before he ran for Deputy Chief and was elected into that position. In 2005, he became the Grand Chief.
Outside of politics, Mukash is a strong proponent of traditional Cree values and a family man. He is a proud father and grandfather and a devoted husband to the love of his life, his wife Danielle. Also a passionate musician, Mukash plays multiple instruments, has one album out and hopes to release a second one when he can find the time.
The Nation: If given a second term, do you think that your leadership style would change?
Matthew Mukash: First of all, I would like to express my most heartfelt gratitude to the Crees of Eeyou Istchee for having entrusted me as their leader. The last four years have been challenging but exceptionally educational and uplifting for me as a leader, and I am very grateful for this. I say “Meegwetch!” to all!
Secondly, I would like to state at this time why I have decided to seek re-election. As always, I discussed my options at length with my partner-in-life, Danielle, and with my children. We concluded that if I were to decline a nomination this time around, it would be like abandoning the Cree Nation which has placed its trust in me as its leader. I say this because since GCCEI’s signature of the 2008 Cree-Canada Agreement which, after 30-some years, finally settled our outstanding claims as a Nation over the non-implementation of the 1975 JBNQA, many people have asked me if I was going to go for a second term. Some of the concerns raised were over the implementation of this Agreement as well as the successful conclusion of the second round of the Cree-federal negotiations on Eeyou-Eenou Governance. With these concerns and several important undertakings yet to be accomplished, yes, I have decided to seek a second term as Grand Chief.
Will my leadership style change if elected for a second term? Well, let me first say this: during my term, we have signed 16 agreements with governments among which the most important is the Cree-Canada Agreement that we signed in February 2008. We also have successfully initiated processes to address issues related to education, health, social and economic development and the protection of the environment. We have had regional assemblies jointly with Cree institutions, such as the Cree School Board, Cree Board of Health and Social Services and CREECO on Economic Development, to find a way of addressing the issues affecting our communities. We have also had conferences to develop the best practices in the carrying out of Cree Justice, Policing and Human Resource programs. Theses assemblies and conferences were a way for the leadership to get direction to find real and practical solutions to the problems our people face every day. Much was accomplished as a result of these meetings. Such accomplishments were possible because of the ability of our present staff to effectively and diligently assist in the carrying out the mandate of our Cree Nation government. I applaud them for their support and commitment!
Like anything else, leadership styles can change as circumstances dictate. Yes, I may have to adapt pending the situation; but first I would have to carefully assess the pros and cons for any action I take and act in the best interests of the people. This is the way I like to work.
TN: Is there anything that you did not accomplish in your current term that you would want to focus on in a second term?
MM: Indeed there are a number of issues that I had hoped to accomplish but could not due certain circumstances beyond my control. Among the important issues to address are: the Ouje-Bougoumou Lake contamination, the Chapais dikes spill, the Mistissini Height of Land issue, the Ouje-Bougoumou Land Transfer, the situation regarding the MoCreebec people, and the selection of the permanent location of the Washaw Sibi Eeyou community. All of these are very important to the Cree Nation and the processes to resolve them have begun, and I would personally like to see them successfully concluded.
TN: Do you think a change in leadership right now would affect the Crees poorly?
MM: First of all, I’m not one to consider myself indispensable as a leader. Nor do I place myself above or below the capacity of others to lead, although at times I question their leadership style or unilateral approach.
In this election it will be extremely important for the Cree Nation to choose a candidate who’s had extensive involvement in Cree Nation Governance matters, both at the local and regional level, as well as experience in successfully dealing with the federal and provincial governments. A few very important considerations must be taken into account in choosing a leader this time around. Among the more important ones is the successful conclusion of the second phase of the Cree-Canada negotiations, which deals with Eeyou-Eenou Governance. The successful conclusion of these negotiations will depend on how the next administration deals with the governments of Canada and Quebec. In the Governance Agreement, the Cree Nation must get as much as it can without compromising the means to continue to build an autonomous and prosperous Cree Nation. This perhaps will be the most important and single opportunity for the Cree Nation to determine the governmental structures it requires, including a Cree Constitution, to effectively and efficiently exercise its right of self-government and self-determination, amidst a constantly changing and very demanding world. It is in this process that we must, among others, seek to address the issue regarding the Municipality De Baie James (MBJ).
To move forward in these negotiations, we have already established a working group on Eeyou/Eenou Governance to advise us in the negotiation process. The monetary value of the Governance Agreement with the federal government, if successfully concluded, will be $200 million, renewable every 20 years.
With regard to the social, economic and other issues affecting our Nation, the present administration has taken initiative, something that previous administrations have not done to a great extent, which is to work closely with the Cree institutions and entities that serve the Cree Nation in the areas of cultural, health and social services, education, economic and political development. We did this to promote a unified and common approach for addressing the issues affecting our nation – be they social, educational, economic or political. This process is only a beginning and the next administration must continue to support this unified approach to fully address the issues facing our Nation.
These are only few important considerations the Cree Nation needs to take into account in choosing its leader.
TN: What do you feel is your greatest strength as a leader?
MM: I would say it is my ability to effectively respond to difficult situations and be able to maintain my personal and professional integrity, while serving my people in a dignified and trustworthy manner. I was conditioned early in my childhood to learn and live by the values of perseverance, commitment, humility, self-respect and such, and I believe this – coupled with my contemporary education and professional experience – has made me what I am today, a leader.
Just a few words on perseverance; when I was elected Chief of the Whapmagoostui First Nation in February 1992, the Cree Nation’s campaign to stop Phase II of the James Bay Project, which involved the damming of the magnificent Great Whale River, was at its pinnacle. This was when my ability to lead a people was first put to test. Because of my ability to persevere despite all odds, a virtue I learned through personal experience on the land as a child, I became one of the key figures alongside then Grand Chief Matthew Coon-Come in leading the public campaign to successfully stop the project. We went to the U.S. and Europe to create awareness and wage public support. This campaign was a huge success and its end result was that the State of New York cancelled a $17 billion energy purchase contract with Quebec, which later gave no choice to Quebec but to offer a settlement to the Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee, as a way of promoting development in the North. Thus, the Agreement Concerning a New Relationship with Quebec or Paix Des Braves came about and, later, the Cree-Canada Agreement which we signed in February 9, 2008.
My ability as a leader was again challenged shortly following my election as Grand Chief of the Grand Council of the Crees. Here I was being caught in the middle between those who wanted the EM-1A/Rupert River Project stopped and those who had hoped to economically benefit from the project. I was often reminded that I had said during my 2005 campaign that I would attempt to find an alternative to the EM-1A/Rupert Diversion project. I know that many Crees had hoped that this would become reality. What I did was this: I discussed the matter with key people within our government as well as certain officials of the Quebec government and Hydro-Québec. It became clear to me that this project had been the cornerstone for the 2002 Paix Des Braves Agreement and that it was not possible to remove it from the Agreement. It was also unthinkable for me to lobby the Cree nation to ask its members to revisit the decision made by referendum to accept this Agreement, as it would have been the same as telling them they made a wrong decision. It was then after much thought and careful consideration that I decided that the decision of the Cree Nation must be respected. For me, this was a very challenging instance, but as always I was guided by the virtue of humility.
I have gained respect from both sides as a result of this decision and I am grateful for it. This experience among others has strengthened by will to continue to lead with strength and humility.
TN: Why are you the better candidate for Grand Chief?
MM: In order to adequately answer this question, it is first important to determine what presently is at stake and the underlying opportunities for our future growth, prosperity and survival as a people.
It is no doubt that, if the legacy of colonization continues to be imposed on our people, generations of Crees to come could face daunting challenges regarding their own survival and success. Our advantage has always been in my view our geographical isolation. To date, we still compose the majority of people living within the expanse of our traditional homeland. But this could drastically change over time. We have seen it happen to some of our Aboriginal brothers to the south of us, who have seen their land and its resources being developed systematically to a point where they could no longer practice the most important aspect of Aboriginal culture – subsistence hunting and related traditional activities. We must make sure that this does not happen to our people!
To build a strong nation, we must have a plan of action that ensures our survival and prosperity. Such a plan must also set out the process to accommodate our non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal neighbours with whom we share our homeland. We must be guided by a common vision and mission for our co-existence. This will be very important in order to promote mutual respect, economic cooperation and a peaceful co-existence.
It is in the Cree-Canada negotiations on Governance, of which Quebec will be party, that we will seek to establish a territorial governance structure that we in the region can all live with – a structure that promotes economic cooperation and partnerships with our neighbours. Without this, it will be very difficult for our people to support resource development that excludes them. We must find a way to accommodate and promote sustainable resource development within Eeyou Istchee without comprising the future and survival of our people. In this regard, the Cree Nation must choose a leader who is willing to balance resource development opportunities with the assurance of protecting our language, culture, heritage and way-of-life – as opposed to one who could easily be swayed to support only resource development without due regard to the latter.
There are other important issues that the Cree Nation must address. One such issue is Quebec’s Northern Development Plan, which could involve intensive resource development in Eeyou Istchee. We must continue to insist that Cree consent is required for resource development in Eeyou Istchee. The leader chosen must be one who takes into account both the need to promote economic opportunities for the Crees and the need to protect Cree rights and interests in Eeyou Istchee.
As I stated earlier, it will be important as a nation to be guided by common vision and policy statements for all aspects of our development – be it cultural, social, economic or political. We must as a nation come up with a master development plan, which takes into account the needs, goals and aspirations of our people.
This is my vision for the future of the Cree Nation, and I hope it answers your question.
TN: Do you feel that last year’s U.S. election will affect how you campaign?
MM: I do not think that it will. I’m not sure that the whole world is watching the upcoming election. What is notably important about the Obama campaign is its call for a “green energy plan”. The definition of green energy, as you know, includes hydroelectric development, wind energy, thermal, solar and other forms of energy production. It will be important for the next administration to determine the impacts and identify the opportunities flowing from such plan. Will some of the development for green energy take place in Eeyou Istchee? If so, how can we take advantage of it? Recently, we created an entity to be owned by the Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee with a mandate to pursue energy development opportunities not only within Eeyou Istchee but also within and beyond the boundaries of Quebec and Canada. If wind energy, solar, thermal or mini-hydro development, for instance, is slated to take place in Eeyou Istchee then, by all means, the Crees should lead that development.
TN: What is your campaign platform?
MM: My main platform is to ensure that within the next four years, the Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee has in place the political structures, including a Cree constitution that it requires to effectively and efficiently exercise its right of self-government and self-determination. We must have a structure that carries the voice of our women, our Elders, our youth and those who wish to pursue the traditional way-of-life. The successful conclusion of the Cree-Canada Agreement on Governance will be crucial, as it will provide the means not only to ensure our social and economic prosperity, but also provide the means to promote mutual respect, economic cooperation, partnerships and peaceful co-existence with our neighbours – the non-Crees and other First Nations peoples, including the Inuit. Such accomplishment will bring hope and a sense of belonging, pride and dignity for our people, particularly our youth!
In the meantime, it will be important to develop and establish the Cree Nation’s policy on language, culture and heritage protection, health and social services, economic and political development. All of these are important so we can thrive and prosper!
The most important aspects of our existence are: our language, our culture, our heritage and our way of life. If we were to lose these aspects then our survival as a people would be gravely threatened. To build a culturally healthy nation and to ensure our survival, we must actively encourage our people, particularly our youth, to return to the land. The winter walks, the summer trips and the like, must continue. We would need a Cree survival school that is located on the land, where young people can go to learn the important aspects of our cultural, essential for one’s survival. Such initiative would provide the means to live a clean and healthy life and to find one’s true purpose in life. Such undertaking would serve to instill a great sense of identity, belonging, pride and dignity among our young people.
In our social development, we need to look closely at the health of our people, physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. The issues of poverty, alcohol, drug and substance abuse, and family violence must be addressed. What is also seriously lacking within our Nation is adequate shelter for our people. We have a huge housing backlog that needs to be addressed. Although statistics dictate that the Crees are not worse off than the average Canadian or Quebecer, we still need to address this issue. If elected I will seek the assistance of Mike Holmes of “Holmes on Home” to assist us in finding a solution to our housing problem. When he came to Val-d’Or as a special guest at our Construction Conference earlier this year, he indicated that he would be willing to help us in this regard. Thanks to the work of the CHRD department of the CRA!
In our economic development, we must continue to take the nation-building approach. Earlier this year, upon our invitation Drs. Stephen Cornell and Manley Begay, from the Harvard Project on Indian Economic Development and Native Nations Institute (Arizona), gave a Leadership Training to key representatives of various Cree entities and institutions, including the CRA, Cree School Board, the Cree Board of Health and Social Services, CREECO, local governments, the CTA and the Cree Nation Youth Council. Their presentation was very informative and provided the tools for the Cree Nation to consider to actively and successfully promoting economic self-autonomy and self-sufficiency. Again, if elected I wish to ensure that a process is in place to help us develop a master development for the Cree Nation to consider.
With regard to our political development, we need to examine closely the existing structures of governance (including local and regional governments) and determine what are the best structures required to effectively and independently govern ourselves. As stated earlier, we already have a working group that will advise us in this process. I want to make sure that we come up with the best practices for the exercise of our own self-determination and self-governance.
Finally, the Cree Nation must realize that the world population is growing at an alarming exponential rate, which could in a matter of time threaten the very resources that humanity depends on for its own survival on this planet. In this regard, the Cree Nation must develop – not only to promote and maintain its own survival but in such a way as to prepare to serve the world when the time comes – to ensure humanity’s survival!