After interviewing Bertie Wapachee, he asked “So do you have a tear in your eye?” We both laughed while I reached for a hanky. You don’t meet many people more intense than he is. That power he has is now going to be put to work on behalf of the Cree youth and the many problems they face. Bertie was elected vice-chair of the Cree Nation Youth Council at the Youth and Elders Conference held in Eastmain in August.
Bertie, who until recently worked in Nemaska as a Youth Protection officer, spoke of many things in our interview, but he kept returning to one thing–the need for change in Cree society. A change in the direction of the leadership, a return to traditional Cree values and a stop to the destruction of the land. “Whatever has been destroyed, I start to feel a little less,” he said. “It hurts to see clearcutting. It hurts to see rivers being dammed, polluted. Those things hurt.”
As Bertie describes it, it is dawn for the Cree Nation. He sees a profound awakening underway among the Cree people, especially among the youth and Elders. And he feels he is a part of it. “I do have that spirit that tells me there needs to be change and I have to be part of it. That feeling is there.”
There needs to be change. We all have to wake up together, open our eyes together, stand up together, walk together, walk side by side. Nothing could bring us down if that happens, he said.
The Nation: What kind of a feeling did you get from the Youth and Elders Conference in Eastmain?
Bertie Wapachee: I don’t know anything…
It’s a good question. I could say that of all the assemblies that have been before, this one was very, very different from all the rest. The way the Elders have sat with us all through that time.
The feeling I got there was that something was about to start. The Elders have talked about bringing back the way of life of the Crees, bringing back the old ways. The youth, when they talked, that was basically what we heard. This is what we want.
We want to see the old ways back. We want to live the way we lived before. It’s hard to explain, I guess. There was a feeling of a new beginning. I know there’s a lot of talk about a new beginning at all the conferences, but this one was different. I had a good feeling that something was going to start there and I still feel that today.
Do you think there’s an awakening going on now?
Yes, this is one of the things I always hoped for. One time, I guess, I got into trouble for trying to wake up the people. Right now, there area lot of people who are starting to come together, people who are out for the same cause and want to see change and want things done.
Those are little people who are starting to come together, starting to be reunited, in a way. But for me, I met a lot of young people my age, talked to Elders, talked to youth who are seeing the same things I see right now.
There needs to be a big change in the Cree world today. In a way, a lot of things are bit by bit destroying our people and our people see that. Everybody seems to be aiming at the same people, our leaders, to do something about what’s going on right now.
So we do have a lot of new people I never met before, who I never heard of, who are talking about the same thing and have the same way of thin king—that there needs to be a big change in our society today.
What do you think is the main thing that has to be changed?
The way of living, I guess. So far, we’re going in the same direction, either trying to follow the modern society today, technology and all that stuff, going to school, destroying the land, money and success. It’s too many years that our people have been confused. In a way we’re trying to go back to the road we were on. We were supposed to protect the land.
There’s a lot of things that need to be changed—the ways of the leadership.
What do you think the leaders do that is wrong?
Well, not exactly wrong— but a change in direction. Aiming at other things. A lot of them are too involved in the upper world, the political world. I would say the leadership should go in the direction that their people were informing them or keeping them up to date. Basically, helping their people to heal. That’s what we need now.
Do you think there’s also a strong feeling that there’s been too much destruction of the land and that maybe more should be done about that?
I guess all of us, we’re waiting for the last minute to really do something about it. A few rivers and a lot of trees
have been cut down, and mountains have been blown up. There’s more of that coming.
Our people right now are sort of talking in their seats and not really doing anything about it. To me, there’s a lot of things I can think of I could do to try and protect the land. But in a way, I don’t have the power.
One thing I would like to see for sure is that our people could really have control over the land. It was once given to us to protect, it was once given to us to use for our own good, for our health, for our people and our children.
Do you think the things you’re saying, is that how the youth are thinking these days, that there needs to be a change?
Yes, there really needs to be a big change in all corners of the Cree world—in leadership, in the way of thinking. There are too many people today who are confused, not knowing which way to go. One way would be for a young man taking alcohol and drugs, not knowing where they’re going. Another way would be leaving all those things aside, going back to the land, going back to the way of living of the Crees.
Is that something the youth are really focusing on now?
Yes, I’ve heard a lot of youth talk about that right now, that something needs to be done, for those words to be heard by
the leaders. There’s a lot of words that come out of a young man or a young woman who wants change, something to be done in the community.
There has been a lot of talk about youth in the communities. In many ways, a lot of that is just words. There’s no action happening after those words have been spoken.
This summer, I went to the Gathering at Old Nemaska and I was part of the Youth and Elders General Assembly. Being part of those two gatherings, I could say there’s a strong feeling that people want to do something. I said something at the Gathering—that we’ve been talking all this time, trying to make changes, trying to do something else, for our people to stand up for what they believe in, for what was theirs to protect and is still there.
It’s time to take our papers and stand up and start walking.
Why do you think it’s just been words and no action so far?
Well, I remember when I came back from the General Assembly, a recognized leader said something like: Whatever the youth talked about over there at the General Assembly of the Grand Council, we hear that every year, we hear that every assembly, there’s always a youth coming up to say things like that. It always stays the same, after that nothing happens.
Maybe nothing happens because they don’t do anything. They have a role to play.
There are a few Chiefs who are starting to wake up and admit there are problems with the leadership. That’s something good to hear.
Even though there’s a lot of problems, it sounds like something very positive is going on, something very profound. Do you have that feeling?
Oh yeah. If I really look at it right now, this is what I’m doing. I look at it this way.
The PQ won the election and there’s the possibility that there’s going to be a referendum and there’s a possibility again that there’s going to be a “yes” vote and Quebec could go ahead with their plan. In a way, those are the kinds of things that are really starting to push our people, telling all of us Crees that we should really do something now, we can’t sit around any more. People are starting to open their eyes now.
And I’m only one of them. There’s more and more people who are really starting to wake up. It’s good to see. A lot of those people have a lot of experience in the past 20 years or so. A lot of them experienced those years, being involved in the James Bay and Northern Quebec Dis-Agreement.
Even the Elders are really starting to open up, because they haven’t really done that in the past few years, I guess. They sort of put aside what they had and followed what everybody else was following, trying to live in the modern world and trying to survive with money.
Following that road, you don’t even see what’s happening in your backyard. Somebody might be building a dam or looking for rocks or drilling a hole in your backyard or cutting a few trees here and there. A lot of those things are, I guess, starting to make our people open their eyes a little more.
There is that sense right now, where I was and among the people I talked to, that people are ready to accept what’s happening right now and do something about it, make that change. There are people who are prepared to do that. Even myself, I am prepared to see something like that.
One of my plans right now is to go back in the bush. Right now, I want to be involved in that change. Not to make a name for myself, but just to be a part of it. Because I do have that spirit that tells me there needs to be change and I have to be part of it. That feeling is there.
So whatever happens tomorrow or whatever happened yesterday, something needs to be done today.
You were just elected vice-chair of the Cree Nation Youth Council. What kinds of things would you like to do to put your ideas into action?
I like going to the young people and hearing what they have to say. For myself, I never had the title or the power to go to such an assembly and address whatever my concerns were.
Now, I do have my concerns still today and there’s a lot of young people out there who have concerns about many issues. And I’m starting to hear a lot of what the youth want, what they want to see, what they would like to do. I hear a lot of that.
Some of those things they brought to me I have to bring to the table—the Grand Chief’s table or the Grand Council’s table or even the Chief’s table. Some of those things we can do ourselves, as long as we have the authority of the people. We don’t have to have the authority of the Grand Chief.
There’s a lot of things that I’ve been dreaming to do for a longtime. Now, I have a title and now I can take action.
Some Cree leaders say the youth have a certain line on issues, but that because they’re young they don’t have the experience to analyze those issues properly. How much wisdom do you think the youth can bring to issues?
The way I have been taught and one of the things I taught myself, is that no matter how old you are, if you are newborn, or a young man or woman, all ages right up to being an Elder, if all of you are together in one room, in the eyes of the Creator there is no one who is better than the other. We are all equal.
This is how I have seen myself ever since I stopped doing some things I was not supposed to be doing. I was involved with a lot of alcoholism. Once I stopped doing that, I started to learn that all of us are equal. There’s no one who is better than the other.
So my response would be we are all equal. If the Grand Chief sits over there, with a big table and a nice seat, and there’s a young baby that’s crawling around, the Grand Chief can still learn something from that baby.
As one of the youth of the Cree Nation, there’s a lot of things I see up ahead. Right now, where we are, if we do let go the clearcutting, if we do let go a few more rivers, a few more mountains, a few more trees, the more things that are destroyed, the less we are as people.
Being young doesn’t mean I don’t have experience. As long as my heart is there, looking at the land, seeing that something is happening to it, that someday my grandchildren may not see what I saw, those trees that are being cut down, those rivers that are being dammed and those mountains that have been blown up, those are the things that open my eyes.
It’s not something I have to look at on paper or on TV, wherever. It’s not the leaders who are going to tell me I don’t have experience. I don’t need experience. I have a life. I have feelings for the land. I know my spirit is part of what I see out there. It’s part of the land. In a way, they all belong together. We are all a part of Creation.
Whatever has been destroyed, I start to feel a little less. It hurts to see clearcutting. It hurts to see rivers being dammed, polluted. Those things hurt.
As long as we have feelings, that’s what counts. As long as we see there’s something out there, the land, we have to do something. As a young man, this is what I feel—that I have to do something to protect it. So my grandchildren can see what I’m seeing, so my grandchildren can walk on the path where I used to walk. All these things.
There is this talk about experience. Whatever it is that these leaders say, whatever words they use to say these things, they are the ones who don’t know anything. They do know something, but they are too involved in the higher level of modern society. They have to come home, this is what I’m trying to say. They have to come home to their people so our people can walk together with them.
They are not higher than us. And we are not higher than them. We are equal. This is how we all have to see ourselves—no matter what colour you are, no matter how long you went to school, no matter how long you went to the bush, no matter how old you are, no matter how special you are. We’re all equal.
Nobody can tell me I don’t know anything. Maybe they’re right. But I do know this—I do have feelings for the land.
What kinds of experiences did you have when you were on the land?
I remember I was eight years old when I was first taken to the school. My parents wanted me to go to school, but I didn’t want to go to school at all. I didn’t want to have anything to do with school.
I remember telling my parents or somebody else that I wanted to go home. I remember what I thought my home was—I thought my home was in the bush. Still today, my thought is still there. My home is out there.
I guess since I was born, I’ve always been in the bush until the time when my parents decided to take me to school. I had no choice then. And if I did, if I had the choice to go back to the land,
I would. Even right now, I still have the choice. But if I go to the bush, next thing I know this mountain near my cabin or my tent or my teepee all of a sudden explodes and you see a few guys with hard hats around. It’s one of the things I don’t want to expect.
I don’t want to see anything like that around where I’m going to live. I don’t want to see strangers starting to put pickets on the trees or the rivers saying they’re going to cut all those trees, they’re going to blow up this mountain, they’re going to dam this river. Those things I don’t want to see.
I always try my best not to have anything against anybody. Still today, I’m fighting myself. Those people or Hydro-Quebec or whoever wants these dams, they do understand how we live, they do understand why we want to protect the land, why we want to stop the damming or clearcutting. The way for them to keep on their way of life is to have success and lots of money—it’s the only way to survive. That’s their way of life.
In our way, it doesn’t matter if you don’t have any money—you can still go in the bush. Now, there are two kinds of people or two different ways of living, wanting the land for two different reasons. One reason is to protect it and go there to be free. The other reason is for them to go there to cut all the trees or make the dam there so money comes out of it. That’s their way of surviving.
So what do we do—both of us, I guess? Hydro-Quebec, or whoever these people are, have to come to an understanding. Which way is better? Is it better to keep the land and make it a home for everybody? Or is it better to destroy the land and make no more land any more? What are we going to do?
Something people are talking about more and more is the social issues in the communities. That’s something you’ve been working on quite a bit. I’m wondering what your own past experiences have taught you about how to deal with those social issues and what you would tell a young person about how to deal with those problems?
It’s going to be a long story… [laughs] Let’s say we will start off with what goes on in the communities. For the past year I’ve been working for Youth Protection [with the Cree Board of Health and Social Services]. When I started working, I didn’t know what was really going on in the communities. I had an idea, but I wasn’t too sure.
I’m not only going to talk for Nemaska, but for all the Cree Nation. These are the thing? that have been going on for quite some time. Social issues are a very big thing. A lot of people talk about wanting to do something.
The way I see it, in order for someone to do something, in order for someone to help the communities, one’s got to start with himself, with herself. There’s a lot of talk about bringing people from the outside. But in a way, I do believe that our own people can do those things. Our own people can heal themselves. Our people.
So many things are happening in the communities today. There are suicides, attempted suicides, incest, molestation, all kinds of sexual abuse, wife abuse, wife battering or even emotional abuse that some women do to their husbands. A lot of our people carry a lot of pain about something that happened to them in the past. Some of them have even started to do something to other people.
There’s a lot of things that I could talk about. There’s a man beating up his daughter. There’s a man beating up his son. There’s a young man raping a few girls here and there, young girls, younger than him. All these things.
Our people need to find a way to look at what’s really happening and stop denying that things are really happening in the communities. That’s where we are now. A lot of people are denying that these things are happening in their own homes or in their own communities or in their own families. It’s time our people accept what’s really going on and bring it out.
It’s something that’s really hard to do, telling someone what happened to you in the past. People don’t really know what to do—if they should go to social services or if they should go to somebody else.
It’s a very big issue in the Cree Territory today. If I’m not mistaken, the Gathering that’s supposed to happen in Mistissini is supposed to deal with social issues. This is one of the things that needs to be addressed in the leadership. Everywhere there are thing? that need to be done on the social issues and things that need to be done now. It doesn’t matter how much money it costs. Maybe you’re going to be broke in a few years. But something has to be done.
There’s too many things that are happening. There’s too many children who are being hurt. There’s too many children who are
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