The landscape of Indian country across North America is a varied one. Though no scenario is perfect, some nations have succeeded in developing strong economies and responsible governance, while others still struggle in dire developing-world conditions. The major question is why?

For two days the Grand Council of the Crees, the Cree Regional Authority, Chiefs and councils from across the nine communities and many representatives from the Cree entities met with the Native Nations Institute of the University of Arizona to discuss exactly that.

The Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management and Policy produces two-day seminars for executives and other groups on what constitutes good governance in Indigenous governments and provides them with skills and tools to build better nations. The Crees met with the NNI on February 25 and 26 at the Delta Hotel in Montreal.

“What we brought here was about 20 years of work from across North America with Indigenous nations that are reclaiming their right to govern themselves in their own ways,” said Professor Stephen Cornell of the NNI.

Cornell, along with Manley A. Begay Jr., the chair of the NNI, came to Montreal from Arizona to conduct the “Executive Education: Nation Building, Leadership, Governance and Economic Policy” seminar. What they brought with them was over 20 years of knowledge in trying to understand what has or hasn’t worked for some Indigenous cultures and what lessons can be derived from those experiences.

Cornell explained that though many First Nations are poor, the ones that have been successful in rebuilding their communities since colonization have all had certain key characteristics. Jurisdiction, he said, was one of those keys. Having the means to be decision-makers within their own territory is essential to building a nation but it did not end there.

“It’s another thing to back up that jurisdiction with competent, capable governance. A lot of what we talk about has to do with what governance means. How do you make sure that it’s governance that respects Cree tradition and values and not just governing structures that represents what Ottawa thinks is good governance,” said Cornell.

In his opinion, if an Indigenous nation takes over power and their authority is backed up with capable governance which is culturally reflective and fits with the ideals of the nation, positive things can happen for that nation.

Cornell used the Crees’ implementation of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement as an example of this. Though it has taken over 30 years to see much of the JBQNA’s governmental tools come to fruition, to this day the Crees have little tolerance for Canada or Quebec dragging their feet when it comes to fully implementing the agreement. In his opinion, it made good strategic sense.

In regards to leadership, Cornell pointed out that leadership is not simply a matter of elected officials being good managers, but that it is everywhere. When it comes to the proper tools for “Nation Building”, he said it was important to think in terms of the long-term strategic priorities of the nation, and act in those terms.

“If you project certain principles, live those principles. There is a lot of simple leadership-related stuff that involves not so much how you exercise power but how you get other people to exercise power effectively,” said Cornell.

His NNI colleague, Begay, who is Navajo and also the co-director of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development at Harvard University, brought other expertise to the seminar.

“The Navajo Nation and many other nations in the U.S. have stories to tell about how to turn self-rule into healthy societies,” said Begay.

He explained that because of the research started on the Navajo in the ’70s, it has allowed the Navajo to build economies, governing systems and constitutions as they saw fit. At the moment, the Navajo, much like the Cree, are in the process of building their own judicial system that is based on traditional Navajo values and customs.

For the Navajo, this system will allow the accused to choose either the western adversarial court system or the Navajo peacemaker court system, where a lot of litigation is now being settled. The latter system allows for the involved parties to talk through the issues and is used in everything from divorce cases to criminal matters to civil issues.

Begay said that many Navajo are now opting for the peacemaker system, which has been very effective when it comes to conflict resolution and preventing the initial situation from reoccurring.

“There is this sense that Navajo fundamental laws — which encompasses natural law, customary law and traditional law — are not applicable to modern situations and contemporary issues but that is not the case,” said Begay.

Though many of the Cree leadership who attended the event interpreted the information differently, they all said that they were able to take different parts of it to heart and would be looking at their own positions a little differently after the conference.

Deputy Grand Chief Ashley Iserhoff said how meaningful it was for him to be able to take in all of the knowledge from so many other Indigenous nations.

“I always hear from Elders wherever I go that life is about learning from others, other Nations and our brothers and sisters from across Canada and the experience that people share whether they have made mistakes or have made improvements,” said Iserhoff.

In particular, Iserhoff was interested in the talks on political involvement in economic development. He said that there was a lot of discussion about keeping those in business working on business matters and likewise for politics without an overlap. This way both groups could complement each other more effectively.

For Grand Chief Matthew Mukash, the conference was more about taking home new tools to move forward with, especially in regards to implementing fresh ideas.

“Many people have good ideas but a lot of the time we don’t know how to put those ideas together, structure them and put them into action as tools. This conference has shown us the best ways to promote our ideas in governance and economic development,” said Mukash.

Even as the head of the Cree Nation, Mukash said that he was able to learn new skills as a leader that he will be putting into action. For him this seminar was about learning what his responsibility as a leader is, how to lead a nation and how to recognize and respond to the needs of a nation more effectively.

“The position of Grand Chief is a huge responsibility. A lot of the time you get blinded by petty things,” said Mukash.

Though he said that he was familiar with much of what was being discussed at the conference, what Mukash found most helpful were the simple implementation processes for ideas that were presented.

For Cree Construction’s Willie Macleod, the conference reinforced the idea that the Cree Nation already has many of the necessary tools and all of the instruments and all of the structure to move forward as a nation.

“We have to put these tools into action and establish the nation. I think what is missing is a constitution, and some of the roles and responsibilities. But we have to move ahead to build it,” said Macleod.

In that his role within the Cree entity is so central to economic development and because it was so heavily discussed within the seminars, Macleod is hopeful that much of the information presented will help Cree economic development prosper to the point of sustainability.

While taking in the lectures, Youth Grand Chief Stacy Bear began to contemplate her own future. She said that normally she is used to thinking only a few years ahead when looking at where she wants her life to go but that this event had her looking 50 years ahead.

“Maybe I will become Grand Chief one day. This was something I always said I wanted to do when I was little, become a chief,” said Bear.

Her own personal desires aside, for Bear the event was “eye opening” as she had never before had a chance to see how economic development and governments go hand-in-hand. That they are dependent on each other but that they need to remain separate.

In all, Bear said that her experience with the NNI would certainly be shaping her future, particularly in terms of her present position.

Though the Cree Nation has made great strides in terms of governance and economic development compared to many First Nations in Quebec and Canada, there is still more to achieve. The information presented to the Crees at this event created an enthusiastic buzz amongst the participants as they left with new tools in hand. What they will do with that knowledge, only the future will tell.

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