After years of stalled negotiations, the Cree Health Board has made a breakthrough toward starting some serious talks with the Quebec government on underfunding and health reform. The two sides have agreed on the framework for negotiations that are to start later this month. The talks are intended to fulfill the forgotten promises of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, and to bring Cree health and social services up to par.

Bertie Wapachee, the health board’s new chairman, dropped by our office on the day of the signing (Nov. 10) to tell us all about it, and bring us up to speed on the new era the health board has entered. “It was a beautiful day today,” he said. “Today was a big day for the Crees as a whole, and certainly a big day for the Cree Health Board. I’m sure a lot of people will be happy to see something is moving.”

Wapachee said the health board has gone from being the most neglected of all the Cree entities to one of the most important priorities of the Cree Nation today. Big changes are in the wind. “The fun has just started,” he said. “It’s a whole new ballgame now.”
-Alex Roslin

The Nation: So you had some pretty good news last summer from the Cree Health Board. How did you feel when they asked you to be the new chairman?

Bertie Wapachee: I guess on the one hand, it was a big honour for me to step in the shoes of an old friend. I’m talking about the late James A. Shecapio. It is a big honour to continue where he left off. The other part was it was nice to come back to serving the Cree people. I finally get the chance to take up a bigger challenge. It’s a $30-million-plus organization. It’s gone through some tough times ever the years. I guess I felt I could do something in there. I’m a very ambitious person. It’s the challenge that drove me to accept the title. It’s been a good challenge so far, a big one. It’s a big responsibility, and I love it. I just love it.

You took a year off after leaving the Cree Nation Youth Council, where you were the Youth Grand Chief. What do you think you gained from this time?

Well, I certainly feel older. I finally got the chance to go through what a father is supposed to go through – everyday life. It’s a new beginning for me, being part of the health board and also having a new baby boy a month after. I got a chance to be a father to my children. I got a chance to be a husband to my wife, a friend to my wife. Just to have that chance to be a family man is something special that came out of this whole year. It did a lot of things for me. I got the chance to go fishing quite a bit, and that’s something I missed. Like I said, I feel older. I’ve grown up.

Now that you’re at the health board, you said you have a lot of ambitions. What is it you’d like to do there?

It’s more than just one reason. There are so many reasons why I wanted to be a part of the health board. On one hand, we know there are a lot of social issues that are growing so rapidly. In so many ways, we’re burning out our employees. There isn’t much staff to take care of the people’s needs. On top of that, concerning the health issues, there’s so much that people need to be aware of. People need to know what kinds of diseases are out there, what kinds of health issues in general are out there.

Talking about ambitions, overall, it’s to bring the organization to the highest level – to meet as many of the needs of the Crees as it can, from children all the way to the elderly. These people need those services, they need those programs, and they need the proper care. That’s something our board will need to bring to the Crees.

You were saying earlier that you thought the Cree Health Board was the neglected entity of all the Cree entities until recently. What did you mean by that?

I’m sure some people are aware of this, but I think it’s something everybody should know. The Cree Health Board is a 24-hour service. It deals with each and every individual Cree across the Cree territory, even down south, no matter where they are. If there are 12,000 Crees, the Cree Health Board deals with every one of them 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The demand is always going to escalate. It’s got to go through its evolution each year to make sure different needs are being met as they arise.

Ever since I’ve been part of the health board, that’s the first thing I felt – we are the neglected Cree entity. It shouldn’t be that way. One of the main things we look after in our own lives is our health. To be healthy, you’ve got to take care of your social issues, your health issues, you’ve got to do all these things to have a healthy lifestyle. It goes to your families too, it goes to your communities, it goes to your nation.

With the health board, I kind of feel for the organization. It’s never really had the opportunity to grow. It’s never been given that opportunity with Section 14 of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (the section dealing with health services -Ed.) not being implemented to the fullest. That part made the health board grow at the same pace right from the beginning. All it’s been is a crisis-management organization for so many years.

I guess the Cree leadership never really took the time to take a good look at it, and pay closer attention to it. But that has changed. It’s been a big change, especially with the new leadership we have. The Cree Health Board is becoming one of their priorities. That’s what we need. That’s what the health board needed right from the beginning. After 20 years, it’s finally becoming a priority to the Cree leadership. It’s a big change.

You were saying one of the problems is the level of funding has remained almost unchanged for 20 years. That must have had a huge effect on the health board’s ability to deliver services.

It’s been, I would say, one of the main obstacles. It could be the main obstacle over the years. If you look back at 1978, the budget started off at the $28-million mark. If it was indexed to inflation the way it was supposed to be, I’d say right now it wauld probably be around the $75-million mark. That’s not the case here. Starting from the $28-million mark, the health board’s budget today is around $32 million. So I guess you could say we’re underfunded. We know we need more money for more services, but we don’t have that. I hope that’s something we can change.

There was the assembly on health issues a few months ago in Ouje-Bougoumou, where people had a lot of concerns and there was a lot of talk about the Cree Health Board. From being at the health board and being part of the community, what do you think people’s concerns are? What would they like to see it become that it isn’t now?

The report that came from that assembly was probably one of the best documents you can use today. It comes from the people. As a Cree, I know for a fact there are some areas where the health board is lacking, whether it’s services, whether it’s programs – like one in particular, home care. That’s one we truly need for people who need special services. There are so many issues that surround the health board. Everybody keeps saying it’s not providing proper services, and I can agree with that. I certainly could concur with the concerns people had at that assembly.

I was pretty happy with that report actually, because it brought me a perspective coming from the people. It was a good start for me, reading that report and seeing what people thought of the health board. I can’t argue with what they said. Everything they said in that report is correct. We need to start working from that. Whoever had that idea to have that assembly is the health board’s best friend.

Do you feel like it made a difference inside the health board, with how the people who work there do their job?

I guess our workers can argue they weren’t fully involved during that assembly. I was pretty happy with it. But it’s not all. There are some things that are probably missing. There are some other concerns in the communities we don’t hear every day. I think what that report did for the health board is it brought the health board on the Cree map. I think it was an important assembly.

A couple of the communities started their own healing centres – Waskaganish and Nemaska. Do you think they were trying to fill a void in the social services they thought weren’t being delivered?

As a Cree person, I can understand, and I can certainly relate to those people who did that. As a member of the health board, again, I can understand. I don’t blame those people for doing what they feel should be done. I’m actually pretty proud of them to make that move, to start those groups. As a member of the board, I guess I’m pretty open to seeing people get more involved in social or health issues in the communities. Whether they form their own groups, it doesn’t matter to me – as long as they work with the people, including the health board.

I think that’s what’s missing here, what’s been missing for a long time. When I said the health board was a neglected organization for a long time, it was never given a chance to work with the communities. The only thing it ever got was to become a crisis-management organization. But now things are starting to change. There’s a whole new outlook. And I think we’ll come to that point soon, where we’ll discuss where can the communities get involved when it comes to social and health issues.

As chairperson. I’m pretty open to that. I like seeing that. I don’t think the health board can do miracles at this time. If communities decide to start their own wellness groups or committees, then go ahead. I’ll be happy to see that. It’s one thing for people to realize – this is no longer the Indian Affairs syndrome. We have to do away with the dependency – give me this, give me that. That’s it. Enough of that.

What we need to do as Cree people is we have to start working together. That’s the most important thing. I think that’s one thing that’s been missing for a while, and it’s just now starting to come back. I think the new leadership will bring that. I’m hoping the new members of the Cree Health Board can bring that to the Cree communities as well.

I understand there was an important agreement signed today with the Quebec government.

It was a beautiful day today, actually. A few years back, there was an attempt to try and set up a table with the Quebec government to talk about the issues the health board was going through. It was a close call. They got (Health Minister Jean) Rochon to agree to sign the terms-of-reference (to start negotiations). Just before he signed, he was shuffled off to another department. Starting from 1995, when the health board asked the Grand Council for assistance to get the Health Ministry at a table to discuss the needs of the Cree Health Board, there have been so many exchanges with the government.

Just recently, the government decided to propose an agreement with the Cree Health Board. But it was just another tie-up ceremony. If we had signed that agreement, we would have been tied up in more government policies and regulations. They agreed to take care of our past deficits, but that’s all. That’s not what we want today. So the health board decided to step away from that.

When I became chair, there was already a process that was begun (to start new negotiations with Quebec). The person who was leading it was Abel Bosum (former O.J. chief). That process partially came from the O.J. assembly. This summer, after more discussions, they finally agreed to some new terms-of-reference. That’s basically to say what will be discussed at the table, and how we’re going to do it.

Today was a big day for the Crees as a whole, and certainly a big day for the Cree Health Board. We got a faxed copy of the terms-of-reference signed by Pauline Marois (the new health minister). I was pretty happy, and I’m sure a lot of people will be happy to see something is moving. Like I said, it was a beautiful day.

This would be for negotiations to implement the things that were promised 20 years ago?

Not only those things. It’s also a time to review what would be acceptable today. Some things in the James Bay Agreement have never been implemented. This table will give both parties a chance to sit down and talk about what they think Section 14 means. At the same time, to talk about how they can bring the Cree Health Board up to par, hopefully bring it to the $75-million mark. That’s my dream. I’m not going to walk away from the health board under $75 million. (laughter)

Is there anything else you wanted to say?

I want to thank the board for really pushing things to go. We have a pretty good team now. That’s something that’s been missing in the health board, the political edge. Now we have three former chiefs in there as new members. That combination helps the health board have that political edge. That’s what’s good about it. Everybody seems to want to go in the same direction. That’s something we need to have. Ybu need to have people think the same way you think, to go in the same direction you’re going. That’s the best.

Other than that, I’m back and I think it’s going to be a lot of fun for the health board. Certainly, it’s going to be something to look forward to. This whole process, it’s not something I’m going to back away from. It’s something I know, and I feel it needs to happen. It shouldn’t stop anywhere. The government should not shuffle anybody else. There shouldn’t be any political moves or tactics to stall the process. It should be based on what our people need. Our priority at the board is bringing the best service for the entire Cree Nation.

One other thing is we need Cree professionals at the health board – Cree doctors, Cree dentists, more Cree nurses. In 10 years, I hope we will see the first Cree doctors. The youth should start thinking about this now as they plan their education.

I’d also like to say there are people in the organization who have been around for a long time and who kept the organization alive. I’m pretty proud to work with those people, and it’s a big honour to have people that committed to stabilize the organization, even when it was underfunded. These people have seen crisis almost every other day, and they need to be honoured in some way. I think Mr. James Bobbish needs a pat on the back for all the things he’s done, and keeping things intact. That’s one of the best things to have – to have people that committed. I hope this can rejuvenate him, and that this new agreement will bring what he always wanted to bring into the organization. Of course, there are others – so many people who have been around for a long time. I’m hoping they’ll stick around a little longer because the fun has just started. I just wanted to say I’m proud of all of them for hanging around this long. It’s a whole new ballgame now, and I hope they’ll look forward to seeing those changes.

I guess that’s all I need to say, and to tell all my friends hello and I’m back.

Ekuuda. Thank you.