Chief Henry Mianscum surprised few people when he announced he was retiring from politics this year. His long years of public service included a few terms as a young Mistissini Band Councillor, in addition to the 11 years he spent serving the people of Mistissini as their Chief.
In an exclusive interview with The Nation, Chief Henry Mianscum talked about his accomplishments, frustrations and what he learned as Chief.
He says that though he is no longer available for public office, he sees no reason why as a private citizen he won’t continue to voice his concerns about the community and nation he knows, loves and has served so well.
The Nation: We didn’t see your name on this year’s election ballot. If you are retiring from the local political scene, does this include regional and national politics as well?
Chief Henry Mianscum: When you’re talking about politics in terms of holding the offices of the Chief and getting involved with political issues, yes, I am retiring from local and national political offices. But to say I am distancing myself from all political issues or the political arena, as a private citizen I have every right to voice my concerns on any issue that will affect my future or that of my family. And asa concerned public member, I have that right. So in essence, I haven’t totally removed myself from the political arena.
What do you feel were your greatest accomplishments during your time in office?
I can’t really say what was the highlight, there were so many things we accomplished. During my term as Chief, I can’t say they were my own personal achievements. They are shared by many people. These were things you have to do as a community. Personally, what I can say is once you’re elected Chief, you have to establish a good rapport with people.
I see people being more proud as they are taking charge of their own personal affairs instead of depending on the Band Council. That in itself was an achievement you can’t really measure. But you have to see the people being able to cope with the problems, get started on the solutions and find the resolutions to correct them. That’s determining their own future. They’re determining their own goals. That’s something I really enjoyed seeing. I witnessed much of that happening. I also witnessed a lot of graduations of Crees from adult education, secondary and post-secondary. And during my time, I have seen a lot of work to achieve that. I’m sure the future Chiefs will come from the ranks of those graduates.
I can’t say what was the highlight of my days as Chief.
There were so many that I shared with all of the Cree people.
What were your frustrations, say, working at a local level rather than a regional level?
Working at a local level can result being in low gear at times. The Cree people have gone through a great transition and have had to cope with a lot of changes that were forced upon them by the various modern agreements.
These changed people’s lifestyles. The James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement is one of those agreements. You’ve noticed that people were not ready for major changes. It was very difficult for them to cope with periods of certain changes. But you saw a lot of that, the frustrations building within the people about not having enough of the facilities like housing.
It’s hard when you see that and you’re not able to do very much about it because of limited resources. Every year, the government is decreasing the resources and at the same time your need is increasing. How do you deal with that?
Overall, I think the most difficult moment has always come from the fact that the government wasn’t able to respect its commitment. I’m talking about commitments you had worked hard to achieve through a negotiated format. Commitments about what the main contributions would be to the community and economic development. There are many things which the government has more or less retracted. That’s what I would say is the most frustrating part.
I guess time is of the essence to see the results of your work. Maybe not in my time; maybe in the future.
There’s been a lot talk about the Crees’ economic ventures both at the local and regional levels. What do you think are the problems and the ways of resolving them?
I believe that what the Board of Compensation did at their last meeting—naming their own members as the Board of Directors for many of the companies like CreeCo., Servinor, Air Creebec—was one of the best things they could have done.
“Someday when we have a vision, a clearly defined vision, I hope we will say that we want to reintroduce the Cree values of old.”
Because they themselves know how much money they can utilize from their entity and how much accessibility these entities have to the cash management policy of the Board of Compensation.
And there are a lot of questions about how that system was managed and certainly how it was formed. Needless to say, CreeCo. has always been an issue at many Annual General Assemblies, as well as at the Council Board level. We are all aware that there are many questions that have yet to be answered, such as why CreeCo. had access to $20 million in the initial stages of its business. Since that time, it just lost the revenues. They should have turned around and invested the money in the Cree communities. But this is why they were afraid of investing any kind of money in the communities because of that risk of losing money.
There are many things when we could say, well, we should have done it this way or that way. In a certain sense, the times were different in that period than today. But today, we see things differently and I think what the Board of Compensation has done is probably the right direction in which they should continue. The Board should have a more stringent hold on our funds, with more control over the operations of the entities. They will determine the fate of many of the retail entities.
Overall, the economic development of the Crees has probably increased the opportunities out there. But there is still that line of thinking that says we could have done more. I think we could have done more if we had that opportunity. But we lost it because of the political issues that were a priority through various parts of our existence. Those priorities preceded that of economic development. There is really nobody to blame as such, but I still think these issues tend to crop up at the wrong time so economic development now is an issue that we have to look at. We have to develop business for our people, to be our providers. So our business people control the businesses for the benefit of the Cree Nation. I believe that’s the only way it has to go.
I don’t think we are going to see any of our money that has been lost by just continuing to complain about it. We need to take concrete action on economic development. I’m very glad that the Board of Compensation has taken matters into its own hands. Hopefully this will resolve some of that. All the nine communities have to participate. The political will and the leadership has to generate that momentum to accelerate economic development both in the communities and in the region.
There has been talk about the amount of money we spend on lawyers and consultants. What are your thoughts on this?
I’m in total agreement with that. I believe if you go back about 20 years since the creation of Grand Council/CRA, I believe—and I’m only speculating—that we’ve spent around $50 million or more on lawyers and consultants.
Mind you a lot was necessary in terms of legal representation in the courts to fight for various rights that were threatened by the government and developers like Hydro-Quebec. I believe that a lot of the work done through these avenues was justifiable. Where it becomes questionable is in how we use the lawyers as a researcher, manager, advisor and representative. Every time we use these people, we have to remember it is another tick in the meter for them. I believe we should have used the resources within our own organizations, our own nation. I think this can be resolved at a later time.
A lot of the work that was done by the lawyers and consultants has born fruit, that you cannot deny. But if we start breaking it down as to how and why, I think we could have saved a lot of money—by spending the money mainly on those who produced developments. I’m very sure the present treasurer of the GCCQ/CRA is working very hard to ensure that, to rectify that situation. And that’s difficult to do. So I’m in agreement that we’re spending far too much.
When you talk about these types of problems, some of them are going to be discussed at the GCCQ/CRA Annual General Assembly and at the Cree Nation Gathering to determine the vison of a Cree future. What is your idea of that future?
I can’t really answer and say this is my vision of a Cree future when it has to be decided by all the people. But more and more, people are beginning to realize we can’t copy another society’s lifestyle and say this is our new way of life. I don’t think the people ever meant it to happen like that and that’s how it has been interpreted. People are realizing how valuable our way of life was, as we practiced it through our Elders and our parents. It was something fulfilling and full of love. There was always the readiness to help a stranger, there was always the readiness to help your neighbour in times of trouble, moments of Cree celebration in terms of weddings and feasts. This involved the community and wasn’t related to alcohol or drugs. You didn’t need that to celebrate. They did it together as a community in the interest of helping and coming together.
That is something we’ve lost to a great extent. What our children have inherited from us is something we didn’t want to happen. Again, we can’t say it’s your fault or his fault, but with time we’ve evolved into a different society than we like. Someday when we have a vision, a clearly defined vision, I hope we will say that we want to reintroduce the Cree values of old, to return to those intentions of wanting to help one another.
Today, we are very competitive and very selfish at times, wanting more than what we should have. We at times lack concern for other people. That’s the trap we’ve fallen into. We have to get ourselves out of it.
It might take talking for days on end, but we will have the vision. I believe the Cree Nation has much to be proud of in preserving our way of life. We have to correct the problems in our communities that have arisen from using other ways of life, other customs and so forth. The general feeling is that we want to correct that part of our lives. We should come out with a good vision, a healthy vision of what we want to be. If we have that, our children and their children will have a clear vision of what they can be.
What have you learned as a Chief? What lesson would you pass on to future leaders and the youth?
Communication is one area that we have to acknowledge as very important in our daily work. I spend about 90 per cent of my time talking to people during a normal business day. It’s the only way you can learn about people and the events happening around you. It lets you know how to deal with things because people tend to give you a lot of information you were not aware of, as well as many recommendations and solutions to a problem or situation. People are very competent in determining the direction you want to go. As Chief, what I have learned from people is how to deal with a situation. That I will carry forever.
If there’s something I’ve learned, it’s that the people weren’t serving me but that I was serving them. To be a leader, you have to learn to serve people, not expect to them to serve you. You have to learn to humble yourself because life is hard. The road to a successful life is very, very difficult and it’s something you have to walk on carefully. You have to learn as you go along. You’re never too young or old to learn and for me that is something I would like to pass along.
Now that you’re planning to retire from public life is there any dirt you would like to share with us?
[laughs]… I don’t have any type of dirt. That was a long time ago. I’m a different person now. [laughs]… I think whatever I’ve learned, whatever I’ve seen, whatever I’ve heard, anything that’s going to cause anybody any problems, I don’t think it’s fitting or proper to hurt another person. Maybe a person has a problem, that person can look after that problem themselves. You don’t have to add more fuel to it. I don’t think it’s proper.
What’s the first thing you plan to do when you retire?
The first thing I want to do is finish my wife’s backyard that I began five years ago. Finish that off, so I won’t hear about it again. The other thing I want to do is spend some time in the bush with my dad and mom. They’ve always wanted me in the bush and I’ve never had a moment when I could do it. Time out there would be profitable. That’s what I would like to do immediately. I’m not looking for any opportunities right away, but I would like to know what are the possibilities of getting into after spending time in the bush. I’m more or less looking for something to do after, but always work that will help the people.