The Nation: How are you doing in terms of carrying out your election promises?
Grand Chief Matthew Mukash: Since our election, Deputy Grand Chief Ashley Iserhoff and I have tried to meet with as many Cree entities and organizations as possible. Some of those we have met with over the past few months have been the Cree Nation Youth Council, the Council of Elders and the leadership of various Cree entities, such as the CREECO, the CRA Board of Compensation, the Cree Board of Health and the Cree School Board. The intent of these meetings was to establish a basis for good working relationships between our entities, organizations and governance structures in the Cree Nation. There will be more of these meetings in the future to keep this network of cooperation and accessibility strong so we can continue to build upon what we have accomplished to date.
Up to this point in time, six months following our election, Ashley and I have also met with a number of the Cree Chiefs and Councils in a series of community visits. We coordinate these with the Chief and Council of each community, in order to give them the opportunity to coincide them with regular Council meetings, and if possible other community events they may wish us to participate in locally. We still have a few communities to visit. The purpose of the visits is to spend time with each community’s leadership and members, to become familiar with their goals, issues and way of doing things so we as leaders can be well informed on how each community would like to be supported at various levels of its development.
As far as our accessibility to the people is concerned, well, with the community visits, relocating meetings to the communities, and the development of an internal communications strategy – I believe we are improving upon this daily. However, it is important to note, there are a large amount of requests we receive each day – which means we cannot attend all events or meetings. But it also does not mean that we do not want to stay informed on what has happened or been discussed at these events. We appreciate the inclusion given to us in any Cree event, and often think about what issues are being focused on in the Cree world. A good deal of our time in the past few months have also been taken up to ensure that the change of leadership does not unnecessarily impede the pace at which continuity flows at the organizational levels as well as in on-going negotiations. A lot of my time spent in the south was to get acquainted with various files that deal with the implementation of various agreements and on-going negotiations.
Over time, we wish to be more accessible to the people. We know that tremendous wisdom flows from the people – the women, the men, the youth, the elders and the children – wisdom that needs to be cultivated and used in planning our Nation’s future.
Your working style seems different then the former Grand Chief. How has the staff adjusted?
A bureaucracy in any organization, whether it is public or private, always needs a little time to adjust to a leadership change. The GCCEI/CRA government organization is no different. The issue is always how a new leader is viewed or gets accepted as the new captain of the ship. It takes time. It’s important for us to establish a relationship of confidence and trust throughout our government organization.
The Deputy Grand Chief and I have moved the Executive Office from Montreal to Nemaska. Both our Executive Assistants now work out of the Nemaska head office of the GCCEI/CRA, and we try to hold meetings with other Aboriginal groups or visitors in Nemaska as much as possible. Thus, one campaign promise fulfilled. This is a major change from the previous administration.
Overall, I think the GCCEI/CRA staff has, to a certain degree, adjusted well to the leadership change.
Has there been a change in negotiations with the Quebec government?
First, I would like to say, given the positive meeting we had in March with Premier Charest, a good healthy relationship exists between the Cree people and the people of Quebec. We as societies, and neighbours, are committed to building upon this relationship to create a stronger economy and greater opportunities for our people. As much as Quebec has had a new leader since the Paix des Braves, so have the Cree – and both of us are in agreement that we want to work closely together.
I think though, what you are hinting at is if there were any issues with perhaps past roles I might have played in the Cree Nation, and if they affect our relationship with Quebec. No, they do not. I think the Government of Quebec, and the Quebec public, is aware of where the Cree people stood in the 1990s over hydroelectric development with respect to the Great Whale River Project and the NBR projects. Therefore, it is no secret that, I, in my roles at the time – as a member of the Cree Nation, or as Grand Council Liaison, or as Chief of Whapmagoostui, played a prominent role in a very well-publicized campaign. This was a united position of the Cree people, and many of the past leaders participated in this campaign as well. I think it brought us to a different relationship today, one where we can better understand and respect each other.
I think initially there was uncertainty within the Quebec government, and perhaps with the public, after my election. There was speculation or rumours I might go against the 2002 Agreement Concerning a New Relationship with Quebec, or Paix Des Braves. To clear up any misunderstandings, as Deputy Grand Chief I advocated for a process internally, to allow the Cree Nation more time to study and understand the agreement. This position was in response to growing requests for a more informed and longer process. This said, as Grand Chief, I appreciate that a process has occurred, and the agreement was passed that programs, development, and relationships have been built upon over the past four years. Unfortunately, certain members of the press over the past few months have created even more uncertainty and misunderstandings concerning my position. Therefore, I felt it was important to meet with the Premier of Quebec to reassure him of our commitment to build upon a good relationship with Quebec for the benefit of both our peoples, and to dispel any misconceptions. We did this, so in answer to your question – yes, negotiations with Quebec have changed, in the sense, I believe we are both committed to building something stronger and better together.
On March 24, you had a meeting with Jean Charest, the Premier of Quebec. What was the purpose of your meeting?
As I mentioned earlier, it was a good first meeting, and I think laid the foundation for more such meetings. It is important that we as Cree have good relationships with the governments of Canada and Quebec. After all, in 1975 we made a modern-day treaty with them, the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA). My meeting with Premier Charest was about establishing a good relationship with Quebec. It was also about moving forward with implementation of our treaty rights under the JBNQA and its subsequent amendments as well, the commitments under the Paix des Braves being a part of the implementation efforts as well. We also talked about the importance of Quebec’s support of the Cree-federal negotiations to which the Premier agreed. We discussed the Cree Nation’s interest in wind energy development; as well as implementation issues under the 2002 New Relationship Agreement. We discussed the outstanding justice and policing files, the Mistissini/Ouje-Bougoumou land transfer, the recognition of Washaw Sibi, the dissolution of the Societe de la Baie James and the mandate of the James Bay Municipality. We also talked about the Whapmagoostui First Nation’s request to be connected to the James Bay Highway by way of an access road.
Overall, the meeting was productive and very positive. We agreed to work together openly and honestly. We left the meeting with a sense of accomplishment.
How have the negotiations with Canada been going?
As most people know, after over 30 years since the signing of the 1975 JBNQA, the Government of Canada has yet to fulfill certain of its obligations under the treaty. Negotiations were at a good pace, but they were affected by the recent federal elections. We have the support of Government of Quebec in returning to those tables, and efforts have been made to put us back on track to our pre-election period. All indications have been that the Government of Canada continues to be responsive to our efforts, and certainly this is a priority of our administration.
It was suggested that files such as policing and housing would suffer. Has this happened?
Under the JBNQA, among other provisions, the funding for justice and policing is a joint responsibility between Canada and Quebec. As this was also something discussed with Premier Charest during our meeting, we have had good indications the Quebec funding is in place. With respect to the other portion, the Government of Canada has also indicated their funding is there as well. On housing, there is a table in place with both Cree and Canadian representatives on it. Canada has in the past claimed that housing for the Crees is not a treaty right under the JBNQA. We continue to be committed to try to resolve this matter in the realization that housing needs are of great importance to the Cree Nation. Shelter is a fundamental human right.
The latest Cree election saw an almost American style of running for office. At one point religion as well as name calling entered into the election. Would you care to comment on this?
In elections in the non-native world, intentional character assassination of a candidate is a common strategy, but I am not sure this works well in the Cree world. Our campaign team tried to remain focused on the platform issues as much as possible. We did not allow ourselves to get absorbed into negative energy that was prevalent at the time. As for the use of religion and the name calling, this unfortunately happens, whether it is in the native or non-native society. This will happen in the future, unless we as a people adopt a collective will to change this for the better. At my age, I have learned to place little or no judgment on others who display contempt in my person for any reason through language or action. Our Elders remind us that when we talk about others or create unfounded rumours, we are not only attacking them but their family members as well. I think we need to be careful on how we as a Nation feed into this, as afterward, we all remain here in Eeyou Istchee. The potential for creating hatred or ill feelings towards individuals or their families could put people’s safety or well-being in danger. This is all I can say about this.
Where do you see the Cree Nation going in the next four years under your term?
Like any leader, I would like to see growth, change for the better. I would like to see the work that Ashley and I are investing our time and energies into take hold and lead to a stronger, more accessible, transparent and participatory form of Cree government in Eeyou Istchee. I would like us, as a Nation, to take the time to go through a process of self-assessment to determine our direction in terms of cultural, social, economic and political development.
Evolving as a strong nation with strong and vibrant culture and language alongside or vis-à-vis other nations of the world is a dream that I have and truly believe in. In the next four years, I would like to see our nation move towards a major change, a change for the better which will need the involvement and participation of our elders, youth, men, women and children to realize. We need to make this happen in order to have control of our future as a nation.
What has been your greatest challenge to date?
The greatest challenge for me has been keeping up with the demands for meetings with people from different organizations and individuals who would like to sit down with me and talk. Because of the demands of the job, especially after an election, it is not always possible to meet everyone who wants to see me. But I have a good support team and we delegate responsibilities to others within the organization according to priority. Because of his extensive experience in public functions, Deputy Grand Chief Ashley Iserhoff provides tremendous support in this regard. We work well together and I am very thankful for that.
How has your family been handling all the traveling?
My children are now independent and they live on their own. I miss my grandchildren very much. My wife, Danielle, has decided to continue to work in Whapmagoostui as an educator. We have been together for 33 years; she understands the requirements of the job, and I am greatly thankful for this. She gives me all the support I need. We get to see each other at least one week in a month, which is good. We plan to travel together during the school break in the summer. As for me, I have been in politics for more than 12 years; traveling has almost been a way of life for me. It comes with the job, and I am used to it.
How many strings on a violin?
Four, but when you break a string, no matter which one, you are left with three.