Interview with Chief Paul Gull

Paul Gull likes change. The Cree political world saw big changes in the past month, and that suits Gull fine. The newly elected chief of Waswanipi sees himself as an “agent of change.” But he does not want to be alone. He asks the people of his community to ride on the wave of the changes in Cree society, and not be left behind.

Gull, former chairman of the Cree School Board, won with 181 votes in the August 30 election. Apart from the change at the top, the new council has some new youthful faces. Elected to the council were Allan Happyjack (the deputy chief), Marcel Happyjack, Irene Neeposh, Allan Saganash Jr., Sam W. Gull, Marlene I. Kitchen and Glen Cooper.
— Alex Roslin


Thank you. I’d like to thank the people of Waswanipi for electing me. I want to work with them and I respect the position and want to do my best and do it right. I met a lot of people – a lot of people said congratulations. I want to thank them from the bottom of my heart. There are so many I’ll probably continue running into them. I get calls, I get letters. But I hope we can work together for the common goals of our people.

So how did you feel when you heard the results?

It was very emotional because it was tiring. I had gotten up at 6 o’clock the morning before – 24 hours before the results. I had to work that day in O.J., came home that evening and voted around 8 or 8:30, and at 9 o’clock they started counting the ballots. I stayed there right until 6 in the morning.

So when the results came, I was tired. There were emotions of happiness, emotions of tears. Other people were happy I got in. When I knew I had won, I got up and shook the hand of the guy who came in second – Alfred Jolly. I was speechless at that time in the morning. It was very exciting and I took a little dance because the music came on. I spoke a little bit to the people. I said I wanted to work with the people who ran against me. I asked them to sit on an advisory committee and the majority of them agreed. We still haven’t ironed out the details.

Apart from that, what are the main things you want to accomplish in the next few months?

Right now, with the new council, we’re still trying to find out where we are. Generally, I have an idea where everything stands. We have to iron out where the council stands. There are issues that have to be resolved and we will be dealing with them. We tried not to make any decisions in the last two weeks because we wanted to go through the formal process of transferring power from the old council to the new council. I still don’t understand where we are in financial terms. The treasurer tells me it is okay and we’re not heading into a big deficit. We invited everybody to make presentations to council to tell us where they stand.

I’ve already met the employees of the band council and we mentioned what we’re going to do in terms of working together. That was one of my high priorities – working with anybody and every-body in trying to iron out our problems.

There are lots of things I mentioned in my campaign and I did mention these are only my ideas. The other people campaigning had some ideas. And there are some things where the process is already started. It’s just all mixed into the whole bag of problems the Cree Nation has – the forestry court case or the MOU (Cree-Quebec Memorandum of Understanding). So everything seems like it’s interrelated and there’s a lot of work ahead of us.
Are there any changes in priority or emphasis you’d like to bring in at the band?
The first priority is what we do as workers serving the people. I try to be here after-hours or even before work starts, try to show the people we have to do the work, even if we have to do it in our own time. I try to be a role model. I’m here before work starts and I leave after everyone leaves.

We have to meet the goals of the people, and that is to serve the people. That is I could say my number-one priority. Sometimes people will look at it on an individual basis or on a community basis. I hope it’s a community-based thing because it’s being together that got us this far. If we had to do it as individuals, I don’t think we’d be where we are as a community. That’s why I want to look at it that way. The priority is we look at it as a community and we try to meet the needs of the community. I want to work at the grassroots level.

We had a question about the MOU and all this capital that’s supposed to be coming in. Yes, there’s a lot of capital coming in – but do we have the operations-and-maintenance (O&M) budgets to carry out these programs?

Right now, nobody can answer my question. Five years ago when I was a councilor, we only had the O&M money to run what we have. We have situations where Quebec is putting money in to build a capital project, but there’s no O&M money attached to it. Can this be settled on a trilateral basis with Quebec, Canada and the Crees? We should find innovative ways to settle this O&M issue.

In general terms, we want to know where we stand. There is a lot of talk about what can we say to the forestry companies. Where are we going? How is this going to impact us? What are the negative impacts of going to court? What are the positive impacts? And are you willing to sacrifice all those negative and positive impacts for this court case? It’s going to take a while to iron out and there’s going to be a lot of people who will be hurt, a lot of people who’ll find that in the long run it will pay off.

This should be answered by the people. My role is to see if it is possible – if it’s possible to continue at the rate we’re going, trying to find the balances between positive and negative. Is it going to hurt the community down the road? Probably yes, and there are going to be a lot of sacrifices we have to make as a people. But that’s where we are. There were decisions that were made in the past that have implications on where we are today and in the future also.

Waswanipi’s Nabakatuk sawmill project has lost a lot of money. As well, the forestry corporation Mishtuk owes the band $1 million in unpaid stumpage fees. Do you think the community has gotten enough benefits from the money that was invested in forestry projects?

It’s an issue we are presently looking at and we are going to be dealing with it in the near future.

In the last few weeks there’s been a lot of changes in the Cree leadership. There is a new chief in all the communities that had elections and there’s a new leadership at the regional level. What do you think it means?

I can only speak with for my own community. I am willing to work with the other chiefs in defending rights and agreements we have with the governments. In terms of the community, I want to ask, where do you stand? It’s up to the Individuals. Everybody understands that change is happening and we can see it. I can ask a question to the people: Where do you want to be in the change? Do you want to fight it or be a part of the change? I think that’s important. Because if you fight it you might be left out. If you’re an agent of change, maybe it will be better for the community.

When I was in university in the past three years, this was the biggest topic in management. Change is good. And change is going to happen. It’s always going to happen and it’s just a matter of where does an individual stand when it happens. It all depends on what you want. If you want change, let’s make it – let’s make it work. If change is for the better or the worse, are we going to be part of it?

There are fears right now about Y2K. Is that a bigger change? How is it going to affect us? We all have to think about that. Right now, I feel like I’m one of the agents of change. I welcome it, I believe I can learn from it and I believe I can work with it.

People have debated whether the tallymen agreements are good or not. Do you have any opinions?

I always said if you’re going to have those, you do it without prejudice to any rights the Crees have as a whole. We have to find better ways to assist our tallymen for they represent our culture and traditions. Yes, the agreements can be beneficial. But we came this far in a united front because I guess we could say we had the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, and we shared everything that was part of the agreement.

But today we have these individual requests and bickering over little things our forefathers said we will fight over – and we are. I think it’s just jealousy and all the traits non-Natives gave us. We’re fighting over money now. Because money begets more money which begets more money. I heard a chief say that once.

At the same time, we have to be more innovative in the way we handle our finances. We may not have the funding to count on in the future, or we won’t if we continue at the rate we’re going. When this happens, everybody fights and bickers about the money, and then it’s not a question of unity any more – it’s a question of jealousy, power, who gets more, who gets what, who wins what fight.

I don’t think it’s healthy to go that way. I hope it doesn’t continue. I hope there is a united front to correct some of the problems in terms of where we are now. I hope we can work together. Even as a political person from this community, I’ve been mandated by the people of Waswanipi to be their chief. If their needs are what they want, if I can get it somewhere else, I’ll try. The problem is sometimes it becomes personal, it becomes a divide-and-conquer scenario. If we don’t make it personal, I don’t think we’ll fall into that trap in being divided.

If we try to understand where we came from, where our Elders came from, where we want to go in terms of protecting our children in the future, I think the unity can become natural. Egoodeh.