There comes a time when a leader must take a stand. The Chief of Waskaganish, Robert Weistche, did just that when he opposed the signing of the Paix des Braves a year and a half ago.
Needless to say, this was not a popular stance in the eyes of the Cree Grand Council (CGC) or the Quebec government.
The deal ended up being signed, but his position lead to Weistche being alienated by most of the other nine community leaders, which made for a very tense situation at times.
“My position (on the Rupert River diversion) still remains the same, I still believe that there’s a glimmer of hope that the diversion will never go through, but the environmental review process is under way, so we’ll have to wait and see what happens,” he said.
Recently, Weistche was re-elected as Chief of Waskaganish to a second four-year term. Due to the local election code, this will be his last term in office.
“It’s a real honour and blessing to be re-elected as chief. I think the youth have come out and shown their support. They’ve come out and expressed more of an interest, and a concern about the state of affairs concerning our nation, and they want to get involved.”
In all, he has been in politics for over 12 years, including a stint as chairman of the Cree School Board (CSB). After his term is up, he’s not sure what he wants to do, but he is not ruling out furthering his political portfolio.
“Four years is a long time, I’ll wait and see how I feel after this term,” he stated.
Billy Diamond, who ran against him in the election, has been Chief of this community before. Weistche felt that his time was up, “I respect the man, he’s done a lot for our community in the past, but there comes a time when people look for new things, new ideas, and try to inspire hope, and I think Billy’s style wasn’t working anymore.”
The Annual General Assembly (AGA) was to be held in Waskaganish in August, but was postponed due to the passing of Grand Chief Ted Moses’ son. Rumours began to circulate that the Cree Grand Council (CGC) was trying to move the AGA to Mistissini.
One of the concerns was a lack of accommodations for the visitors. “We’ve arrived at an agreement where we’ll be able to accommodate everyone,” said Weistche.
“Maybe it’s because the diversion will have such a huge impact on us, that they weren’t sure they wanted to come here in case there was trouble.”
For the immediate future, he wants to focus on bettering the lives of the community members. “Every reserve is afflicted with social conditions that are sometimes beyond our comprehension. I want to see our young people have more opportunity and hope. I want to work towards stopping the abuse of alcohol and drugs.”
This will be much easier because the Chief is an avid fitness enthusiast, and leads a healthy lifestyle.
“The young people are able to associate with me because they see me kayaking on the river, skiing on the river, and participating in other sports. They feel they can relate (to me).”
Promoting family fitness activities, healthier eating habits, and sports are a huge priority. He’d also like to see cross-cultural exchanges and more canoe brigades, not only in Waskaganish, but across the Cree Nation as well.
Developing the community by working together is the key if Waskaganish wants to move ahead in the 21st century. One of the things Weistche is looking at is the restructuring of WEDCO (Waskaganish Economic development corporation).
“I think it’s important that we try to set this up, by encouraging more joint business venture development in the region. We will also try to access more training and development opportunities for our people through business proposals that can be submitted under the Cree Human Resource Department (CHRD), and the Local Management Board (LMB).”
When Weistche came to power in 1999, Waskaganish was around $12 million in debt. These days almost $3 million has been paid back, thanks to greater accountability, and a tighter budget.
A long-term problem Weistche would like to see solved is the status of the Cree from Moose Factory. They were left out of the voting process last year to elect the Chief of the Grand Council. In that election, Ted Moses narrowly defeated Mathew Mukash, something which could have been different if the Moose Cree were allowed to participate.
Their status is up in the air as to how much compensation they are entitled to regarding the benefits gained from the Paix des Braves. They didn’t participate in discussions on the agreement, nor did they have a say in what went into it. Legally, its said they aren’t entitled to anything at all.
Weistche thinks that this is wrong, and he feels that there is room for discussion, especially since a large number of the Moose Cree are originally from Waskaganish.
“I’m open to sitting down and having a discussion with their leaders, and find out what they represent. When you’re born Cree, you’re always Cree and your rights should stay with you, no matter where you go.”
In four years time, Waskaganish will have a new leader. Weistche believes that as in life, all things must come to an end, and he is confident that the youth will lead his community into a new era, with their heads held high.
“I believe there are a lot of up and coming young people who are acquiring the education, and the skills that they need to be able to do a good job. I’m confident somebody will be able to do the job, and they might not even know it right now,” he remarked.