No stranger to politics, Deputy Grand Chief Ashley Iserhoff has spent a life devoted to leadership in the Cree Nation. At 35, he has already spent the last four years in his current position, was Youth Grand Chief and Chairman of the Cree Nation Youth Council for four years, and was a member of the council itself since the age of 14.
While working with the Grand Council he has been instrumental in the formation of the Cree Regional Police force having served as its first ever commissioner. He has also served as Chairman of the Hunting, Fishing, Trapping Coordination Committee and Chairman of the James Bay Advisory Committee on the Environment while holding his position at the Grand Council.
Iserhoff graduated high school in Montreal in 1992 and has since taken post-secondary courses through the Cree School Board. When he began campaigning for Deputy Chief, Iserhoff was working on a certificate in public administration. However, the election took priority and Iserhoff dropped the program. He has since vowed to complete it.
In his spare time Iserhoff enjoys cycling, is an avid reader who favours biographies of famous world leaders, and has spent a lifetime devoted to improving the lives of others in the Cree Nation. His main focus has been youth.
As someone who has respect for every belief, Iserhoff has said that he is a believer and that he is of faith.
The Nation: What brought about your decision to run again for Deputy Chief?
Ashley Iserhoff: I have been thinking about it for the last few months and I knew that this would come up eventually because throughout my travels through the territory and visiting communities and speaking to people. It has been an awesome experience for the past few years being Deputy Grand Chief but now that there are a lot of ideas that people have shared with me and I have echoed those ideas to the current leadership and they just don’t seem to fly with certain people. My decision is based on the idea of just changing people so we can bring new ideas into the Cree system.
TN: What changes and ideas are those?
AI: One of the things I have heard throughout the last year is that there are a lot of ideas that young entrepreneurs want to pursue. They are full of new ideas and the only way we are going to create a sustainable economy is if we are able to find ways to help them. There are many people who want to start new businesses who can’t because of not having their share to start their businesses. If you look at the concept of having a sustainable economy, we have to find ways to encourage young entrepreneurs and people who want to start businesses because they are the ones who provide long-term employment.
Right now what we are going through in the Cree Nation is that we have a huge employment possibility for people but it is temporary, there are no long-term solutions. There are so many ideas that people have shared and they want to find ways to have long-term employment so that people can pay for their homes, cars, their needs and to have food on the table.
Whatever decisions we make and the meetings we have also have huge impacts on people who are living in the communities and I thought it would be good to share and use the ideas that these people have been bringing for many years. A lot of people are not too happy with the way things are today. They have been trying to make some change happen with the people who are elected into certain positions throughout the Nation whether it be Chief, Grand Chief or Deputy Grand Chief.
There is only so much that we can do but if you have somebody in the position who has a huge influence on the Cree Nation that can really help use the ideas of the people. This is a people’s agenda. It is the people who have been trying to make change happen with the way leadership operates and a lot of people have not been satisfied in the last few years with the way things have been happening.
TN: Are you talking about the Cree Trust?
AI: There is that and there are a lot of things that people are not too happy with. Since we first signed the agreement 35 years ago, we have come a long way with the Cree Nation and a lot of the ideas that have got us to where we are today, even the way we govern ourselves has to be a little different. There has to be some change where it is going to have a huge impact on people in the communities in ensuring that their voices are heard.
TN: So do you then feel like a lot of people are not being heard at this point?
AI: Yes, that is something that has been echoed to me whether it be from the Elders or the youth or the middle-aged people. There has to be a process where they feel that they are a part of Cree government. There is no way that change can happen if ideas that are coming in from whether it be lawyers or other people do not influence the decision-makers within the Cree Nation
It is the people who are the ones who put us into the positions that we have today. We are the ones who represent their interest; we are the ones who represent their rights. And, it’s time we make a change and for the leadership to believe in its own people. It’s time for the leadership to use the skills and the knowledge that many people have acquired down south. They have returned and want to contribute to our society.
I always find that there are a lot of things that have more influence from the outside than within our own Nation. We have to get those people who have gone to the south for their education to come back and use their skills and their knowledge and apply what they have learned to benefit our people.
TN: What exactly is your campaign platform, point by point?
AI: The platform is to have a sustainable economy and having someone in leadership who can help bring change. Change does not come from just one individual. It’s about being there to inspire people to make changes in their lives, to live positive lifestyles so that others can see that. We have come a long way as a Nation, we have come a long way as a people but throughout the struggles that we have faced in the past we are over-comers. A lot us need to be encouraged to know that we have a lot of skills and a lot of talent. The Cree Nation can be one of the nations in the world to shine to the world.
It’s all about Nation building; which you are doing for your own people. At the same time it’s shown in the paths where I have gone. I have tried to help in ways where you are building your own people up in the position that was or even in the positions that I held before while working on the Brighter Futures program. It’s always about Nation building and if you are building your own people up, you are just building them to help them be positive contributors to society. I think this is something that is hugely needed as there are a lot of great things that are happening but I think we need to find ways more to encourage rather than discourage our own people from achieving and being successful. Those are things that I think about during this time during the campaign.
TN: Running again for Deputy Grand Chief, what exactly would you like to do for the youth of the Cree Nation?
AI: They are important. I have said it before, we need to make sure that they feel part of our communities and our society. If we are able to have people who are in positions of influence and people who can be there to actually listen and use what they think. I have gone through that era. When I was younger I used to be viewed as being still having a lot to learn but if you really think about it, when you are in leadership you actually do learn from the young people. You learn from your Elders, from middle-aged people, and even from children. If you are able to learn and remind our children and youth that they are valued community members, a lot of things can change.
We are going through a lot of different things in our communities but I think that if people started using words that young people need to hear, you would see a change in the way they see things and in the way they act. A lot of the stuff that is happening with young people today is they are crying out for us. It’s time for someone to seriously be there and encourage them and find ways. It’s not going to take one person to do it. But if, through the power of influence, we are able to make sure that there are programs in place where they can achieve what they are meant to do rather than having policies that are going to discourage them. We need to reevaluate the way we are doing things now in order to make sure that our children and youth are part of our communities and part of our families.
If you look to the past, we have gone through a lot as a Nation. We have faced many difficulties and challenges. Many of our parents went through residential schools and a lot of things have broken down. But people need to be reminded that we have overcome. We are still speaking our language, we are still very strong in our culture, and our people are still living our way-of-life. The past of our grandmothers and grandfathers is something that I always think about during my travels. All of the challenges that they faced have led us to where we are today. If we don’t use those same ideas our ancestors used, it is as if we are not respecting what they did in the past to ensure that we had a bright future.
That needs to come back in the Cree Nation – we need to remember those stories where our grandparents and our grandmothers came from in the past to where we are today. It is those stories that are empowering and they empower me as an individual to know that my grandparents wet through this circumstance for me to be where I am today. I think I acknowledged all of their efforts and the stuff that they lived. They lived through many hardships in the past and I think if I remember the stories in the past. If we don’t use their teachings of the past, we disrespect them or where we came from as people.
That is something I always think about with young people. They are our future but they are here today and we need to find ways to build them up today. Sometimes when we are in situations where there is a lot of discouragement, we tend to build on the discouragement rather than using words to inspire. You have to surround yourself with positive people and that is something that has a huge impact on people.
TN: You have talked a lot about youth violence and gangs, how would you address those issues?
AI: I have a good working relationship with the youth and it’s always been like that. At one point when I was with the youth many years ago, I felt I was not being valued to make a contribution. Today, I can tell you that we are working quite well with the young people. If the agenda of the youths, the Youth Chiefs and Youth Grand Chief that we have elected, those are the people who we want to work with. They have a lot of great ideas and things that they want to do in the future and that is something that I want to work on with them to make sure things happen.
We can use the office of Grand Chief to work with the youth to ensure that a lot of what they want to do is used and is being utilized in the Cree Nation. It’s because when you are doing that you are empowering the young people to take control of their future as well as using the advice of many people around them. When you are putting positive people around I think that is something that is very important to make sure that they are contributing in a positive way to our society.
The youth Cree Nation Council has been there since 1985 and it can be used in a very powerful way where the young people feel that they have a voice with local councils at the same time. It should be used that way.
TN: The Crees are presently owed a great deal of money by the Quebec Government, do you think you could address this with a second term as Deputy?
AI: For right now I can tell you that there are positive things happening with the government but at the same time they need to know that the Cree people are here and we are not going to go anywhere. They have to respect our way of thinking and I don’t think that we have been vocal enough to inform the people from down south. It’s almost a way of oppression the way the southerners use the MBJ. That is something where we have not been vocal enough to reach out and tell people that we are not happy at all with that legislation being passed in 2002. And, you know what, it’s as if we are standing by and just waiting for things to happen. We have not been reactive and we have not been proactive to make sure that our people are being respected.
I maintain a good talking or working relationship with the government whether it is the premier or other ministers who I have contact with. I want to make sure that things happen and that things that we have negotiated in the past have been respected and that we are not being used as being the Indian I guess.
TN: But right now the Cree are not being respected particularly when it comes to Bill 40 and its effect on Chisasibi Trapline 36, what would you do to address that?
AI: The government of Quebec has what they call the Plan du Nord. They have this idea to develop the north and they use a term called “occupy.” I have informed through our meetings in the last few months or even past few years. I gave them the facts as to what is going on out in the territory, people living their way-of-life for thousands of years and then you have this legislation that is giving power to individuals who don’t even live in the territory and don’t even live that way-of-life. They are trying to find ways to provoke the Cree people to try and stay off the land and stay off what they have been rightly given in the past. It is a God-given right what we have and it’s a way-of-life. You can’t change anybody’s way-of-life if they have been given that, legislation has passed and you know it can change things but I think we need to be very vocal to make sure that the people’s voice is heard.
The other day when we were at a Council Board meeting, I informed everyone there that we have been very quiet and have not been proactive to make sure that the acts of the MBJ or the people in government are trying to sort of push people off our own territory. I told them that it is if we are allowing them to do what they want to do and we are just sitting on the side. I was told at that meeting that the thought was that we need to do an analysis to see what the pros and cons are. Our people are not happy with this.
That was the thing that I didn’t like, that we have to do another study to prove that are people are going through something. We don’t need another study. We already know what is going on. We know what the trappers and hunters are going through and that they are even being fined for being out on the land practicing their way-of-life. Those are things that are very bothersome and for the leadership just to allow that to go by and put down that all is well when we know that it’s not going well. I told that to all of the members of the Council Board.
Our people are telling us that these things are happening, they are issuing tickets for this and that. We have always been here and we are not going anywhere and that is the thing that the government needs to hear. With the legislation that is being passed to provoke and discourage the Cree people from practicing their own way-of-life is very, very bothersome. It bothers me that the leadership is just standing on the side and is pretending that nothing is happening when I know people are going through many things on the territory.
TN: Are you saying that you would be more “proactive” about this?
AI: Yes, if we need to be. I have respected the way the bylaw is with the Council Board and the Grand Chief and Chairman and from the way it sounds now I am only the replacement when the Grand Chief is not able to do the work. I want to ensure that people’s voices are being heard and that things are actually being done about it so that people can hear about it every day. I have been trying to do this for the past few years and it has been quite a challenge to see a lot of things being inactive on the government’s end and also on our end. I understand that we have relationships and we have signed agreements in the past, but I think it goes both ways. Our people need to be respected and at the same time the government needs to respect our way-of-life and in the agreements that we get there is a lot of benefits to a lot of the stuff that we are getting. In the next few months, we are going to see people being hired and the justice people have transferred policing to have the regionalization of the police. It has taken a long time to make that happen.
In the past we worked very hard, we have been very persistent. We have never allowed other people to dictate what our future would be – it is the Cree people who decide and no one else. People need to understand that you have to work with the Crees in a real way and not a fake way.
TN: There are currently a lot of non-Native consultants working for the Cree Nation and even within the Grand Council, is this something that you would like to see end one day?
AI: Yes, I would. In the last four years I have always indicated that I would rather… I am a strong advocate of using the services of our own people to be contributors of our own government. I find we are using too many outside advisors. Every community knows what is required from their community when it comes to budget time. Our community Chiefs are asking if some of the stuff they have is meant for their communities to develop in the way that they see it and that is something I support because it is the people of the Cree Nation in all of the nine Cree communities, including Washa Sibi and all of the people wherever they may be.
They are the ones who put us in positions where we are today and we need to use at all times their service instead of outsiders. I have nothing against using outside people, some of them are professionals. If you need a civil engineer, you are going to have to use their service unless there is a civil engineer in our community. I know there are people. There are a couple of doctors already in the Cree Nation and there are a lot of nurses – these are the people we need to use. We need to find ways to encourage people and we need to use the ideas of the young people so that they feel like valuable contributors.
We have come a long way but we need to start changing the way we govern ourselves and that is really looking at how many outside advisors we are using. In the past four years, I always used the advice of our Elders.
I want to find a way where we can find employment opportunities for our people so they can be the professionals that they are supposed to be.
TN: There have been a great deal of problems within the school systems in the Cree communities and many feel that the school system has failed them. What would you do for education?
AI: It’s a blessing to come home and hear the people that you serve speaking their own language. I have been to communities throughout North America and throughout the world where they don’t speak their own language anymore. I was one of the children that went away in the past, I went through the system here in the Cree Nation. I was taught English, French and Cree at the same time and I picked up all three languages. I am not fluent in French but I can get by. We need to find ways be able to maintain the Cree language because it is something that has been given to us. I don’t want to see the Cree language disappear like the Elders have echoed
I am fluent in Cree and I am able to speak Cree wherever I go. I am also able to use English and French. What has to happen in the communities is that we need to maintain the Cree language here forever. That is our responsibility as leaders, our responsibility as parents and our responsibility as a Nation to ensure that the Cree language remains strong. It is one of the strongest First Nations languages in Canada.
And, with that Iserhoff is hoping to have your vote!