Across Canada there are more than 200,000 people who identify themselves as Cree. In Eeyou Istchee there are over 18,000 recognized Cree members, but what does that mean? How many more don’t qualify as members but who are nonetheless Native to our communities?
Which Cree are entitled to the benefits of status as a Cree beneficiary was a hot topic at this year’s Grand Council Annual General Assembly. The different concepts of who qualifies as a Cree of Eeyou Istchee were hotly debated in Waswanipi.
For some, it was an issue as simple as getting youth off social media to practice their traditions on the land that would make them more aware of what being a Cree really means. I believe that is a good way of instilling Cree culture. The connection to the land has always been something our leaders and Elders emphasize as an essential part of the soul and make-up of a Cree.
Unfortunately, the rule of law does not understand or usually consider such nebulous concepts and this has led to controversy within our nation. When laws governing membership – such as the 10-year clause – are applied, it is often done so by people without a complete understanding of the law and their place in it.
For example, a Cree person had to go to Chibougamau after a car accident to undergo physiotherapy. She was denied services because she was not in the territory. It seems the people who made that decision did not realize that Chibougamau was part of the territory (Category III lands). You do not have to actually live in a community to be in the territory. Some Mistissini members live at Perch River, which is on Category III lands. They still have their rights respected.
One resolution in the AGA story deals with the Cree School Board. I heard one compelling argument that said the 10-year clause should not apply to youth under the age of 18 as they did not have a choice of where to live because they had to live with their parents. It would not be right or true to being Cree if we separated children from their families so they could be Cree beneficiaries with all the rights and benefits we have fought to have.
A final question that has to be addressed is why organizations such as the Cree Board of Health and Social Services or the Cree School Board are allowed to determine whether or not the 10-year clause applies to any Cree beneficiary? The prerogative, responsibility and the only legal way to have status as a Cree beneficiary is through a band membership list in your community.
To allow other entities to appropriate those decisions diminishes the right of any band to determine their membership. Any nation, whether it is Canada or a First Nation, ultimately determines who is part of their nation. To allow a third party to overrule that right to determine who is a citizen is not acceptable in a self-governing body. So who is a Cree and who has the right to decide that in the end?