Matthew Coon Come is a man on the move. On July 30, Coon Come won the office of Grand Chief with 63% of the vote, soundly defeating his opponent, incumbent Matthew Mukash.
The newly elected Grand Chief of Eeyou Istchee has been on the road all day as he drives to Ottawa. “I can do an interview now,” says a buoyant sounding Coon Come, who’s been in and out of cellphone range the entire day.
When fielded the first question, he pauses and asks, “Has the interview started? Hold on, I’ve got think about what I’m going to say. I’ve been driving all day,” he laughs and then clears his voice.
The Nation: What did you think about the outcome of the run-off election?
Matthew Coon Come: Of course, I was pleased with the outcome. Everyone who runs in an election prefers to win rather than lose. In fact, I believe there were no losers because the candidates ensured that issues were discussed and true democracy was well served. All of the candidates in this election were worthy of office as judged by our people. Some were incumbent chiefs and others office bearers. My run-off opponent, Matthew Mukash, was the incumbent Grand Chief and received one out of three voting participants.
I am very grateful for the support of two out of three Cree voters that I received, but I do not intend to be the Grand Chief of only the people who supported me. Now that the election is over, it is time for our traditional Cree unity to be the order of the day once again. This Cree unity has served us well for more than 40 years. We are all Cree, we all care about the land and the future of our children.
There is much more that we have in common with each other than we have with outside governments and organizations. For example, the Municipality of Baie-James (MBJ), the governments of Quebec and Canada, outside corporations, such as Hydro-Québec, Domtar or the mining companies, and the interests that would like to export our waters from Eeyou Istchee. These outside entities are not necessarily our enemies, but our fellow Cree are by definition our own family.
There were many strong things said during the election – a few of them said by me of course – ideas are put out there so that the candidates can distinguish themselves. But there is much more in common between us. Now we need to consider a constructive goal so that we as a Nation can stand together – united and strong to face the changing time.
We need to look at many issues – education, environment, water exports, uranium mining, employment, community economic development, renewing the Cree presence in the rest of Canada, and internationally to name a few.
TN: That’s a tall order.
MCC: I’m just warming up. Wait until I’m sitting in my office.
TN: What will be your first order of business when you take office?
MCC: Though it’s been almost a decade since I was last Grand Chief, I have remained deeply engaged in Cree entities, in Cree government, and I’m very much in touch with the Cree people.
The Cree agenda has many urgent and important items on it. My first order of business will be to get reports on all of the Cree files. It is important that I now identify the shortcomings as well as the strengths to ensure that our Cree government is well positioned to do the work that needs to be done now, next month, next year, and in the coming decade. So my first order of business will be that no important Cree file falls through the cracks. I can’t say which one will be looked at first, but there will at least be three or maybe more.
I will meet with former Grand Chief Matthew Mukash and the Deputy Grand Chief Ashley Iserhoff, and meet with the Chiefs and review the agenda items and deal with the issues that need to be addressed immediately. Then I will put through the annual General Assembly some of the items that I have talked about which I will be working on after I have taken one or two weeks off to recharge my batteries.
TN: Have you ever worked with Ashley Iserhoff before?
MCC: I haven’t, but I look forward to working with him. I was a member of the council board before I was the Chair of the Cree Nation Trust, so I saw him in action. I saw how he handled himself. I think there is a willingness to learn and listen to the voice of experience. He has done a good job. I heard him present his views at the Deputy Grand Chief debates in the communities. I am sure we can work together.
So far I have been able to work with every Deputy Grand Chief I have had from Philip Awashish to Violet Pachanos to George Wapachee to Romeo Saganash to Kenny Blacksmith. We all worked together because we have common goals and we want to see our communities prosper and participate in the Nation building.
TN: You are on your way to Ottawa, what will you be doing there?
MCC: I have no office at the moment so I’m heading to the Grand Council, where I can receive the support from that staff as I begin to set up my office and appoint an executive assistant. I will also meet with senior management to review the files and to discuss any important upcoming meetings, so I can start preparing.
TN: It’s been nearly 10 years since you were Grand Chief. Will you do anything differently compared to your previous terms in office?
MCC: In previous interviews, I have said I have no regrets about my earlier terms in office. Sure there are things that we could have done differently or things we could have done better, but we are all human. The important thing is that we learn from past experience. That is the way I work. If one stops learning as a leader, one is not fit to lead.
Of course, I intend to think out of the box, and that includes one or two boxes that I myself helped to build in the past. Our opportunities and challenges are many. We must look at the way we have done things in the past because they might not be able to deal with the circumstances that we currently face.
I usually quote a very wise man, Albert Einstein, when he said, “It is a form of insanity to keep doing the same things over and over again and expect different results.” I agree with him. Certainly we Crees need different results in some key areas.
For example, why are some of our youth are not graduating from high school? Why are many Cree experiencing chronic diseases? Is there room for our entities and institutions to be more effective than they currently are? Can they deal with the social conditions in our communities? Can they address the issues of employment and training?
These are some of the issues we need to tackle. We succeeded in the past in building institutions and building our communities, now it is time that we tackle how we administer, how we run, manage and coordinate them and how we address these issues.
TN: As the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, you travelled this country from coast to coast and you saw many different First Nations communities. When you return to Eeyou Istchee, it must make your heart feel warm to realize what a strong Nation you are now representing.
MCC: I visited well over 400 First Nations communities across Canada when I was the National Chief. I have seen the deplorable conditions of our people and the lack of implementation of the treaties. I have seen the shortage of housing, of water, of sanitation, and of essential services that are required.
Then I came home and saw our communities and how we have prospered and I was encouraged. But there is still work to be done. I found out during my campaign travels that there is poverty among our people. Appearances can be deceiving. I talked to many people and I began to see that there is a serious lack of housing in our communities where there are 17 to 32 people living in one house. How can you properly expect children to do their homework in such situations. It all contributes to the social problems and social conditions that we have.
We have the institutions and we need to build upon them. There’s always room for improvement and I’m willing to work with the leadership and the communities and tackle these conditions and problems.
TN: Are you coming back as a wiser man now that you are older and greyer?
MCC: I was 21 when I was on the Grand Council. I was 24 when I was Chief of Mistissini. I was 31 when I was Grand Chief. And I was 45 when I was National Chief. I’ve been involved in politics most of my life and certainly I have experience, I have courage and I have a vision for our people. I believe I am still able to learn, and I think I am a good team player. And I trust our people and our leadership. In the Cree world, we accepted the democratic process of electing one leader and I happen to be the person and I am honoured to represent all Cree voters.
The race for the Deputy Grand Chief was much more of a nail-biter. Incumbent Ashley Iserhoff garnered 53% of the vote while his opponent Bella Moses Petawabano was close on his heels picking up 47% of the ballots.
Tracked down several days after the election, Iserhoff was in his office sketching out his itinerary for the coming week. “I’m heading down to Montreal, where I will meet Matthew (Coon Come) and sit down with him for the first time and start looking at what needs to be done.”
The Nation: What did you think about the outcome of the run-off election?
Ashley Iserhoff: I wasn’t nervous, but I was anxious. There was the long wait for the Chisasibi vote to come in. I was wondering whether or not I would get in because the numbers were quite close in most communities. It was an exciting night as my family and I waited for the result. It was the same thing in the last election in 2005 when I first ran for Deputy Grand Chief. I knew it was going to be very close, especially in the run-off because people rethink who they will support.
TN: Since the election was so close, will that change the way you do things?
AI: Not really. There were a lot of issues brought up and both campaigns want to deal with social issues, like violence, drug abuse and alcohol, as well as health problems, like diabetes and obesity.
My vision is to see our communities without violence in the future. To make sure that whatever decisions we make today are going to ensure that there is something in the future for our people. The women’s issue was also brought up during the campaign. I can tell you that I am very supportive of women’s issues to be addressed. A few years back, I had meetings with the Women’s Association, and they challenged me back then to be the main spokesperson to address the violence against women. That’s why we started the White Ribbon campaign to bring out this issue.
TN: Traditionally, the Cree are not a violent people.
AI: We are not. When people are sober, they always help each other out. We’ve gone through a lot of different experiences. Many individuals have overcome issues from the past, but some are still dealing with them today and they are still on their healing journey. Some chose alcohol to cope with it, but this just adds to the fuel. I strongly believe we survived in the past without alcohol and I believe our Nation will survive in the future without it.
It takes individuals to make a change in their lives. That’s what I have been advocating. If you want to see change happen in your life, you have to be the first one to make that change and make things right for yourself. Just because you’ve elected a Grand Chief and a Deputy Grand Chief, they are not the ones who will change things. As a Nation, it takes every individual to be part of the change.
TN: Do you see alcohol being the prime problem the Cree face today?
AI: It is one of them. Alcohol and drug abuse is very high. Alcohol is one of the contributing factors to the things that we are dealing with. People have to learn to find ways to help themselves. They cannot depend only on the institutions and organizations to change things. Those structures are there to assist people and to help them lead healthier lifestyles. Every adult has to be a role model for our children and youth.
TN: What file is sitting on your desk as the top priority in your new mandate?
AI: Right now my office is focused on trying to finalize the policing agreement we signed with Quebec a few months ago. And during the election, we found out that Canada signed the agreement.
One of the articles of the New Relationship Agreement is to set up a police force for the Cree Nation, called the Eeyou Police Force. I have the commission that oversees the police and right now we are trying to finalize working conditions. Our target is to have the regionalization of the police force in place by April 2010.
Then there’s the justice file. We have to appoint several people to positions. We signed that agreement a couple of years back. The communities of Mistissini and Waswanipi are already going to have their buildings, and all the other communities will have ones in the next couple of years. Hopefully by 2011 there will be justice buildings in every community.
And then there’s education. During the campaign, a lot of people raised their concerns about the educational system. We have to find a way to work directly with the Cree School Board to deal with this growing concern about the quality of education. Whatever happens within the community affects the school.
We need to look at the Health Board and their prevention programs. Dealing with H1N1 is an important thing we have to address. The Health Board already has a strategy in place and the new Grand Chief will have to be briefed on it. And we will try to find where the executive office can be of assistance to the CHB and help each other prevent the spread of H1N1. That is why we postponed our General Assembly this summer.
TN: These are all serious files that your office is dealing with. Are there certain ones that only your office takes care of or do you share everything with the Grand Chief?
AI: I’ve always worked as a team player and that’s what the Grand Chief and I have already talked about. We are going to work together as leaders of the Cree Nation to ensure that the rights of the Cree people are respected by all governments and that agreements are respected. Both he and I understand that we have to work collectively to make sure it happens.
TN: Growing up, you must have seen Coon Come in action before. What do you think his strengths are?
AI: An important issue we need to deal with is the Municipality of Baie-James (MBJ). The Quebec government has a plan called Plan du Nord. They want to start a series of consultations with the Cree, the Inuit and other First Nations communities living above the 49th Parallel. But we are quite concerned ever since Quebec introduced this idea of the Plan du Nord. We don’t know exactly what’s in it and that is worrisome.
The Grand Chief, who is a strong negotiator, will be instrumental in finding ways so that the Quebec government respects our way of doing things. In the past, the government has always wanted to do it their way, but through signed agreements of the past, we’ve agreed that in order for things to happen, First Nations people have to always be informed and be consulted.
Around the time the New Relationship Agreement with Quebec was signed, the same government gave more power to the mayors of northern Quebec. Basically, this sets up two parallel governments – the Grand Council of the Crees and the MBJ. The MBJ tries to do things their own way and they provoke individuals living out in the territory.
I never agreed to having the MBJ and I will never agree to having the MBJ trying to govern our territory. The Grand Council Regional Authority is already there and we have chiefs and councillors governing Category 1, 2 and 3 lands. The MBJ has to respect that.
We agreed to that in 1975 and it still has to be maintained today. We can no longer work the way we did in the 50s, 60s or 70s and the way First Nations people were treated. We’re here and we’ll never go away. Our Nation is strong, in terms of our language, our culture, and the way we do things in life. We still have the territory to go back to – and we will survive.
Some non-Native people think they own the land, but for us, we are caretakers of the land for the future. Our Elders taught us that and we still maintain today. The trappers and hunters take care of certain parts of the land. They are there to ensure that prosperity happens on that land in terms of the animals, the trees and the water, and they make sure that things will continue for future generations. It is something that many people in the south don’t understand.
As you can see, there are many things going on in the Cree Nation, which means we have our work cut out for us.