It’s been a while since The Nation sat down and talked to the most powerful leader in the Creeworld. Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come was, as always, candid and open. His frank answers sometimessurprised me. It is no wonder that some people from the Assembly of First Nations asked when theCrees would finally persuade Grand Chief Coon Come to run for National Grand Chief.
The Nation: It’s been a while since we last did this. How have you been doing?
Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come: I’m doing fine. My health is good and sense of humor is fine.Everything’s good. Family’s doing really great.
One of the things we’ve heard about is Waskaganish’s request for its share of the GCCQ/CRA budget.
What is your opinion of this?
Well, it’s nothing new where a community requests its share of the CRA budget. That is done everyyear. However, one has to look at the Cree national issues versus the community issues versus whatI call the peoples issues. The Cree national issues are the majority part of our budget. It dealswith protecting and advancing our Aboriginal rights, our treaty rights, our court cases, whetherit be the Coon Come case or joint litigation of the Cree School Board and Grand Council againstthe provincial government’s unilateral attempt to set the guidelines for funding of the schoolboard. Whether we deal with the federal or provincial governments in establishing tables, at theend of the day it is the communities that will benefit. The majority of the Grand Council/CRA’sfunds are allocated for the national interest of the Cree Nation.
The request by Waskaganish is nothing new. When you look at it in a context, yes, GCCQ/CRAmandates stem from the respective communities, but on the other hand each community provides,administers, manages and coordinates its own projects. Any community that is under pressurebecause of its own mismanagement or misappropriation of funds eventually requests funds from theregional entities, in this case the CRA. I think if one were to look deeper into the issues, onewould find out that most bands have budgetary problems. I don’t think this is the fault of theregional entity. Because of the way they spend their funds it puts pressure on them. The onlyplace they can look for funds is the regional entities. I think that it’s bad management and Ifeel that there’s no coordination on that.
However, the chiefs and their community representatives sit on the Council/Board (of the GCCQ),which approves the budget. So it is strange having a request coming from a community when theirchiefs sit on the Board because they were sitting there when we approved the budget. They know thebudgets and the way the funds are allocated for a given fiscal year. So to deal with the requestfrom Waskaganish, we’ll have to look at it in the fiscal year of 1997-98.
You have to assess it. Just because Waskaganish wants that particular program or servicetransferred to them, it doesn’t mean another community wants that. The smaller communitiesneed more support services than the larger communities. I think it’s a lot cheaper to have aregional coordinating committee to provide a service than allocating nine different budgetaryitems for each community. You increase your budget or you can cut costs by centralizing it. Thisis what we are trying to do. There may be room to decentralize some of the services and programs,but that’s a discussion that has to take place between the nine Cree communities. If Waskaganishwants it, it doesn’t mean we can ignore the fact that the other communities need the services.
It’s always the easiest thing to do (criticizing the CRA). Because we have eliminated theDepartment of Indian Affairs to a certain extent, the chiefs, council and administration have toblame someone. Well then, who do they blame? They blame their own entities for not deliveringcertain programs and services. But when you look at it, we have over 250 employees under theCree/Naskapi Act for all the nine communities. Their budget is about $35 million. Certainly theycan deliver programs and services to their people rather than just criticizing the number ofpeople or the budget we have at the GCCQ/CRA. So you have to weigh that. They employ far morepeople than we employ at the GCCQ/CRA.
Let’s look at another topic. From this year’s AGA there was a resolution set up to fight riverdevelopment projects for hydro power. Do you see this as the same fight as before? Will it befought in the same way, a public-relations battle?
At the moment, we have established a table with Hydro-Quebec, what we call the Eeyou-HydroQuebec task force. We are certainly challenging Hydro-Quebec oh its past obligations to the Creesunder the JBNQA and complimentary agreements. Certainly there are outstanding issues that need tobe dealt with. Eastmain’s water problem; the social, cultural impacts that HQ had on the Crees.It has to be dealt with. The intent of the task force is not to deal with future projects. It isin essence saying, no, we challenged the federal and provincial governments to fulfill theirobligations under the agreements. We are doing the same with HQ. We’re taking them to task.Nothing prevents us from taking them to task regarding their unfulfilled obligations.
As for future projects, right now everything is on hold. There are no projects that are beingannounced per se. There’s no Great Whale. There are talks of the possibility of diverting the Caniapiscau and building two dams, but those are projects that are still in the air, as NBR isstill just in the air. But certainly Hydro-Quebec has to be monitored in regards to contracts andwhat they are seeking to sell in the United States in selling more energy to the public utilities.So there has to be some kind of monitoring system and I can appreciate the concern that we Creeshave if they sell more energy. Are they going to build more dams in our area? That’s what we aremonitoring at the moment.
But presently as far as we know there are no future projects being announced in the Creeterritory. There are other projects but none in our territory for the moment. The Crees’position is clear. The Crees’ position is that diversion projects are unacceptable. We want tolook at alternatives to any projects that are announced. We would certainly want a public debateon an energy policy. We would want it to look at more than the economics of projects. It shouldexamine the social, environmental and culture impacts. We are still concerned about theenvironmental audit to be done on the past impacts. These would certainly be raised withHydro-Quebec.
As to the initiatives we will take, I think each case will be different because of its uniquenature. We will use judicial process, no doubt. As to the campaign itself, it will depend on whatis announced. Certainly you have to have some sort of public awareness campaign as to what’shappening. You have to keep your supporters informed of some of the projects coming down thepipeline. You have to maintain your network. But all this will depend on what and when these areannounced also.
Hydro-Quebec is saying that Great Whale’s recent resolution only applies to the old proposed projects, not the new ones. What do you think about the resolution as you see it?
Well, maybe someone should remind them that in 1989, we adopted a resolution opposing all future projects. That was a general assembly resolution and every year since then we’ve had a resolution that opposed future projects or projects different from those defined under the 1975 and complimentary agreements. But that’s their interpretation. The community dealt with a specific project and rightly so. It dealt with Great Whale, there was a referendum and that’s their position and it’s very clear. It’s going to happen in their lands. Certainly back in ’89 when Great Whale was on the table,it was the Crees’ position that the community that is going to be affected would be taking the lead and all the Cree Nation would stand behind them.
Will this continue to be the position if a new Great Whale project is announced?
The community made that decision. It is very clear this is their position and I think the Cree Nation has stated its position and nothing has changed.
What do you see as the biggest challenge for the Crees so far?
The biggest challenge for the Crees will be whether we can work together or not. There’ll be so much pressure if the First Nations communities are not careful in managing the funds that they receive. That will put pressure on all entities. We’ll end up fighting among ourselves over disbursement of certain funds that could go to particular communities because of their particular situation. So we might end fighting rather than using that energy and fighting the federal or provincial governments or Crown corporations that come into our territories and lands. We might become occupied with our own little issues. We miss the bullet’s eyes. Who is trying to destroy this land? Who is trying to dispossess the Crees? Who is taking away or preventing us from what we thought we got? Who is it that promised these things? Why are we using Cree money to fulfill Canadian or Quebec obligations? That takes the onus off the governments. That’s unacceptable. I see the challenge will be whether we can work together.We need to focus on where we want to go. If it is that we want to set up, as I understand from the Eeyou Astchee Commission, our own national government, then let’s work towards that; Let’s set up our own institutions and get more elected representatives thatrepresent the Crees. Let’s focus our energies on that while at the same time trying to make certain amendments and changes as well as making a new relationship with the province and Canada. Because the status quo is unacceptable. Trying to identify what that relationship will be with the government, the powers that be. The challenge will be to separate what are Cree Nation issues and what are community issues. What are the people’s issues. And that’s going to be the challenge. If we can get over that hurdle and if we ever get organized we are going to be dangerous.
The second half of our interview with the Grand Chief will appear in our next issue.Upcoming topics include forestry, negotiations, and Cree language and culture.