Robert Weistche was elected-as chief of Waskaganish in a landslide vote on August 13. He was already busy with his chiefly duties when we caught up with him during his second day on the job.
So how do you feel?
That’s a loaded question. (laughter) Different emotions – different feelings. When I found out about it, I was quite taken aback. It kind of hit me like a wave. Sometimes I wonder if I’m making the right move at this time. I felt, what am I doing? I’m chairman of the Cree School Board. It’s good where I am. What am I doing? (laughter) Different things are going through your mind all the time. You’re constantly thinking about what you’re getting yourself into. It’s quite far-out, the feeling I have.
What was the first thing you did after you heard the election results?
I went back to the vehicle. I was on the road coming back from Prince Edward Island. My family was there. And I gave the old Indian salute, the clenched fist. Po-wer! Po-wer! Po-wer! (laughter) I was with my boys and I was feeling the wave, the ripple effects coming out of the building where I was.
My father-in-law was there too and he congratulated me. My boys were quite excited by everything. The funny thing was, when I called in I told everybody to be there. I want everybody to be there when I call in. I want you to know either way how it’s going to go. You’re going to be witness to this. (laughs) I think it was quite brave to do that. You could fall flat on your face.
A record number of people voted in the election – almost 70 per cent of eligible voters – compared to about 25 per cent of the people who normally vote. Why do you think there was such a big difference this time?
I think the voting that was done represented the youth coming out to vote. It was visible that they wanted to participate and get involved. And I think that’s an expression, too, of people in their thinking – maybe they’re hoping to see something new, some change come about. There’s obviously an interest there. Why would people participate in that number? It just goes to show people want to show their support, their involvement and they want to have a say.
What do you think you stood for? What did you tell people you wanted to do when you became chief?
One evening prior to the election, there was a call-in show at the radio station. I was in the process of moving my family out on vacation. I was right around Quebec City at the time, driving out to PEI, so I didn’t participate. But I did call in and I spoke to the people over the radio to tell them what I thought I stood for.
I really feel that the millenium has been a long thousand years. We’re tired. People are tired and they are feeling maybe it’s time for a change. It’s time we see something new. This new millenium that’s on the horizon is really beckoning. What kind of future are we going to have for our people and our children? What can we provide for them in terms of the direction we want to go? I talked about the need to go in a new direction, a more open style of democratic government. I said we would be willing to listen to some of the concerns you have, to open it up for people to feel they are part of the process for change. We would allow that opportunity. Certainly more accountability on the part of the government, on the part of the band council, as well as the band employees and certainly the office of the chief.
And I think the other thing is equality. We need to have more representation throughout. People have to feel that they are part of the whole, that their participation is important. Certainly with the Waskaganish band right now, you can identify some of the issues we are facing. I mentioned these when I had the opportunity to speak. One of them is the finances of the band. We have incurred a deficit of over $7 million (accumulated). People are kind of wondering, what am I doing to inherit such a problem of staggering proportions? What are we going to do? How are we going to deal with this? Is there going to be some kind of a recovery plan?
I talked about some of the issues affecting housing. People are living in overcrowded conditions; they live in substandard housing. I talked about the rotting conditions. People are living in unhealthy houses. And, of course, there is the crisis facing the youth. I think there should be a public forum dealing with the youth, where they could express some of their concerns. Unemployment is another situation that doesn’t look too great. There are others, like community services and education issues.
I think there’s a real need, first of all, for us to retake control over our lives, over our land and waters, projects that are being initiated on our lands. I felt we need to re-establish a sense of order, a sense of direction in the way things were going.
About the projects, there’s the one proposal by Hydro-Quebec that would divert the Rupert River. Is there anything you’d like to say about that project?
I think I said all I had to say in The Nation – in the address I gave to the students who graduated in Wemindji (July 16 issue). I’m still of that same opinion. I think people need to be consulted, people need to be aware. People have to be involved. I don’t think we, as chiefs, could just unilaterally take a decision like that where it affects the collective rights of the people. We have to take it back to the people and people have to be involved and give their consent.
I think, most importantly, people have to have the proper information. I don’t think we’re getting that now. People have different parts and pieces of the puzzle, but we don’t have the whole. If we don’t have the whole, how can you take a decision? How can you inform people when they have a right to know?
Right now, a lot of work has to be done to orient the new council. I’m not ready yet to take any decision. You could say we’re in the discussion stage. As for myself, I would like to work collectively, in full cooperation with the regional entities such as the Grand Council. We elected them. They’re our leadership and they represent us at that level. We should work with them toward a common solution.
Forestry is an issue that is of a lot of concern in some of the communities. In the southern end of Waskaganish, there’s cutting on Muskuchii Mountain. Do you have any ideas on how that issue could be addressed?
I’m not in a position to comment right now on that. Things being what they are, sometimes with the information there may have been a vacuum there. I don’t have all the information to take a position on that.
Are you going to be staying on as chairman of the Cree School Board?
No, I will be stepping down as chairman. I’m thinking it’s going to be perhaps in December. I just want to stay on right now to ensure there is some continuity in the work we are doing with the board, to have closure. I want to make sure the transition is going to be smooth. I don’t want to leave the board in a situation where they feel I just left abruptly.
Any final thoughts?
One of my greatest concerns, going back to the finances of the band, is first of all the new council – we’re going to need to seriously make a political commitment to changes in the financial management, accountability and practices of the band. I’m committed to that. In line with that, I want the band to undergo an extensive financial review. I want to know everything that’s going on with the band.
I don’t think we can start with what we have and hope to take the band from the deficit we have to try to make it turn around – which is what we want to do. We need to know where the money is coming from and where it’s going – and who it’s benefiting. And I want to report back to the people on this, to the band members. A special meeting will be called maybe in a nine to 12-month period following.
Not only that, what I would like to see is that the band commits itself to developing a complete and thorough recovery plan in written form – to make that commitment, to show we are committed to doing something.
When I was nominated, it was Elders who named me. Both women. And women, being what they are, their intuitive sense, their motherly role they play, their caring ways – it just goes to give us a message in what they see, the future of the youth, maybe their own children. It sent a strong message to me and it’s one of the reasons, too, I decided to heed the call. And here I am today.
Did you ever think you’d be a chief?
I asked my mother that before the election – Mom, did you ever think you were possibly raising a young child and he may one day be chief. And she said, no. (laughter) I don’t know. I’ve never thought of it. But I think it was the confidence shown by the people, people who came and approached me and talked to me – and said, Robert, we want to see you there, we want to encourage you, we want you to think about it. And, Alex, when you’re in a situation where you get called to the front line, you don’t hold back and say, no, I’m going to stay back here in the trenches. You gotta go to the front line. This is Moscow! (laughter) It’s true, you know. When you’re called, it’s your duty. You’ve got to do it.
Okay then. Thanks.
We also spoke to former chief Billy Diamond to get his comments. We caught him in the middle of deciding whether to accept his nomination for Grand Chief.
I understand you were nominated for Grand Chief.
You’re asking me the same question everybody is asking me. I haven’t made up my mind so I can’t tell you anything.
I also wanted to ask you what was the reason you decided not to run again for chief in Waskaganish.
Well, I’ve been chief for 11 years. That was too long. Eleven years in office is too long. We changed the bylaw. I recommended to the last council that a person can serve no more than two consecutive terms. That’s what’s called the Billy Diamond amendment. The community agreed. So I thought it would be wiser not to run. Eleven years in office is a long, long time. It gets to be very stressful. It’s a long haul.
Does that mean you wanted a break from being in office?
Hey, you’re going to be leading into assumptions. Give me a chance to think about it. In due time you shall hear.
Do you have any comments on the election that just happened? There was a record turnout.
No, I haven’t made any comments and I haven’t given any interviews. Normally, I don’t comment.
Do you have any advice for the new chief?
Well, I understand he’s announced he’s going to get people together. And once he gets people together, when he comes to me, he’ll come to me. He hasn’t come to me so far. I have lots of advice. Thirty years of knowledge, 3O years of experience. That should count for something. And if you just want to discard that, that’s up to the public.
He announced he wants to make changes in the way the band is run and have a review of the finances. Do you think that would be a good idea?
Well, that’s the platform he ran on. I can’t comment on that. I have no comment.