Violet Pachanos thinks it’s time for a change. “I’ve been involved in this from the beginning and have seen a lot of things along the way,” said Pachanos, the chief of Chisasibi and the only woman chief in all nine Cree First Nations. “I think we have to change the way we do business. You can’t keep doing things from the top on down. You have to start from the ground and go up.”

And she should know. She’s worked for the Grand Council and CRA offices in Ottawa since the two bodies were formed in the mid-1970s. Now working on the local level, she believes Cree regional bodies should be made more accountable to the communities. “When the leadership goes to the elections, I’m not sure they want the mandate from the people. Even to this day, I don’t know what the election campaign was about.”

The Nation: Violet, You’ve been around for a while. What exactly made you interested in politics?

Violet Pachanos: It’s hard to say. I guess when I was working for the Grand Council it wasn’t so much that I decided to go into politics. It was interesting work but I decided I wanted to work for the Cree people. I wanted to use my knowledge and experience for the benefit of the Crees because I worked in Ottawa before—for the federal government, not Indian Affairs. I guess at that time when the Grand Council was looking for people when they were setting up their office, they approached me. I left the government and started working for the Crees.

Do you think there is a difference in becoming a chief this way with that amount of experience?

I think there is. I was more or less just thrown into it. I was home in Chisasibi at the time when they were having elections and things just happened. I met them head on.

What were your main influences at the time you started out with the Grand Council?

It was the challenges that were there for the Crees. There were not too many people who were available to be able to help with the organization. We were all trying to work together as the Cree Nation.

Your community, Chisasibi, was the most impacted by the hydro-developments. What are Chisasibi’s most pressing problems and what solutions are you working on?

The problems are many, in particular the relocation of Fort George. I would say the most pressing issue is the social impacts caused by the fast development. At that time of hydro-development, we were still isolated—not much contact. The communications just weren’t there. We had no telephone or television. When hydro came with the development, everything else just came. I don’t know if you could say it was forced on the people.

But what about impacts on the economy? You lost the most amount of traplines. That’s an economic factor. How are you rebounding from it?

Well, the fur industry or economy based on it is practically nil. Everything sort of came at the same time. The anti-fur movement and animal-rights people damning fur haven’t helped the fur industry or us. With the hydro-development, the animals just aren’t there. It’s now wide open with tourists and sports hunters. Everyone getting at that one little animal that’s out there. It doesn’t do anything for the fur economy.

You’re the closest town to Radisson, an entirely new town dedicated to the dams. What is your relationship with them? Is there any?

There isn’t much. It’s there and people go there maybe to get a few groceries that aren’t available in Chisasibi or the auto mechanics shop. That kind of stuff. There’s not much there.

Are you saying Radisson hasn’t really integrated into life in the Cree Territory?

No, it hasn’t. For example, we met some ladies one time. They had a newsletter and wanted us to contribute to it. They had no idea how native people lived. They asked, “What are those things on the side of the road?” They didn’t realize they were teepee frames. They had all kinds of ideas for the newsletter but they didn’t even do any research. They didn’t realize how complicated it could be. There isn’t much integration, but some people have friends there.

Of course, they have a liquor license and a bar in Radisson. So some people go there to drink. It’s one of our social problems. People go there now especially after our roadblock went up to confiscate alcohol coming into Chisasibi.

Do you have a commercial fisheries program in Chisasibi?

Not to any scale. It’s an exploratory project.

You’re utilizing the LG-2 reservoir rather than coastal fishing areas. Is this due to the quality or quantity of fish? Were there concerns about the mercury content?

Yes, there are concerns about the mercury content, but we are still doing research on that. There is still a possibility of doing something with the fish. Not necessarily for eating. People from Chisasibi don’t eat the fish from the reservoir. Sportsmen go there to fish, but I believe it’s to do with the amount of fish that’s in the reservoir. We’re looking at a way that something can be done with it.

What do you see as the economic future of the Crees as a nation?

We have to find ways to create jobs. There is a need for a training component to help increase employment opportunities. We have to find innovative ways to stimulate the economy. A lot of the native projects funded by the government don’t seem to work. They seem to be make-work. Just enough to get you on unemployment benefits. I don’t think this is the answer.

Looking at jobs, the Opemiska Agreement promised Hydro-Quebec would provide Crees with 150 jobs. Yet, a recent study says the actual figures fall far short of this figure. How are you going to get Hydro-Quebec to live up to the Agreement?

I don’t know how many people are working for them, but I know some people from Chisasibi are on training for permanent jobs in the La Grande installations. It’s a very small number of people, but as I say in Chisasibi, the project is there and we have to live with it. So we have to try and make the best of it. At the same time, people say, “You’re working for Hydro-Quebec and you’ve gotten contracts from them.”

But in Chisasibi, what choice do we have? If we don’t take those contracts, it just means more people will come in and the Crees will be deprived of that opportunity. The money will just go out of the territory.

As a leader, you are undoubtedly closer to an overall understanding of the projects and the Cree opposition. What would you estimate are our chances of stopping the proposed Great Whale or the NBR projects? How much work is left to stop them or can we stop them? If not, what are we looking at?

I think there is a lot of work to be done if we are going to stop it. I’m not saying there hasn’t been work done up to now. I know there’s been a lot, but we have a lot more to do if we are going to stop the project. But the way things are going now, from what I see, they’re going ahead. Hydro-Quebec hasn’t stopped doing any of the work, you know.

Do you think we have to change our strategy in some ways?

Maybe. I’m not saying what has been done hasn’t worked. It has worked. After a while, the public or government hear the same things and they don’t pay any attention. We have to keep finding different ways to be effective.

In your opinion, what are the biggest problems facing the nation as a whole?

I think it’s the changes in the Cree way of life with all the different technologies that are coming at you. It’s a challenge for us to be able to try and cope with it all, so we have to find a way to do things without losing our traditions, our beliefs and our values. If you’re Cree and you know who you are, then we can handle it. It’s not true for just the Crees but other peoples as well. If you have that kind of base, you can cope.

We’ve heard different suggestions from Cree leaders on change in the way we do business as a nation. What would you like to see changed? Do you think change is necessary?

Yes, I think we have to change the way we do business. I’ve been involved in this from the beginning and have seen a lot of

things along the way. Now that I’m at the community level, I certainly see how I think the way things should be done. We see where we’ve gone wrong and it has to do with the way things were done. You can’t keep doing things from the top on down. You have to start from the ground and go up.

You’re saying it must start from a community level and go up to a national level?


Do you have any final comments for our readers?

We have to take care of what needs to be changed. This is a public magazine so I won’t say some things that maybe need to be said. One of my main concerns is that I feel when the leadership goes to the elections, I’m not sure they want the mandate from the people. Even to this day, I don’t know what the election campaign was about. I didn’t hear about it. So I don’t know what the leadership said it would do from the election promises—if there were any. Even after an election, I think the leadership should go back to the communities and ask, “How should I do this?” I feel this is not being done now or in the past.

Do you mean there is a need for a clearer mandate to be given to our leaders and are you talking about all levels of leadership?

Yes, at all levels, with more consultation with the people.

Does this mean that you support Billy Diamond’s resolution calling for a Cree Nation Gathering to attain a “Cree vision”?

Yes, I feel that’s very important and it can’t be done from the top. If we know who we are, it shouldn’t take that much to get that vision, mission and goals. Once we get those goals and objectives, we have to go back and review them to see if they still apply. I’ve said for a long time that the Cree Regional Authority, the way it is right now, needs to be changed. It’s not working the way it should be—at least the way it was thought it should be.

When the CRA was established, it was done to suit our purpose and I think it has served our purpose, but its structure hasn’t changed. One of the biggest complaints is that it’s supposed to be an administrative body, but we feel the communities are not getting all the services.

There’s a need to change the system to meet today’s needs. The communities weren’t organized the way they are now. It’s not like the old days with Indian Affairs coming in with a few pennies here and there. Now, we’re managing the money and have all these organizations and structures.

We are trying to find our own destiny and make our own decisions. I feel you have to keep going back and looking at what you’ve accomplished, what your goals are and when that’s done look at what changes are needed. We have to change. You know we can’t just stop here. I feel that’s where we are right now, we need to renew our mission, vision and goals.