During the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples conference I came across many Crees but because of space could only interview two. I chose Romeo Saganash, former Deputy Grand Chief, former Waswasipi Deputy Chief and present Waswanipi Band Councilor, as well as one of the speakers and one of the observers from the coast in the form of Chisasibi Chief Charles Bobbish. In both cases it was a pleasure to interview them and get their responses to the Commissions report.
The Nation: So did you enjoy the conference?
Romeo Saganish: Yes and no, in the sense that most of the speakers had a limited time to say what they had to say. On the other hand, there were a lot people there I wanted to hear from. For instance, Thomas Flanagan (of the University of Calgary) was someone I went to listen to because although he has very radical positions towards Native peoples and issues. I think these people are necessary in these types of debates because at least then we can measure ourselves and our own positions based on what they think at the other extreme. I think it was good to have him there.
Yes, this is one of those conferences where you heard both sides. So you think this is a good thing?
Yes, but it has to continue, you know. I’m not too sure how all of us peoples, Canadian, Native, Québécois or otherwise, how we all can maintain the momentum that’s been created from November 21, when the report was tabled. I don’t think the federal government or the government here in Quebec will react to the report at this time, whether negatively or positively. I think they intend to let it fade away. It’s sort of a pity to see some of the leaders expecting some sort of response on the part of governments on this report. Which in my mind was just another way of expressing dependency on the governments.
That was one of the questions I was looking at. Basically this is a Royal Commission, this is about as official as the government can get when looking at a problem. How can they just ignore it?
Just imagine how difficult it is to get the governments to respect the Constitution and decisions from the Supreme Court of Canada, for instance. They have difficulty already respecting anything that is constitutional with respect to Aboriginal peoples. So imagine recommendations from a Royal Commission. I don’t expect much from governments after this report. It’s really up to the Aboriginal leaders and peoples to say that if they really believe in their rights, well I think they should implement them.
What do you see as the Natives’ strategies in the coming years as a result of this report?
One of the things that a speaker said is that everything that has been said by practically every Aboriginal person in this country is in that report, especially the youth. So if you really believe in your rights, well exercise them. That’s the only way you will achieve any meaningful change in our lives is to exercise the rights we believe are ours as Aboriginal peoples. So the real question should be asked not only by chiefs, but everybody should ask that question. What do we do from here? Where do we go from here? In my mind, for instance, if the Cree people are ready for a regional government, I mean a real one, with youth and Elder representation, then I think we should pursue that part of the recommendations. That’s what I mean by taking the initiatives, taking advantage of everything that has been said on these issues for the past 20 to 30 years now. I think it is really up to us to say as Crees we are ready for this part of the report, which concerns the regional Aboriginal government. The Haida might say we are ready for implementing the arts and culture aspect of the report. I think there needs to be some leadership among aboriginal peoples. That’s the only way we will get some mileage out of this. If we wait on the governments, I think we will be waiting for some time.
Some Native leaders since the report has come out have prophesied violence in the wind so to speak if recommendations aren’t followed up. Do you see this as part of the future?
Well, you have to look at the report from a certain perspective. Again this report basically proves Aboriginal peoples’ rights in their claims on specific issues. Some Aboriginal nations across Canada have argued that their resources belong to them and no one should be able to develop their resources on their land without their consent. We have seen violence happen because on the other side that has been not respected.
From the Crees’ perspective we have been saying for the past 20 years that the resources and the land belong to us and no development can take place without Cree consent. Well, if that is the case I think we need to develop a position on resources and development. We all know how much forestry is making from the extraction of resources in our territory. We have done our home work. So it’s really up to us to say we know how much money forestry is making, we know how much the governments are making from that part of development and this is how much we are asking for, this is how much we need and this is how much we are taking for it. Until someone from among the Cree chiefs or the Grand Chief can say this is how much we are going to take from that development, then people will consider the Cree position seriously. But it hasn’t happened yet so we need to develop a position.
The last real position we have taken on matters that affect us as a people was in the early 70’s when we produced a document entitled, “Our Land, Our Demand,” in response to Bourassa’s threat to harness all rivers in our territory. This is the last real position we have taken. I think we need another “Our Land, Our Demand: Part II” in the present context.
What do you feel is the most important thing to come out of the Royal Commission?
One of the things is that it provides a basis for proper develop for Aboriginal nations and peoples in this country and a proper relationship between them and the governments. It does not present a panacea in my view. We have to extract what you think is appropriate in your case. The Royal Commission is providing us with a tool. They’ve demonstrated we have a right to self-determination, a right to govern ourselves. We have a right to determine our own futures and lands. From there I think that should be the question we are asking ourselves… What do we do from here, where do we go from here?
The Nation: So you were at the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples conference Forging A New Relationship. Did you feel it was important for people to attend?
Chief Charles Bobbish: Well, the information I got I felt it was very worthwhile. I found it helpful because as a community leader I want to know what is happening with us and the rest of Canada. We share the same concerns, we share the same problems. And because of this I felt the information that was expressed by different leaders, different people was very helpful for me. It kind of opened my eyes to some of the things that I was not to concerned about. We have the same problems in our community. It brought to light everything.
There were two different types of speakers there. Well, actually three but at times you could see the extremes of both sides of the coin. How did you feel about that?
Well, I liked that. We have to hear from both sides of the coin. We have to hear what they feel is important for them. Some of them were looking at it from Canada’s point of view and some from the point of view of the Aboriginal people. Which was very, very interesting sometimes to see what the rest of Canada was say with regards to the information that they received regarding the Native people across Canada. I felt that it was helpful to hear it from both sides because of this. This in fact, was the first time that I’ve gone to a conference where you hear both sides.
Do you see any new strategies coming out of this for Native people?
What I see happening is that if people could understand, if they want to understand the situation in our communities then they probably will be more supportive or at least more aware of what we are talking about. People are starting to understand that there are problems in Native communities.
One of the things that I seen happen at that conference was the thing they attacked was the amount of money spent to do the report and how much Canada’s going to spend to improve the situation in Aboriginal communities.
So you see one of the big hurdles that Natives have to encourage is the education of non-Native Canada?
Yes, we have to educate the rest of Canada. We have to do awareness to make sure people understand why we are saying all these things. To understand why we need more money to improve the lifestyle of Aboriginal people across Canada.
We are always talking shortage of funds. We can only do so much with the money that allocated to us from Indian Affairs or any other existing Quebec or Federal programs.
What did you find was the most interesting part of the conference?
I think the last part because there was a new direction when Ovide Mecredi, the National Chief, when he made his last stand. That was a concern that a lot of people had with regards to what is the next step, what is going to be the new direction to determine a new relationship with Canada and the provinces.
One of the concerns that a lot of leaders mentioned, including Ovide Mercredi, is the potential for violence…
That’s the extreme part. That is the last resort, the last recourse we have. If people don’t recognize there is a big need to recognize the needs of the Native people across Canada, some people are saying this is going to be our last stand. We’ve worked on this for a long time trying to get Canada to recognize this and they have never heard. Finally the opportunity came for people to discuss their concerns and views on what kind of relationship they want with the rest of Canada and how they can improve their situations in the community. You know that could be very sad if Native people feel this is the last stand, that this is the last recourse they have and I guess this is the last direction they are going to take.