Grand Chief Coon Come’s State of the Nation

Share Button

While Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come says the Cree of Eeyou Istchee have fared well in 2016, there is still much work ahead and justice must be sought.

From the economy to the women of Val-d’Or, the Grand Chief discusses what really is to blame when it comes to the Cree Nation’s most vulnerable, talks about the maturing of Cree entities and living in a world where systemic racism is rampant for both the Indigenous here at home and abroad.

Here is the Nation’s annual Q & A with the Grand Chief.

The Nation (TN): How did the Cree fare in 2016?

Grand Chief (GC): Let me first of all thank “the Nation” for the opportunity to express my views on the state of the Cree Nation. This is an occasion that I look forward to every year as another means by which the Cree Nation leadership can inform our people about our accomplishments, our setbacks, and our assessments of how we are doing in fulfilling what we set out to do.

Generally, we are doing very well. We are continuing to move forward in accordance with our nation-building agenda. We continue to have our rights within our territory recognized and we continue to translate the recognition of those rights into tangible benefits for our communities and for our people. This is what successive leaders of the Cree Nation have set out to do and this is what we are continuing to do wherever an opportunity arises. We continue to be convinced every day of the wisdom of this approach and it has reaped enormous benefits for our people.

TN: What was your greatest accomplishment on behalf of the CNG?

GC: There is not one accomplishment that stands out for me as significantly greater than others. In fact, we have many accomplishments that we can all take pride in. We have made important strides in the area of forestry in implementing the agreement related to the Baril-Moses arrangement. We have secured a commitment from Quebec to upgrade the badly deteriorated James Bay Highway. We have entered into the second phase of the Eeyou Communications Network development. We have secured a commitment from Quebec to establish a new Adult Education Centre in addition to 40 housing units. We have initiated an important innovation in training for Aboriginal youth in the area of economic development through the Martin Family Initiative which is a unique program developed by former prime minister Paul Martin in collaboration with the Cree School Board and Quebec.

I am proud to say that we have begun construction of women’s shelters in the communities of Waswanipi and Waskaganish. We have assumed chairmanship of the Eeyou Istchee James Bay Regional Government. We have successfully participated in discussions with Quebec to acknowledge customary adoptions and to develop the procedures and protocols for recognizing them within our communities. And the list goes on.

So, as you can see our accomplishments have been many and they have covered a wide range of areas and sectors that are vital to the health of our communities and they will contribute to the overall positive development of the Cree Nation.


TN: What was your biggest challenge?

GC: My biggest challenge has been in having to continually address issues of systemic racism within the major institutions in Quebec. I am, of course, referring to the situation in Val-d’Or where we have had to take positions and measures to ensure the safety of our Indigenous women who were subjected to abuse at the hands of the Sûreté du Québec (SQ).

At a time in our history when we have made such major gains in the development of harmonious relationships with non-Cree communities within the region, and at a time when we have made such tremendous gains in having our rights acknowledged, I have felt disappointment that we still need to point out, and fight against, continuing systemic racism. And it is a huge disappointment to me that the most vulnerable among our people are subjected to abuse at the hands of the representatives of law and justice in Quebec.

We were also very disappointed at the recently released report undertaken by the Montreal police which exonerated all the SQ officers in the Val-d’Or area and found no grounds for charging any of the officers against whom allegations were made. This has left our women feeling even more vulnerable and distrusting of the system which is supposed to be protecting them. The report concluded that they could not say that the alleged events did not occur, but that they could not be proven. Well, we believe our women! And we also think that the evidentiary basis for these kinds of allegations needs to be reconsidered and revised. And, most importantly, we will not stop until we obtain justice for our brave women.

Right now, there is no existing mechanism for getting at the truth. This is why we have argued for, and in fact we have tabled the terms of reference for, an independent provincial inquiry which will have the powers to get at the truth. This will continue to be our focus.

At this time, our efforts will be directed at addressing the systemic racism within the SQ and the specific allegations by Indigenous women in the Val-d’Or area. Our focus will not be on the town of Val-d’Or. In fact, we applaud the efforts that Mayor Pierre Corbeil has taken to lead his community in a new and positive direction in order to establish more positive relations with the Indigenous peoples of the area.

We are committed to getting at the truth and we will not be deterred. We will not accept that there is no problem with the SQ and we will not allow this issue to disappear in the context of the federal Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women. This is a Quebec issue and we will settle for nothing less than an independent provincial inquiry.

TN: What was it like for the CNG to have other entities within the Cree Nation hold their own AGAs?

GC: When some of our regional entities announced that they would be holding their own independent Annual General Assemblies, I thought then and continue to believe, that this is a very good direction which these entities have taken. To me, it represents a certain maturing on the part of these entities and reflects a desire on their part to be more transparent in the reporting they do to our people. Too often, the reports that they have provided at the Annual General Assemblies of the Cree Nation/Cree Nation Government have needed to be in very summary form and there really has not been the opportunity to engage in a full discussion of the vision and direction of these entities. By having their own multi-day assemblies, the opportunity will be created for a full airing of concerns and issues which our people may have, and there will be a much greater opportunity for our people to have a direct voice in the future of these entities. I think this is all for the good and I welcome it.

TN: You yourself went to Standing Rock. While they have made some gains, this certainly isn’t over. What kind of an impact do you think that the Crees had on this battle and what advice would you give them at this point in time?

GC: Yes, that is correct. I was honoured to be invited to represent the Cree Nation at this important milestone in the history of Indigenous peoples of North America. This ongoing protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline has brought together Indigenous groups in Canada and the U.S. in a common Indigenous struggle against a project which has not received the consent of the Indigenous people on whose lands the project would be built, and it has been deemed by the affected Indigenous peoples as harmful to the long-term protection of the environment.

I had the opportunity to demonstrate the direct support of the Cree Nation in the efforts by the Standing Rock Sioux to assert their rights and work for the protection of the environment. We were able to provide food for approximately 1500 people at the site of the protest. In addressing the people camped out at Standing Rock I shared the history of our own struggles and I shared some of the political strategies we adopted in opposing hydroelectric development which was being proposed for our traditional lands also without our consent.

My objective in going there was to share our experiences and to encourage the people there not to give up. I told them how important it was for them to control the agenda so that they would not be constantly reacting to the agenda of other people and other forces. I told them that by controlling the agenda they would eventually create the leverage needed to move things in a positive direction. They have enjoyed some success in recent weeks yet their struggle is not over. We will keep a close eye on this situation and we will continue, if asked, to share our experiences.


TN: How did the Cree Nation fare economically in 2016?

GC: Our economy continues to make progress. We continue to identify employment opportunities within our communities as well as opportunities for our local and regional enterprises to create further employment and contracting possibilities to develop our Cree economy.

We have concluded several Impact and Benefit Agreements with mining companies and we will soon begin to reap the benefits associated with these agreements. They all contain clauses that provide for hiring priorities for Cree people as well as priorities for local and regional Cree enterprises.

Air Creebec and the Cree Construction and Development Corporation have benefited significantly from the agreements that the Cree Nation has successfully concluded, and this has resulted in further opportunities for our people.

We have been able to ensure these benefits are made available to our people while, at the same time, including measures which protect the Cree Way of Life for the benefit of those of us who continue to live a traditional way of life. We continue to work to ensure that our people have the choice of either continuing a traditional way of life or participating in the modern economy. This, for us, is a fundamental principle and we will continue to ensure that all of our agreements and all of our major achievements reflect this fundamental Cree principle.

TN: Also, with health concerns about obesity and rampant diabetes, how do you feel about the health of the Cree Nation and what would you like to see done?

GC: There is no question that there is an epidemic of diabetes within Indigenous communities across the country, and unfortunately, the Cree Nation communities of Eeyou/Eenou Istchee are no exception. Approximately one in four Cree people suffer from obesity, diabetes or related illnesses. There is no question about the seriousness of this issue in our communities and our Nation and we continue to support the efforts of our Cree Board of Health and Social Services to undertake the relevant research and to put into place the necessary creative programs and services that will both curb the current levels of diabetes and put into place creative preventive measures that will put an end to the epidemic levels. I have always maintained that as long as our people need to address basic health challenges and social issues, we will be less able to address and take advantage of the economic opportunities that lie before us. So, yes we must do everything we can to tackle epidemic diabetes and other issues in our communities because, in a very direct and immediate way, our future depends on it.

TN: How do you feel about the new reality of a man like Donald Trump running the White House?

GC: The Cree Nation has always taken the view that we will not pronounce on whether or not we agree with the head of any government that has been duly elected by its people. If we are presented with the need to deal directly with any government, we will do that in a way that protects and furthers the interests of our Cree Nation and we will work with any government that is in place to accomplish that. This holds just as true for what takes place on the other side of the border.

TN: Closer to home how would you rate Prime Minister Justin Trudeau? Some First Nations have expressed their disappointment with what they see as promises not being kept. How has the CNG’s experience been so far?

GC: My own view is that it is still too early to make general statements about the Trudeau government’s success or failure to appropriately address Indigenous issues. Certainly, the elevation of importance of Indigenous issues that was reflected at the outset of this government when letters were sent by the prime minister to all the new ministers expressing the intention to resolve long-standing Indigenous issues was very significant. So was the statement that there is no relationship more important to this government than the one between Canada and Indigenous peoples.

I was also encouraged at the establishment of the federal Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and the recently announced establishment of an independent Indigenous school board in Manitoba. I was also pleased to see that the new government significantly increased its envelope of new monies targeting the improvement in living conditions on reserves across the country.

I have been less encouraged with the way this government is addressing the full implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. We were hopeful that the new government would move to adopt the Bill put forward by MP Romeo Saganash that would result in a process for reviewing all Canada’s new legislation to ensure compliance with the principles of the Declaration. Unfortunately, this was not the case. And, further, I believe this government has more work to do in understanding and dealing with those resource development projects affecting Indigenous lands where the affected communities say ‘No’ to a project.

In our own relations with the government of Canada we are continuing to attempt to conclude an important governance agreement and we remain hopeful that we will be able to resolve all the remaining outstanding issues in the very near future. This will be our own test of the new government’s commitment to a progressive Indigenous agenda.


TN: What are the plans for the Cree Nation in the coming year?

GC: For the last several years we have made, as one of our top priorities, ensuring that we are doing everything we can to promote and establish effective capacity-building strategies. We remain committed to this objective and we will continue to have this high on our list of priorities for the coming year. In a very real sense, the future of the Cree Nation lies with our youth, and the Cree Nation will continue to grow and thrive depending on how well-prepared our current youth will be to assume responsibility for managing the affairs of our Cree Nation – from the local level to the national level to the regional level; and how prepared they will be to take on the employment opportunities which will become available in the region in the years ahead.

As I mentioned earlier, I am very hopeful that we will be able to enhance our local governance through the conclusion of an agreement with Canada to expand even further the range of authority, jurisdiction and responsibility for important areas of community life.

We will, of course, continue to do what we must in order to protect Indigenous women in the Val-d’Or area, and we will continue to press the government of Quebec to establish an independent provincial inquiry to seriously address the allegations against members of the Val-d’Or SQ. If any Indigenous person in the Val-d’Or area is vulnerable to the abuse of authority and the abuse of power, then we are all vulnerable. This will remain a priority for the Cree Nation and for me personally.

I would also like to mention that we have initiated a very important project to address the severe housing shortage in our communities. We have developed a model that, on a very comprehensive basis, will begin to address the serious housing situation in our communities in a way that is responsible and responsive to the needs of our people. We will continue with our community consultations and begin to establish a system that addresses the financing, the construction and the legal elements of housing while being sensitive to the economic and cultural factors of the Cree Nation. We realized that we cannot wait for governments to solve this problem and we are creating a Cree-made solution to the housing crisis. We will do this in a way that maximizes the employment and other economic benefits and spin-offs for our communities. This is an exciting opportunity and I look forward to seeing us realize this potential.

As you know, 2017 will once again be an election year. The people of the Cree Nation will have an opportunity to make their voices heard about the governance of the Cree Nation, the direction we having been going in and the priorities which candidates may express. I would encourage all voters to participate actively in the election process and to make their concerns and desires known. This is how our democracy works and we should all embrace this opportunity to have our voices taken into account in this upcoming election.

TN: Is there anything else you would like to talk about?

GC: At the time of this interview, we are entering the holiday season and I would like to extend my best wishes to the people of the Cree Nation, to the people who work in all our entities to continually improve the quality of life in our communities, and to all our friends throughout Eeyou Istchee and beyond a very Merry Christmas, a happy holiday season, and all the best in the New Year. May it be a time for us all to spend quality time with our families and renew our energies for the tremendously exciting work that lies ahead for all of us.


Share Button

Comments are closed.