An interview with Deputy Grand Chief candidate Bella Moses Petawabano

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TN: How did you feel about the first round of the election?

BMP: I think it went very well. I was very surprised because I was competing with people who have extensive experience in Cree politics who are also known in Eeyou Istchee and I cannot say that I am known. I make that known to people when I speak to them, I tell them that I can not claim that I have been a Chief or Deputy Grand Chief, that people know me or that I am known internationally but it is really time for women to come out and take part in Cree politics.

It was an overwhelming experience for me to run, in terms of meeting people, going to the communities and how welcomed I was. Everybody was there to greet me and everyone has been very respectful and helpful. They have offered places to stay and some have even filled up my car with gas and paid for my meals. Everybody was really nice in all of Eeyou Istchee.

I could not shake hands because at that time I had a cold and I didn’t want to spread anything around as I did not know how bad my cold would get and I wanted to do some prevention. I had regrets for not being able to do it but I also wanted them to know that it was really my responsibility to protect the people and protect myself as well. People really understood however.

I really thought I was going to get more votes with the way people welcomed me but I wanted to say thank you to all of Eeyou Istchee for the way they received me.

The other part is, it was really interesting to be with the other candidates. I was really happy with how well we were able to treat each other with a lot of respect. We gave each other support as well.

In some communities, we came together, we ate together, we had fun together, joked around and this all made for really great camaraderie. I was pleasantly surprised by that and I am really hoping that in the future this will continue as this is really what Cree people are all about.

TN: Please tell me a bit about you, your career history and how that pertains to being in leadership?

BMP: I have given 35 years of my working career to the improvement of the social wellbeing of Eeyou Istchee. I have always been involved in the health field, random Cree word, since the beginning of my career.

When our leaders were negotiating the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement and went to court in the early ’70s, I was there. I saw the whole scene develop and evolve as a young women of 19 or 20. I saw how hard our leaders worked. I saw how they called upon the people of Eeyou Istchee, who were still practicing traditional activities, the true hunters and trappers from the ’70s and ’80s.

We got our JBQNA because of the Cree hunters and trappers, they were in the forefront, they fought for us and they got it for us. I truly believe that we have to go back to that in terms of leading, the strength that we had at that time. We have to bring them back and use them to advance and improve our situation in Eeyou Istchee.

TN: What is your campaign platform?

BMP: At the beginning of my campaign there were a few things that I was really going for in terms of the wellbeing of the community, miyuutimaatissiuuim.

Miyuutimaatissiuuim, that is my focus and I tell people to vote for miyuutimaatissiuuim which is healthy and safe communities.

TN: How would you execute this?

BMP: First of all I want to be able to bring together people for health. We know that the Cree Health Board has a mandate, their mandate is to oversee the administration and management and delivery of services in the region for the health and social wellbeing of the Cree Nation. But the Cree Health Board cannot do this alone; it needs the support and the participation of all of the other entities.

One of the areas that I would like to look at is ensuring that the policies that exist within the different Entities will be complimentary to one another. I am not just talking about health but also education. I see in the communities right now that we have all of these entities but they are all working separately. What we need to see right now is the ability to talk to one another and say ok, these are our policies, lets see what your policies are and see how we can ensure that they are complimentary to one another.

So this is what I would really like to do, to get the communities to work together and the entities to work together so that we can all work towards a common goal of health and wellbeing.

I believe that the health and wellbeing of the Cree Nation is very important for each individual because if you are not well, how can you perform whether it is in your work, your family or your studies. If people are not well we cannot expect them to perform well.

Of course our priority is creating employment but we do need a healthy workforce. Another priority is also education but we need healthy children to learn well. We need to ensure that we have a strong and healthy Nation so that the Cree Nation will go on and on.

TN: There have been a lot of problems within the education system; do you have any plan for reform there?

BMP: It’s like I have said, again it is working together and it is again to look at their policies.

We really do need to improve education in the communities. When you look at education right now, the way I explain to people is: I say look at the people in your community, let’s say Mistissini, every year we register children to go to school. How many children enter the school system? Maybe 75 or 80 children walk through the doors of pre-K or kindergarten. At the end Secondary Five, how many do we see coming out?

What is going on there? I don’t want to put the total blame on the Cree School Board but what is happening there is an indicator of what is going on, how we have failed our children. We cannot say that it is the problem of the Cree School Board. Yes the school board has lots of room for improvement just like the Cree Health Board has lots of room for improvement but we cannot expect each entity to be able to meet all of our needs or to change or to improve what has not been going right. What we need is the community, the community has to wake up and say okay, what is happening here and what is not working, why are our children not learning? We need to really get to the basics of why this is happening in our community.

Like I said, a child cannot learn if they go to school with an empty stomach because no one was there to get up for them and feed them. A child cannot learn in school if they have been up all night because of some activity that has been going on in their home. A child cannot learn if they go to school after having an experience with some kind of abuse, they cannot go to school and sit at their desks to learn.

These are the things that we need to address. Education begins in the home and we have to support our children from there so that they can go to the next step.

TN: Why do you think that you are a better candidate over your opponent? What do you think you can offer the Cree Nation that Ashley Iserhoff cannot?

BMP: I am a woman who has 35 years of experience in working for Eeyou Istchee and I have done this in various capacities. I can also say that I am educated.

I started school when I was nine years old. I was born from parents who were hunters and trappers and I spent my first nine years growing up on the trapline. I lived with them and saw the life and they got me to go to school when I was 14, which was a turning point in my life. I had to choose to become educated and I had a choice.

My father, like myself, was a visionary. He insisted that we all became educated because that way-of-life that he had would not be there for long, it would change. He told us, you have a choice: either you continue our way of life or you go to school, get educated and then you will be able to have a better work life. He did not make any money; he worked to survive as a hunter and trapper.

At nine years old I left to go to a Catholic residential school on the island of Fort George and I studied there for five years. I then went to high school in Rouyn-Noranda and I graduated from there at 19. From there I went to college and then on to work and that was around the same time that the hydro-electric project had been announced and the Cree got together to fight the good fight.

I became involved in that. I was not a political leader as I was only 19 or 20 but I joined them as a secretary. I saw all of that happening and at that time there were no cellphones or computers, the only connection we had with the north was through CB radios. It was a very difficult way to communicate. My role was to be in touch with the communities and make arrangements and travel arrangements to get the people out of the communities to come down to Montreal, that is when the James Bay court case was happening. I was there and saw all of this happening.

So, you ask me what I have that Ashley doesn’t have, I have been a mother, a grandmother, I have worked in various capacities for the Cree Nation. Amongst the people that I work with, I am known for getting things done. This is one of the reasons as to why people, when they wanted to nominate me, this is how they presented their wish for me to accept the nomination. I can bring people together and I can listen to people; these are my strengths. I am good at talking to people and these people know that I want the best for them. I know the best way to get the work done. I don’t just stop at obstacles; I find ways to get around them. I try and base everything I do on Cree values and finding ways to keep these values to carry on for the future generations.

TN: What will you do for economic development?

BMP: Everybody wants a job right? Especially the youth, they are seeking employment and career opportunities in the Cree communities.

What will I do? Well, what has been done before? I am not sure exactly what has been done before and I don’t want to dwell on that but I really would like to see that we move forward, especially with the youth. Have we looked at developing a youth employment strategy? What about a youth employment access strategy? We have so many Cree entities that are there right now, the CRA, the Cree School Board and the Cree Health Board, there are different communities and other Cree entities but what have we done for our youth? What have we done in terms of encouraging youth employment and opportunities in all of the various areas like economic development and resource development, we have the CRA we have CREECO, we have CCDC and we have Air Creebec. You name it, we have all of these Cree entities. We have had quite a few years to look at that and what has happened to date?

I know that the youth are really going to elect a youth but I really would like them to think about it. What has really been done concretely for the youth? That is the question that I would have.

I cannot say that I am going to do this or that, I can not make promises but for sure I know that I am certainly going to be looking at what those priorities that the communities have and want to put in the forefront. I will be looking at those. I don’t pretend to know everything that is going on. This is why I want to promote community participation; I want to bring back decision making to the communities. I want the people to tell me what they want and then I will take it form there.

I don’t make any false promises, I am not going to say that I am going to be able to please everyone but I will do the best that I can. This is what I am known for!

TN: What was your greatest achievement that benefited the Cree?

BMP: I cannot say that I have been a Chief, or Deputy Grand Chief or that I am known all over Eeyou Istchee.

But I am a woman like all Cree women of Eeyou Istchee. I am a daughter of a 90-year-old woman, the last of the hunting and trapping generation of women to have gone up and down the Eastmain River in the fall of 1976. I am married to Buckley Petawabano since 36 years. I am a mother of three daughters whom I devoted the first 20 some years of my marriage. I did like most women in Eeyou Istchee. I worked to make ends meet while raising my children. I volunteered in community events and numerous committees. I worked locally in various capacities and all for the wellbeing of the community.

Like some women in Eeyou Istchee, I left my community alone with three children and went to study in Montreal. Fours years later, I obtained my Bachelor of Social Work Degree from McGill University. I made that personal sacrifice to upgrade myself so that I can better help Eeyou Istchee. For those women of Eeyou Istchee who have chosen this path, I salute them for I know what sacrifices they have made.

As for being a working wife, mom and grandmother, I can proudly tell you what my achievements are. In Mistissini, in the early ’80s, I started the first Elders’ group home and this was a vision that became a reality in early 2000 even though I am not the one who was responsible for the actual construction of the Elders’ home in Mistissini. I can claim the vision! I also initiated the beginning of a daycare centre and that became also a reality and I cannot say that I am the one that started the construction but I can claim the vision. I also continued in keeping alive the Local Health Committee in Mistissini which also has now become the Mamouwechidodow Committee, a local committee representing all entities in Mistissini.

After receiving my social work degree, I focused my attention on the delivery of services to families. I was also elected councilor for Mistissini in the 1990s and recognized as Woman of the Year in 1993 for my continued involvement in community work. At a regional level, I was a board member of the Cree Health Board – a commitment that lasted a total of 17 years. Through out my mandate, I promoted responsibility, accountability and empathy. My concern was always to ensure that the decisions made by the Board were for the benefit of the entire population. I was also an executive director of the Cree Health Board for a period of time. Presently I am working on improving health services for families with young children by getting people and organizations at all levels to work together.

In summary, I spent my life trying to address the basic needs of my people. My struggle will remain the same, when I will work to give everyone the chance to live healthier lives, to have a job, to accomplish the best of himself/herself.

TN: What would you do over if you had the chance and how would you change the outcome?

BMP: In terms of politics, I wish I had started earlier in politics but I believe that what I did in the last 35 years of my career is important and has prepared me to enter into politics and make change in the health and social wellbeing of our communities. I have worked at all levels, and have always worked for Eeyou Istchee and for the people. The knowledge, skills and experience I gained came from the people and I strongly believe that it is time that I returned that back to the people while I can.

I am very grateful to the people who supported and voted for me in the first round of the elections. I met many people during my visits in the communities and they all have welcomed me with a lot of respect and they have all shown the same to the other candidates. I am also very happy to have had this opportunity to get to know the other candidates and have listened to their messages. If I am elected to be Deputy Grand Chief I will remember their messages and for what they stood for.

As for the results of the elections, I believe that the Cree Nation has sent a positive message that they want to see change happen. Our communities are suffering, our families are suffering and it is time that we bring social issues to the forefront and it is by coming together and working together that we can make our communities a happier place to be.

I want to bring hope to the Cree Nation. I want to bring hope to the youth of our nation. I do not hesitate to talk about sensitive issues and it is by talking together that we will find solutions. The Cree Nation needs to work together to generate hope for our young people, who, week by week, attempt suicide. We have lost too many already. Suicide means “I need help” and young people around us are asking for help. The whole community needs to pull together – this is an issue that the Cree Health Board cannot handle alone. We need to improve our education system and make schools happier places to be. Making education work better for all will help in our fight against suicide. It takes a whole community to make a difference. Several governments have been in place, one after the other, but none has done anything concrete to help, and the situation is steadily getting worse. Enough is enough, it is time to stand up and change. I also believe that the future of our Nation depends on the opportunities we develop for our youth. If I am elected, I will develop a youth employment strategy plan. It is time we start seriously looking at preparing our youth with the professional and technical skills to enter the workforce. To do so, means creating a Youth Employment Development Strategy, in collaboration with CRA, Cree Youth Council and CSB. There is a need to improve access to workplaces for our youth. To do this, I will adopt a Youth Employment Access Strategy in collaboration with CSB, CBHSSJB, Cree Communities and other Cree Entities. There is a need to encourage youth employment opportunities in the Economic Development and Resource Development Sectors. To do this, I will help to implement a Youth Employment Priority Strategy, in collaboration with CRA, CREECO, CCDC, Air Creebec and others. So, who do you think can change the outcome, to have a better future for all!

TN: What aspects of governance do you think the Crees need work on?

BMP: We have to get into the motion of governing ourselves. This must be done the Cree way. We have to decide for ourselves what kind of community life we want for ourselves and for future generations. We will need to adopt policies that that promote collaboration between our communities and our government. We will promote and maintain the vision of the people.

We need to promote transparency and participation of all Crees. One way to do this to have our own Cree TV.

We need to promote women’s rights. Traditionally men and women were equally important and their roles and skills were complementary. This was important for the survival of the family. We need to bring to the forefront women’s rights now because they are underrepresented in governance. We need to ensure their participation concerning governance and direction of the Cree Nation. We need to support the Cree Women’s Association like other associations under the JBNQ. CSB records show that there are more women in management workplaces and have more academic achievements. It is time we showed that women are valued. We need to show that women’s rights are valued and protected.

We need to look at how regional and local administrations should work together. We know that the communities have many concerns about drugs and alcohol. We will need to address how we will support our police force and how we will implement our Justice system. We need to improve our education system so that we will a have a skilled workforce. We need to support economic development by giving funding for potential Cree entrepreneurs to use in start up.

Our trappers got us the JBNQA. It is time we showed that we value them. It is time we acknowledged the expertise they have as wildlife experts, meteorologists, geologists and even engineers. My late father built winter lodges that stood for two-two decades and he built them with just an axe. We need to promote the bush life by enhancing/upgrading the present bush camps so that they are attractive to the youth. We could add running water, washrooms, electricity (windpower). I am sure this will be welcomed by the trappers who I am certain would like to want to return more often, and have their youth return with them and not just on cultural breaks. These could even become primary homes. We need to put emphasis and resources on the land and send a message to the governments that we occupying Eeyou Istchee, after all it is our land!

What have we done with our natural resource development. I hear the Quebec government is still waiting for us. What are we waiting for? More than ever, we will need to come together to express our concerns and opinions. We will need more than ever to talk about how we will address the future of natural resource development in Eeyou Istchee. We will need to hear what the communities want and what they cannot accept.

With Quebec, the biggest challenge will be how the Cree will react/respond to all new development in our region. I cannot say at the present time what my position will be for new development in our region. The people will tell how they stand on these issues. I want to lead the people and I want them to tell me their position and when I will be Deputy Grand Chief I will represent them as such.

With Canada, since the signing of the agreement concerning, a new relationship between government of Canada and the Cree of Eeyou Istschee, there have been numerous developments – and good ones too. I will continue to support what has started.

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