An interview with Kenny Blacksmith

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Running for Grand Chief and hailing from Mistissini, Kenny Blacksmith is an ordained minister with a strong involvement with the church.

Over the course of his career, Blacksmith has worked as a consultant in various capacities, was Commissioner of the Cree School Board and became a published author of the book, Covenant of the First Peoples of Canada.

Blacksmith is also an experienced politician, having served one term as Deputy Grand Chief of the Cree Nation from 1993-1996.

A dedicated family man, Blacksmith has also been married for 34 years, has five children, nine grandchildren and a brand-new great-granddaughter

The Nation: What made you decide to run for Grand Chief this time around?

Kenny Blacksmith: In the last four years, I haven’t heard the Grand Council’s voice on national or even on provincial issues. Even on the community level, we really haven’t heard the voice of the Grand Council or the leadership. I felt that there was this deadening silence and we need to get our voice back. We need the presence of the leadership back in the communities and on the national scene. We need to advance even more of our power, our rights, our interests and our concerns. There is so much more that we can still do.

Somehow I felt that the last four years have been too quiet and there are a lot of issues that need to be looked at. Not all is well in the new relationship agreement. For example, I have been speaking to some of the Cree tallymen who are impacted by development on their trapline. They are not getting the employment and they are not getting what they would like to do to have employment within their own trapline. No one is speaking for them at this moment nor have they been spoken for or represented in the past few years.

Everything has been done in the name of Cree-owned corporations but nothing has been done to really help those who are truly impacted by all of the different developments that are taking place on Cree land.

Last year, I spent eight months working with local Cree labourers in trying to get contracts for the Cree trappers. I saw and felt the pain of our trappers when they see their lands being flooded. That is why I say not all is well in the Cree communities in respect to the new relationship agreement.

I also feel that there are a lot of social issues that are hurting the Cree Nation. There are suicides, marital problems, and all sorts of needs for children and youth out there. We have not done enough to create employment or a better atmosphere in the communities for our youth. Why are there suicides? Why are there so many problems in our villages?

I think there is a need to involve many more people within the Cree efforts. I see the churches being more involved in social and spiritual needs but ultimately everything comes down to the emotional strain of our people. If they are not well, then the Nation is not well. And this means we cannot stand up to the new challenges that are coming up.

I feel that I can voice and represent community members of different ages and it does not take a whole lot to be innovative and creative to implement new programs to help our people.

TN: There have been a lot of problems between the residents of Eeyou Istchee and the Municipality of James Bay (MJB) in recent years. What would you do to address them, particularly in light of what you just said about traplines as the MBJ is limiting their activities in certain areas?

KB: It is much bigger than what is happening in the James Bay northern Quebec area. There is also the whole business environment with respect to Val d’Or, Chibougamau and Rouyn Noranda and all of those towns, our people have provided strength to those particular economies. They in fact provide stability for the economic well-being of these areas and yet we are not well treated.

There are taxation issues that could be so easily addressed and yet nobody is talking about these things. I have witnessed what is taking place with those from the Municipality of James Bay up in our territory.

I have nothing against our French neighbours but I think the relationships need to be improved.

The whole New Relationship Agreement for Northern Quebec between the Crees, Quebec and Canada is based on mutual respect and recognition of one another. It is so nice to say that but I think we need to find the application of tangible and practical relationship issues and I think that requires consistent dialogue which we have not had.

We can make Quebec a better Quebec by working together but confrontations often arise because there is a lack of communication and understanding.

TN: There is that but at the same time Quebec has created legislation that goes against the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement.

KB: Very much so! When I was Deputy Grand Chief I had the opportunity to work with the late Claude Ryan who was very instrumental in several new agreements, such as the Cree School Board. When I was president of the CSB we sat down and negotiated very strong Cree education and related funding. At the same time, we negotiated Cree policing services. Then when I was Deputy Grand Chief, Ryan and I sat down and we began to put into (effect) the founding principals of the New Relationship Agreement because we saw that we could advance our relationships and our efforts and it could go beyond the JBQNA.

I know Jean Charest and many of the ministers and the government leaders on a personal level – not just in Quebec but also in Canada in the federal government. I feel I have a relationship that I can bank on to see how far we could go. If we could have a vision like we did in the past in the Chief and I am talking about the New Relationship Agreement. Then I think there would be more opportunity to advance practical relationships that people would welcome. I think we can make some changes. There is so much more to do, it’s not enough with what we have done so far.

TN: What do you think is the biggest problem that the Cree communities are faced with today?

KB: I believe that the central issue here really is the social issues. Like I said, if we are not healthy as a people then we are not going to be healthy as a Nation and that will affect how we position ourselves, how we address education issues, social issues, economic issues and Cree governance.

Good Cree governance starts at home. Unless we become strong in our emotional and physical well-being, only then can we become more voice-full and exercise our presence and rights in Quebec.

This is why I felt that I needed to come back to our people. I think if we can just have our people once again restore what they had in terms of vision and conviction, that they are a people who are unique and distinct in their own language and culture and their whole being. That they have a place, they have a role in provincial, federal and international issues, and we can do a whole lot more.

We need to restore the whole vision of the Cree Nation and not be afraid to speak up. I feel that the Cree leadership is somewhat overwhelmed by implementing the administrative modalities of the New Relationship Agreement, that they are just so caught up trying to make it work, that they somehow have become complacent and have not been as voice-full as they should have been. If there are fingers in the federal government or in the provincial government policies, could it be because we have not been as assertive or as proactive as we should have been?

Those are some of the concerns that I have had and, of course, there are a whole lot of more. Really the thing is getting our Cree voice back and making it heard.

The Cree trappers and the Cree members are hurting because of the results of negative development whether it is natural resources or whatever. Our people are hurting because of it, and nobody is speaking up for them.

TN: Do you have any other campaign points that you would like to bring up within the context of this interview?

KB: When I speak of a Cree voice, I think it is also in relation to ownership and participation of various visions, interests and concerns that the people have in education, in social and health issues and in economic development. We really need to step back and see where we are at in terms of a people. What are we doing to ourselves? What are we doing with ourselves either individually or corporately or as a Nation? We need to really take a step back in the sense of where we have come from and what we are doing or not doing.

I believe in education and I think we can decentralize more education services so that the people feel that there is an ownership and that they are participants in the education of their children in their communities. I think there can be further decentralization and funding and support services. I am not only willing to work with the Cree School Board and look at how we can best serve our people because the Grand Council has marched all over the rights of the people. They should be dialoguing more consistently with every Cree entity to see that there is a proper delivery of every service and program to our community.

These are just some of the things but there are a whole lot of things that I feel that we can do. For the time being, I feel that these are some of the things that we can certainly improve on.

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