An interview with Lisa Petagumskum

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Running for the first time for Deputy Grand Chief, Lisa Petagumskum feels that this election was the time for her first foray into politics. Having worked at various levels of management within the Cree Health Board, Petagumskum prides herself on her ability to administrate large enterprises with ease.

As a mother of three, Petagumskum feels that she has a particular understanding of what is needed for the youth of the Cree Nation not only when it comes to their physical needs but in terms of identity.

Originally from Whapmagoostui but now living in Chisasibi, Petagumskum devotes most of her free time to her family, phone conversations with her mother, time with her youngest son, Masty, and visiting Great Whale when she can.

The Nation: Why have you decided to run for Deputy Grand Chief?

Lisa Petagumskum: Because it’s time!

TN: What do you feel that you can bring to the table that nobody else can?

LP: What I have been doing for the last nine years is assessing the needs of the population and developing programs that come with buildings and all of the policies, procedures and protocols that are needed for those buildings. So basically it is about taking an idea and turning it into reality.

There are a lot of good ideas and a lot of good studies out there, but the time it takes to get things done has been way too long and this is one strength that I can bring. I am presently the Assistant Executive Director of Health and Social Services at the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay.

TN: What do you think is the biggest problem facing the Cree communities at this point in time?

LP:  One of the major areas of concern is education. We can go to great lengths talking about capacity building and Nation building, but if we are not equipping our children with the proper tools to be able to take on the mandates within the different entities, then what? It’s also about them being successful individuals in mainstream society or any society. They need the basic tools to be able to do that.

There is also the loss of cultural identity. Regardless as to one’s level of education, if you don’t know who you are, where you came from or who you are as Eeyou, you will be lost until you find that identity.

TN: So how would you address these major issues on a political level?

LP: When I first accepted the mandate to run, I asked my 10-year-old son, how are we going to get people to support what we know needs to be done?

My son is my strength and my rock, he even calls himself “Medicine Rock”. He said that if you want people to support you, the one thing they all have in common is that they want the children to be happy and safe. He told me to focus on the children and stay focussed on them because people would listen.

In any movement and with any change that needs to happen, we need to understand in which direction we want to go and a lot of our entities all have mission statements. But the objectives we need to assess are whether these entities are aligned and where are we taking our people and how does one area affect another? It’s only when all these areas work in synch that we can truly take a step to move forward more efficiently.

We have a lot of resources within our Nation; we have resources that could easily equip our children with the best education in the world if we took the time to assess how to do this.

The main thing is to ensure that we understand the mandates of all of the entities, that they are synergized to ensure that we are all going in the same direction and at the same time that we take time to understand who we are.

For example, everyone knows the walking-out ceremony, but do they know the teaching behind it? The walking-out ceremony is one of the first ceremonies for children and it identifies their role in society. The teaching behind this is that everyone who goes to this ceremony is also taking responsibility for this child. If you have 50 people there, those 50 people are taking the responsibility to ensure that child is nurtured, that they get all of the teachings and guidance that they need to live a productive life throughout their journey. The timing of it and the symbolic teaching of that ceremony is to mark when that child first touches the earth so that their footsteps and the connection of that child to Mother Earth is acknowledged. All those people attending that ceremony are taking responsibility for that child but they need to know what that responsibility is. This ceremony is done at sunrise but right now in many of our communities they do the ceremony at lunchtime or at 10am, in that respect we need to bring back those teachings. We have forgotten a lot of them.

This all goes back to identifying who we are and how symbolic those ceremonies are. To understand these teachings we need to bring this aspect back because many of the issues that plague our society come from the loss of our cultural identity in our children. Yes, they speak the language. And yes, they go out hunting. But the teachings that come with all aspects of our culture, are those really being passed on?

TN: As a mother are you concerned about your child’s future when you look at everything that has gone on recently. There have been some successes but also some failures, including a major incident involving money (Cree Trust). How do feel about all of that?

LP: I have a 10-year-old boy in Grade 4 who can barely read and write in Cree though he has gone through the school system in Cree up to Grade 3. In these four years, I am not certain that he has learned all that he should have learned.

We are robbing our children of their right to be in their community when we take them out and send them elsewhere. Not every child has the opportunity to go to a private school so the gap between the haves and have-nots is so wide that we need to go back and regroup and see how we can build a strong foundation for our children.

The financial situations and challenges that we have are not just with the Cree, it is a global crisis. But, at the same time, for 30 years we have had the opportunity to give our children the best education that we could give them and for 30 years that education has been dwindling down to what it is today.

Still, sometimes you have to mobilize to be able to bring it to a level where it will equip children and adults to take on those responsibilities in society.

And, if we rely on non-Crees then we are also just disempowering ourselves. I would be more comfortable if there was a long-term plan for how there would be succession planning within the Cree nation.

That goes for financial experts and those within the health board and the positions within the school board and all of our entities. Right now we do have young people who go out and get educated but the positions they hold are not ones in areas that they have trained for. We need to look at this because we send out this message that there are no more jobs and that we have to accept major projects on our territory without assessing what we have now.

We need to make sure that there is a plan to have all of those positions held by our own people.

TN: What would you do in terms of economic development?

LP: One of the major concerns our Elders have is about our youth going back to the land. We have youth that do not have the equipment to be able to go back out there.

I would like to see a program developed and work in collaboration with those who support it in that would give those youth that equipment through the Elders. The Elders would pass on that equipment to the youth so that they could go into eco-tourism. Then through an eco-tourism project the youth could be the ones to pass this on to those who would come up to our territory.  Our best resource is Eeyou Istchee and to share this with the world, to share our teachings, who we are and what we do.

This is one way we could also ensure that we are equipping our children to be able to pass on the teachings, the culture and the connection to the land.

TN: And at the same time they could make a good living at doing so.

LP: Yes and this is just one area, there is another. Right now they are downsizing construction everywhere.

We have a lot of buildings that need to be built on our territory and we are going to be taking contracts for this. We don’t have enough community members that have their CCQ cards to take on all of the positions for this. They will have to subcontract out for this and those subcontractors will most likely be non-Native people coming in with their equipment. Yes, the building will go up but the economic spin-off will not have a large impact on the community.

There needs to be a regional mandate to ensure that we are looking at this in terms of the short-term and long-term benefits to our communities. In the short term, people need these positions. But we also need to do this right because of the liabilities, they need these cards and they need to be teamed up. So what we are looking at now, we can maximize the time that we have and also maximize the benefit to the community.

Right now we are in the position where we have the upper hand because most of the economic development related to construction is happening in Eeyou Istchee. This means we can define the terms of how these contracts are going to be awarded and carried out.

TN: What do you think is the biggest problem right now with the current administration and what would you like to see changed?

LP: We have a lot of political dollars and a lot of political numbers. My position in the last nine years has been about appraising those political dollars in the assessment program, the development program, the communications program and the adaptation program. This is done to ensure that there is a process that identifies where the money is going. What is that global amount going to pay for? How is it invested and how can we measure what we are investing? Does it have the output that we are anticipating? Are performance indicators in place so that we can track how every dollar that we spend is of benefit? This is the area that I am very concerned about.

Sometimes we hire consultants who come in with their PowerPoint presentations. A lot of the time, they are the ones who get accepted without asking for the details. I am a very detail-oriented person and it all needs to make sense.

TN: But you have non-Natives working within the Grand Council in really important positions right now?

LP: This is an area I would really like to see changed, even in key areas. There needs to be succession planning. Most of the Cree who are holding key positions are pre-retirement age and there needs to be a plan to ensure that there is succession planning in those areas, especially for those key positions that are held by non-Cree. This is something that I won’t stand for and it has to be done within a very short delay. Those plans need to be drawn up and a clear time frame needs to be identified for how soon this can happen because we have been asking for this for a long time.

There is a saying that I follow: you have to role model the change that you want to see happen.

When I joined the organization within the Cree Health Board, I went in without the clear intention that I would stay for a long time. I went from being frontline staff to intermediate management to senior management to executive management. I am now responsible for 75% of the organization within the CHB. I am responsible for Youth Protection, Youth Healing Services, Hospital, all of the CMCs or what are known as clinics. I took on those mandates because I saw what needed to be done. We needed to make sense of which direction we were going in.

The key area that we also need to go into is in integrative services and in integrative services our partners need to know what the gaps are between the different mandates. I am also curious to know this.

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