Election 2009: missed opportunities, new hopes

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Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. That hackneyed refrain could be the slogan for the recently concluded election for Grand Chief of the Crees that returned Matthew Coon Come to power after a 10-year absence from active Cree politics.

There has been a lot of water flow under the proverbial bridge during the past decade, however, and the Eeyou Istchee that Grand Chief Coon Come governs once again is much changed from when he left office for a single term (2000-2003) as National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations. The fact that there will soon be a lot less water flowing under the bridges that cross the Rupert River on its journey to James Bay is a big factor in the political strains across Cree country. The 2002 New Relationship Agreement with Quebec that led to the diversion has created major political fissures that the new Grand Chief must address.

The conflict over Hydro-Québec’s Rupert project helped to elect Matthew Mukash four years ago after a very narrow defeat to Ted Moses in 2002. Many, if not most, of his supporters expected him to fight hard to stop the diversion. They were disappointed in that regard. Perhaps the ideal of saving the Rupert may not have been realistic. But Mukash never initiated a frank discussion with the Cree people about the issue, or where he really stood on it once in power.

Mukash’s campaign for re-election suffered mightily for this. He can’t blame voter turnout; the numbers are virtually identical to 2005. The fact he barely won his home community of Whapmagoostui speaks volumes. Given the stature of his main opponent, his defeat did not come as a great surprise in these circumstances.

Adding to Mukash’s disadvantage as a vulnerable incumbent, it is obvious that Coon Come’s campaign was very well financed, with slick advertising appearing in the most unlikely of places, as the photo inset illustrates. Perhaps too slick; the decision to run a campaign photo on the underside lid of a Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket strikes us as greasy.

But all that may simply be a sign that politics here is beginning to resemble the struggle for power everywhere else: it’s a tough game, and nice guys finish last (or, in this case at least, second, which amounts to the same thing).

As a candidate, Coon Come stated that his major objective as Grand Chief is to establish a true Cree government. As the name of this magazine suggests, the Nation strongly supports this goal. But we have important caveats. A truly democratic structure of government does not vest all its power in one individual or one office. It creates checks and balances in order to ensure that competing interests have a fair representation in the exercise of that power, and a mechanism for reviewing decisions when necessary.

Above all, Coon Come must strive to run a transparent administration, and enshrine freedom of information guarantees in an eventual constitution that will provide a framework for true self-government. We have confidence he is up to the task. And we hope he will be true to his word during the campaign in that he intends to govern for all Crees.

Serving in public office can be a gruelling and thankless task. Not all who serve are in it for their personal ambition or for private gain. In this we recognize and salute Matthew Mukash’s contribution to public life in Eeyou Istchee. We sincerely hope he will find a future role in which he can work on behalf of the Nation.

As for Matthew Coon Come, the Nation extends its congratulations on a convincing victory. As the experienced political warrior that he is, the new Grand Chief likely knows that this magazine may at times be critical of his administration and the choices he will make. That is the price of power. He should also know that we fully support the mandate he won from the Cree people to finally succeed in achieving self-government. May he get to work quickly on fulfilling that mandate.

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