From trapline to statesman

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There are many defining moments in a person’s life that shape them into the person they ultimately become. One could look at Matthew Coon Come’s birth in the bush on his parent’s trapline in 1959, for instance.

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It’s a familiar fact to anyone who has ever heard Coon Come deliver a speech. While some may say that he used this as a self-serving comparison to Abraham Lincoln’s mythology about being born in a log cabin, the circumstances of his birth weren’t unusual for many Cree of his generation. Instead, he mentioned it repeatedly in order to underline his commitment to the environment and determination to enforce sustainable methods of resource exploitation on Cree territory that respected the Cree way of life. This connection to the land survived the residential-school experience that was intended to sever it. For people like Matthew Coon Come, it reinforced the need for the Cree to renew their bonds with their land, language, community and culture.

One of the defining moments was certainly the battle over Quebec’s La Grande hydroelectric project. While the Cree faced many challenges throughout the years, this would be one that would come to define the face of today’s Eeyou Istchee.

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To succeed, Cree trappers learn everything they can about the environment that sustains them. The challenge of La Grande demonstrated to the Cree the need to understand their environment went far beyond Eeyou Istchee. The Cree needed to know how to navigate the outside world.

Perhaps this was the reason Coon Come studied political science, economics, Native studies and courses in law at Trent and McGill universities. It was to understand the world that had suddenly threatened to change the lives of the James Bay Cree. During the battle over the first phase of Hydro-Québec’s La Grande project, the Cree had to rely on outside assistance. While they appreciated the many allies, they recognized the need to learn what they need to know to ensure the continuation of the Cree way of life.

Now, 40 years after Coon Come came home to Mistissini at the tender age of 21 to serve his people as an elected band councillor, he is ending his political journey. In declining his nomination to stand for re-election as Grand Chief, he leaves a legacy of accomplishment that has transformed Eeyou Istchee.

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It has been a long journey. Only three years after his first political term, still only 24, he became one of the youngest Cree chiefs ever elected. He would serve two terms as Chief of Mistissini, and during that time his community saw a new arena, an adult education centre, a bank, new administrative offices, new health facilities, and major improvements to its housing and community infrastructure.

He took a short break and joined his father on the trapline. He would then accept a position as Executive Director of the Grand Council of the Cree, during which he ensured that the Grand Council achieved consultative status at the United Nations. Issues that the Cree were dealing with were nothing new to many other Indigenous peoples around the world. Recognizing that many voices were louder than the lone voice in the wilderness, the Grand Council used this status to unite Indigenous peoples to make vital common concerns known to the international community.

Coon Come was first elected as Grand Chief of the Grand Council of the Crees and Chairman of the Cree Regional Authority in 1987. He served for 20 years in this position, winning six elections. It would be in his first term as Grand Chief that he would face his first major challenge when Quebec announced plans in 1986 to build the Great Whale hydroelectric project.

Coon Come Provincial Inquiry Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come, Chisasibi Chief Davey Bobbish, Deputy Chief Daisy House Lameboy and Deput Grand Chief Rodney Mark

It was a turning point for the Cree Nation. Coon Come and Grand Council Executive Director Bill Namagoose discussed whether or not the Grand Council would support Whapmagoostui in their battle to save the Great Whale River. They knew it could be the worst or the best choice decision for the Cree Nation. In the end, it was decided that it was important to unite the Cree to protect their way of life, the land and all life that exists there.

Unlike La Grande, Coon Come realized this fight would take more than a court battle. He knew the Cree would be unlikely to rally a majority of the Quebec people to the Cree cause. Having learned their lessons from the 1970s, Hydro-Québec led a PR campaign by wrapping itself in the Quebec flag.

So other strategies were established, including drawing in a reluctant federal government to oversee an environmental review process outlined in the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement.


More ammunition was loaded to address the fact that Hydro-Québec was pre-selling power from the proposed project to states in the northeastern US. Scientists, energy consultants, lobbyists and grassroots speakers were mobilized to address the project on the Cree side. The Grand Council brought the issue to the United Nations and the International Water Tribunal. Musicians, artists, actors, activists, environmentalist, politicians, unions and media clambered for the Cree to talk to them. They all wanted to help and the support was overwhelming.

Finally, in November 1994, the newly elected Premier Jacques Parizeau, anticipating international opinion over the referendum fight he would lead the following year, put the project on ice. The victory ensured that the Cree were world political actors who were not to be taken lightly.

It wouldn’t be the last time that Parizeau had to deal with the Cree. During the 1995 referendum on whether Quebec would separate from Canada, Coon Come’s Grand Council organized their own referendum to ask the Cree for their position on their political future.

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“Crees have as much right as Quebecers to hold a referendum,” Coon Come said at the time. “Every argument that the separatists make in their preambles, in their declarations, in their laws, are arguments the Crees can make – 9,000 years, better.”

In the end, 77% of Cree voters cast ballots, with 96.3% saying No to allowing an independent Quebec to take them and their territory out of Canada in the event of a Yes vote in the Oct 30, 1995 Quebec referendum. “Crees have sent an overwhelming message to the Parti Québécois government,” said Coon Come. “They want no part of the separatist project. We have spoken as unanimously as a people can.”

Among the many milestones Coon Come achieved by building on the work of those who came before him was the acceptance of the Cree Governance Agreement. First mentioned in the 2007 New Relationship Agreement signed by then-Grand Chief Matthew Mukash with the federal government, the deal would add $200 million to Cree coffers.

It took 10 years to finalize the agreement and thereby achieve something that no other First Nation in Canada has ever attained. Ratified this past spring, the Cree Constitution and Governance Agreement means that Cree communities in Eeyou Istchee will now no longer have to justify or give financial reports to Canada. Eeyou Istchee Cree First Nations will soon be able to enact their own laws without oversight from Quebec or Canada. It is an unprecedented step toward self-governance.

Coon Come’s political career has witnessed an incredible change in the way outside governments deal with the Cree, and in the power the Cree now exercise over their territory. Back in 1959, when Coon Come was born on his parents’ trapline, there were no roads, no running water, no sewage system, no electricity or phones in Mistissini. There was also no consideration given to the desires, needs or interests of the Cree of Eeyou Istchee. All that is in the past. The extraordinary changes for the Cree that Coon Come and other leaders brought to bear on behalf of Eeyou Istchee is nothing short of exceptional.

Coon Come announced his desire to not run with the following words:

This afternoon, I submitted my response of my nomination as “Grand Chief/Chairman of GCCIE/CNG to the Returning Officer.

I began as a Band Councillor, Chief, Grand Chief/Chairman, National Chief and then back as Grand Chief/Chairman.

I started at a young age of 21 and now I am 61. Guess 40 years of my life has been in Indigenous politics of which over 30 years has been with the Cree Nation.

I have been the Grand Chief/Chairman for 20 years.

I consider just being nominated for an elected position a great honour.

I want to thank all those that have nominated me both in the past and present.

On behalf of my family, l want to thank our Cree people of Eeyou Istchee for giving me the privilege and honour to represent our Cree Nation for this long.

Having read this far, you guessed right.

I did not accept my nomination for the Office of Grand Chief/Chairman.

May God continue to bless our Nation.


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Coon Come also served as the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations from 2000 to 2003. He became known throughout Canada for his efforts to end the federal policy of extinguishment of Aboriginal peoples’ human rights of self-determination.

In 1994, Coon Come was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize, the “Nobel Prize of Environmental Awards”, for his resistance to Hydro-Québec’s proposed Great Whale Project

In 1998, Trent University granted Coon Come the degree of Doctor of Laws Honoris Causa in recognition of the significance of his work, and in 2000, the University of Toronto also awarded him an honorary Doctor of Laws. In 2005, the River Bible Institute made Coon Come a Doctor of Divinity. He also received the National Aboriginal Achievement Award in 1995.

Coon Come has been a Director of Air Creebec; CreeCo (Cree Regional Economic Enterprises Company); the Cree Construction Company; Servinor; the James Bay Cree Cultural Education Centre; the Centre for Indigenous Environment Resources; and the Cree School Board. In 1995, he became a founding director of the First Nations Bank of Canada.

In all, this is just a small glimpse into a leader the Cree embraced for so many years.



Geoffrey Kelley

Minister responsible for Native Affairs, Quebec

For more than 30 years, Dr Matthew Coon Come has devoted his time and energy to the careful management of the challenges of the Crees of Eeyou Istchee. I have had the privilege of working with Matthew on many important issues, and I have always been impressed by his hard work and preparation.
This first characteristic of Matthew that struck me is his long-range vision for Eeyou Istchee. We are often critical of political leaders for only thinking in the short term. But Matthew has certain goals and objectives for his people, and is willing to take the steps necessary today to arrive at this destination. Whether we were negotiating the Cree-Jamisien regional government or the Cree vision of northern development in response to the Plan Nord, Matthew has always defended the importance of economic development for the Crees, and the defence of Cree rights and interests. His goal is to ensure that the Crees are full partners in the development of Eeyou Istchee. He also insists that we be mindful of the principles of sustainable development to protect the environment and traditional activities of the Crees.
Matthew is also aware of the importance of education for the future of Eeyou Istchee. A scholar himself, he tracks carefully the progress being made by the Cree School Board. He also takes pride in the number of Cree students enrolled in post-secondary education. He knows that the future of Eeyou Istchee depends on the training received by the youth of the Cree Nation.
Matthew is now retiring after nearly 40 years of public service. I would like to thank Matthew for his great contribution to Eeyou Istchee, Quebec and Canada. We have all benefited from his visionary leadership. Megwetch Matthew!

Joseph P. Kennedy II

Chairman & President, Citizens Energy Corporation

My good friend Matthew Coon Come stands in the forefront of global Indigenous leaders who have tirelessly fought for sovereignty, dignity and self-determination. I first met Matthew when he launched an international campaign to defend his people and their lands from the Great Whale dam project. His commitment to environmentally sensitive development led to an ongoing partnership between the Mistissini Cree and Citizens Energy to create clean, renewable wind power to benefit the Cree and help preserve the planet. Whether standing up for the rights of the First Nations of Canada or Aboriginal peoples worldwide, the Grand Chief has won the respect of presidents, prime ministers and parliaments all over the planet. But most of all, he has served his people with honour and trust and earned the respect of the Elders.

GCC Executive Director Bill Namagoose

Bill Namagoose

Executive Director, Grand Council of the Cree

I have known Matthew as a friend and colleague since we were at Philemon Wright High School in Gatineau. We watched on TV and read reports what was happening to our people and to Eeyou Istchee, our home. I knew he was troubled and perhaps angry, like I was. In our discussions we understood we were going to go home one day and do something about it.

We were Chiefs in our respective communities at the same time and then in 1988 we ended up at the Grand Council of the Crees, he as Grand Chief and me as its Executive Director.

Leading with his sharp mind and charisma he changed the relationship with Quebec, Hydro-Québec and Canada by boldly and fearlessly challenging them by asserting Cree rights. Some of the Cree leaders and advisors thought we had gone too far and feared we had poked the bear too vigorously and the Cree Nation would face retribution. The fight continued until the paradigm changed and the governments realized the Cree Nation’s new strengths and then signed new relationship agreements that propelled the Cree Nation.

He was the leader in the effort to stop Great Whale, assert Cree rights during Quebec’s drive for independence, build Oujé-Bougoumou and set up new Governance regimes with Quebec and Canada.


Rodney Mark

Deputy Grand Chief

Matthew Coon Come is Grand in so many ways; it was with great pleasure I worked with him the past four years. He has a Grand heart that pounds with compassion and love for the people. His strength and determination as a leader for the good of the people is, I would say, “KICKSASS.” Sorry Matt, I had to say that. For all the accomplishments you made for the Cree Nation: Thank You. Thank You. My conclusion is “YOU ARE AWESOME”. You will be my Grand Chief forever.


Jean Charest

Former Premier of Quebec

I have a great deal of respect and admiration for the Grand Chief. He and I go way back because I was the federal Minister of the Environment in the early 1990s when the Grand Baleine Project was being proposed and he was leading much of the charge against it. So we crossed paths at that time. He was quite formable at the time as he always was. It was quite impressive. A very articulate spokesman for the Cree Nation.

In hindsight it was one of the defining moments for the Cree Nation. I would say that I was at a particular vantage point because I wasn’t proposing the project because I wasn’t with the provincial government. I was with the federal government. We had our own internal issues because our environmental process was being commented on by the courts. We had no environmental assessment law yet we had a directive that was interpreted as being one.

So there was all sorts of internal issues but I wasn’t the one proposing it. I didn’t have skin in that game but we ended up being a player in that story as we determined we had a legal obligation to do the environmental assessment, which ran up against the JBNQA and the Quebec assessment. It was an environment in which there had been a recession in Quebec. The business community was up in arms over the fact we were doing an assessment. But Matthew, on the other side, was an articulate and effective leader in regards of defending the rights of the Cree Nation and it was a defining moment.

When I became Premier of Quebec I have to say it was interesting to see the strength of the Cree leaders. The Cree have been fortunate in having good strong leaders. I got along with all the Cree leaders but when Matthew Coon Come came along we got along very well. It was one of those rare opportunities where things aligned and our personal relationship was very good.

We had the Plan Nord. He took a very hard look at it from the perspective of the Cree. He looked at it very seriously and we ended up working together. I was very appreciative of that. He represented the interests of the Cree well. It allowed us to make an amendment to the JBNQA.

One of the things we did together that is very significant is the creation of this new governance agreement. That’s something that is still being tested, but the feedback is positive. I know it’s being looked at elsewhere as an example of how governance with First Nations and other communities can be managed in the future.

I find myself very lucky to have known Matthew and to have work with him. I have a great deal of respect for what he has accomplished. I wish him very well and I am sorry to see him go. In all of Canada, the Cree of Eeyou Istchee is a model for many First Nations of what the future could look like.

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