Grand Chief Coon Come’s State of the Cree Nation Address

Share Button

mcc-uraniumA lot can happen in a year, particularly when you are at the helm of one of the most powerful First Nations in Canada. This is why it is always interesting to go directly to the source and find out exactly how Eeyou Istchee’s Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come viewed 2014.

Reflecting on the year and expressing his hopes for the next, the Grand Chief shares his thoughts, impressions and feelings on the past year in this annual Q-&-A session.

While it may be hard to summarize the past 365 days in a few pages, Coon Come reveals his moments of pride, his heartfelt passion for leadership, his admiration for the many accomplishments of the Cree people in 2014 and shares private moments and thoughts that have been meaningful to him.

The Nation (TN): What were your biggest and brightest moments of 2014 as Grand Chief of Eeyou Istchee?

Grand Chief Coon Come (GC): Over the course of 2014 what comes to mind as bright spots is not so much any specific moment, but certain events and initiatives we have put in place that have made me feel that we have hit the mark in making progress on our overall agenda.

During 2014, for example, we took the very important messages that we gave to our Cree youth during the first Roundtable on Capacity Building directly into the communities so that we could reach a wider audience of youth along with other community members. We explained how the history of the Cree Nation since the signing of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement has been a series of struggles, agreements, major initiatives, all of which have been intended to put into place the elements we needed to establish ourselves as an effective Indigenous Nation.

We also explained that now that the major elements have been put into place the future of the Cree Nation will unfold with our Cree Youth in the centre. It will be up to our youth to develop the skills to administer and manage our Cree Nation within our communities and over the territory that we now have jurisdiction over and in which we now have a major role to play. We have, with our Roundtables, tried to encourage and inspire our youth to dream big and to work hard to achieve those dreams. This will remain a central focus of my personal vision and a guide for my work.

What I have also realized over the course of this past year is just how much our successes and achievements in Eeyou Istchee have begun to inform and have an impact on what is happening with respect to the advancement of Aboriginal rights across the country.

Whether it was the milestone decision of the Supreme Court of Canada in the Tsilqhot’in case, or whether it was unique and innovative agreements with resource development companies, I believe that our experience has demonstrated to the world that it is possible to recognize Indigenous rights and to give expression to those rights in a way that can work for our First Nations, for neighbouring communities and for industries. Everyone is starting to take notice of our accomplishments. For me, these developments in advancing Aboriginal rights has been a vindication of the wisdom underlying all our struggles and all our hard work over the course of 40 years.

I have taken our story to many parts of Canada in both Indigenous and non-Indigenous forums and our story and our lessons are understood and appreciated.

You know, in the kind of work that I do, it can be extremely stressful at times, it can be draining of energy, and it is always eventful. For me, every day above ground is a good day!

TN: What were the darkest or most trying moments as Grand Chief?

MCC_BAPEGC: I don’t think there were any really dark days in this past year. There is, of course, always sadness that we feel on a personal level whenever we lose people who were close to us, and there is special sadness when we lose another Elder. I think back, for example, about the late David Mianscum from Mistissini, whose love of the land was an inspiration to so many people in the community and to those people from outside the community who had the privilege of knowing him. Every one of our communities have their own “David Mianscums”, those Elders who quietly continue their life on the land and show us all the importance of our connection to the land.

On the professional level, I have been disappointed that we haven’t made more progress in establishing the Cree Development Corporation. I would have preferred by now that we would be further along in the creation of CDC so that we could have a solid vehicle in place to engage, as the Cree Nation, in the development of Eeyou Istchee, and that we could move forward with our agenda of creating wealth and creating the jobs for our people. The establishment of the CDC is an important element in our ability to fulfill the dream and the opportunity for the Cree Nation to become the major economic force in northern Quebec. But, we will continue to work in that direction and look forward to the CDC’s establishment as soon as possible.

TN: Did you meet every goal that you set out to accomplish in the last 12 months?

GC: As hard as we might work as leaders and as hard as we may try, we never accomplish all the goals we set for ourselves. But I think that in 2014 we did a good job of actually achieving, or at least making progress, on all the things we wanted to do at the beginning of the year.

A major highlight of the year was when we inaugurated the new Eeyou Istchee/James Bay Regional Government in Waskaganish last January. Since that inauguration we have had the first year of meetings of the Regional Government and we are well on our way to developing the kind of working relationship with our Jamésien neighbours that we had hoped for. Our meetings have been respectful, cordial and collaborative. We have slowly been putting into place the administration of the Regional Government, which will allow us to follow through on decisions and to take initiatives that reflect the interests of the region as a whole. Continuing to lay the foundation for the future of the Regional Government will still be a priority for the next year.

I was pleased when we were able to find a creative solution to the problems related to the Baril/Moses Agreement, which had to do with the extension of Cree rights in forestry over the height of land in the southern part of the Mistissini territory. Fortunately, we did not need to proceed to the courts to resolve this matter and we were able to work closely with Quebec to identify a solution that could work for both parties.

I had hoped that in 2014 we might be able to resolve the impasse in our negotiations with Canada pursuant to the New Relationship Agreement, but I regret that this has not happened yet. We will be continuing in our efforts to find ways to finalize the outstanding negotiations related to governance. This remains a priority for this next year.

During 2014, I was pleased to hear the news from the Community Assembly in Washaw Sibi when they made their final selection of sites for the new village. The Grand Council was there to assist them all along the way. They have important work to do now within the region to remove any potential obstacles to their project. We will be working closely with the leadership of Washaw Sibi to move this important file forward and to help them in addressing any potential problems they may encounter in fulfilling their vision of having a place to call home.

In that same vein, we have made progress in our work with MoCreebec in assisting them to address their long-standing claims for recognition of their rights to have benefits under the JBNQA. We have been working on the development of a court case, which is being put forward, and we will continue to support the MoCreebec community in achieving their objectives.

TN: Who had the biggest impact on you in the past year?

GC: There is no question that for me family always comes first and it is always my family that inspires me to continue with my work. And it all starts with my wife, MaryAnn, who has always stood by my side and who is my confidant, my unofficial advisor and my source of strength. And it is my children who are a constant reminder of why I am doing the work I do. Also, I couldn’t do the work I do without the support from the Chiefs with whom we have joined together to journey on the path of Cree nation-building. Without our unity we would be nowhere, and it is because of the integrity and commitment of the Chiefs and their commitment to unity that we have made the progress we have seen in the Cree Nation.

Matthew Coon Come delivers his dedication speech photo by Mark Della PostaTN:
How have the Crees fared under the new Liberal government and its Plan Nord 2 and how is this good for Crees?

GC: It has always been the Cree approach to find ways of working as best we can with any government that is in power. On the provincial side, we have worked with both Liberal governments and PQ governments and we have achieved successes with both. We have worked diligently to establish a good rapport with the current Liberal government and with Philippe Couillard as Premier. I have had the opportunity to meet with Mr. Couillard on numerous occasions, including during a very interesting trip to Iceland, and I have had the opportunity of explaining to him the Cree view on Plan Nord as well as the content of the “Cree Vision of Plan Nord.” Mr. Couillard understands very well the central role that the Cree Nation will play in implementing any projects under the Plan Nord and he has expressed his openness in working closely with us on all matters pertaining to the Plan Nord.

We all know that the economy is in a low period right now, but there are still some projects going forward and there will be some other initiatives taking place under the umbrella of the Plan Nord, and we will keep a very close eye on these developments and we will ensure that there will be Cree input and Cree involvement all along the way in keeping with our principles and with the position we have taken regarding the Plan Nord.

TN: Are there any other major economic/development deals that you feel should be highlighted here?

GC: In keeping with our fundamental principles of Cree consent and Cree involvement, we are working closely with the Cree Nation of Wemindji to implement their IBA with Goldcorp on the Eleanore project. This project has already resulted in significant employment for Crees and very useful and long-lasting enterprises operated by Wemindji people.

Also, we have been working closely with Mistissini in ensuring that they have concluded a very important IBA with Stornoway on the Renard project. We have also helped ensure that there is Cree involvement in the construction of the extension of Highway 167 from Chibougamau to the Renard project site. This has been of significant benefit to the people of Mistissini.

TN: The Cree have been very vocal in their ongoing battle against uranium mining while other mining projects have been celebrated like the Whabouchi Project. What has made the Whabouchi Project such a standout, while the Matoush project remains something the Cree have unified to fight?

GC: We have made it very clear that the Grand Council and the Cree Nation Government support the position taken by Mistissini in opposing the proposed Matoush uranium project. The Matoush project simply has not met the Cree test of social acceptability. Our primary concern, and the primary concern of Mistissini, is with the health of the environment. If there are projects which could potentially have negative impacts on the environment at a level which affects the Cree population and our ability to secure a healthy supply of food, then we must oppose such a project. It is our very livelihood which is at stake. The health of our environment is absolutely fundamental to our survival. We will continue to oppose any form of uranium mining on Cree Territory.

The Nemaska community, together with the Grand Council and the Cree Nation Government, has looked closely at the proposed lithium mining project and we have determined that the project is one whose impacts are not potentially catastrophic. The impacts can be contained, they can be mitigated and they can be solved in a way that can still be respectful of the Cree way of life. We will, of course, actively monitor the environmental impacts of this project before, during and after the project’s life, but we do not believe that this project will potentially harm the environment for the thousands of years that uranium mining would. We simply do not have the same comfort when it comes to uranium mining. We are not convinced that radioactive materials will not enter the waters, the food chain and we are not at all convinced about the security of the disposal of radioactive waste materials from the mining process.

To act responsibly and wisely, we must assess different mining activities as to their environmental consequences on a case-by-case basis. We have stated many times that the Cree Nation is open to the possibility of mining in our territory, and this is still the case, but at the same time, we will never relinquish our duty to be diligent and cautious. We have taken this position based on what we believe is the prudent approach in consideration of the importance of a healthy environment for ourselves and for our future generations who will continue to rely on the land to sustain them. This is a fundamental Cree principle that we will continue to abide by.

TN: How about major accomplishments by the Grand Council/CRA? Is there any particular department or event that you would like to mention or showcase to the Crees?

GC: In general, I would like to express my personal gratitude to the entire staff of the Grand Council and of the Cree Nation Government without whose dedication and commitment we would not have been able to realize our achievements and who have helped us stay on the course of building the Cree Nation.

During 2014 we undertook a major reorganization of the Grand Council/Cree Nation Government in order to have our government reflect our new governance authorities and our new jurisdictional realities. This realignment of our administration with our new responsibilities will make it possible for us to more effectively fulfill our new governance roles within Eeyou Istchee and we will be in a better position to realize the vision of our New Relationship Agreement with Canada and our Governance Agreement with Quebec.

TN: What traditional teaching or words from the Cree Elders have resonated most with you in 2014?

GC: What resonated most for me this past year was something that came up during this last 2014 Annual General Assembly in Waswanipi. During a discussion on the Cree Nation position on our involvement in resource development and during discussions on forestry, energy and mining, the Elders reminded us of an important adage that has guided us for many years: “Our land, our life”. This pretty well sums it up for me, and that is really the basis of our success. Whenever I am reminded of this fundamental principle I feel more grounded and know we have been on the right track.

TN: Were there any particular moments of action taken by the Cree Youth, Elders, or community members that have really impressed you?

GC: I have been extremely proud of the actions of our Cree youth in walking from Eeyou/Istchee to Montreal to express once again the Cree stand against uranium exploration and mining activities.

Led by Youth Grand Chief Joshua Iserhoff, our youth have been great ambassadors for the Cree Nation. They are rising to the occasion, and they are taking the lead in public awareness of our position. It is exactly these kinds of actions on the part of our youth that express their commitment and their desire to make a contribution to the building of the Cree Nation that I had hoped for. I welcome this action, I embrace it, and I cannot be more proud of our Cree youth.

When it comes to our Elders, I wanted to share a very touching moment for me. I learned a couple of months ago that my father and his good friend Matthew Matoush were making plans once again to go out on the land to pursue their favourite activities – hunting, fishing and trapping. Both my father and his friend are in their late 70s and they still have the energy and the enthusiasm to do what they love most. I was left with a profound sense of pride and also gratitude for these two Elders. I know there are Elders in all our communities who still do the same thing, and all these Elders are our rocks and our reminders of the importance of the land for all of us. We are all stronger and we all benefit in so many ways when people are living off the land.

TN: Is there anything else that you would like to say?

GC: As I reflect on where we are now in the growth of the Cree Nation, I remain convinced that we are still on the right track – the track of building a unique and healthy Indigenous Nation. All the potential is still there for us to fulfill the vision of becoming masters of our own destiny, and at the same time, all the responsibility is still there for all of us in Eeyou Istchee to roll up our sleeves and do what we can to realize that potential and make it happen. I continue to ask all Eeyou/Eenou to do what we can to encourage and support our Youth to be the best they can be so that they can proudly make their contribution to this honourable calling.

In the meantime, I want to wish everyone in Eeyou Istchee, all of our staff, the staff of all our Cree entities, our neighbours and friends a very happy holiday season and the best for the New Year.

Share Button

Comments are closed.