Losing a legend

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Born in a tent on May 17, 1949 near what once was Rupert House, former Grand Chief, Chief of Waskaganish, Quebec negotiator for the Grand Council of the Crees, businessman, father and grandfather, Billy Diamond was the first leader of the Crees in the modern world. He sadly passed away from a heart attack on September 30 in his home in Waskaganish at the age of 61.

A consummate family man, Diamond was survived by his wife Elizabeth Diamond and his children, Lorraine Diamond,  Ian Diamond, Sandford Diamond, Phillip Diamond, Christopher Stephen, and Kevin Gunner. Diamond also had many grandchildren whose company he enjoyed immensely in his later years.

Outside of his roles as Chief and Grand Chief, Diamond was also a leader in the business world, forming and then running Air Creebec for a few years. Outside of his political life, Diamond ran Waska Ressources and Diamond Sylvico.

A member of the Order of Quebec and an Aboriginal Business Hall of Fame laureate, Diamond was also recognized by the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation in 1997 for achievement in business and commerce.

Beyond his achievements and the institutions he began, Executive Director of the Cree Regional Authority Bill Namagoose remembers Diamond as a man he once looked up to in his boyhood and the dynamic leader he was at the helm of the Cree nation.

From Namagoose’s perspective, here is the Billy Diamond’s story:

I have known Billy all of my life, we are from the same community so I have known him for as long as I can remember.

Billy was about eight or nine years older than me so we were not in the same group because he was older, there is a big difference between 12-year-olds and 20-year-olds.

He was born in 1949, his siblings were: Charlie, the oldest, Annie, Agnes, Gertie, Albert, George and then Stanley, the youngest. There were eight of them, one died, Robert.

I remember watching Billy as a young leader and Band Manager in Waskaganish, those were the days when we did not have any Band offices. The thing I remember about Billy was that when he became the Band Manager he opened the first Band office in the community. I remember going in and seeing the desk and chair and I was very impressed with that because hey, we actually had someone with a desk and chair and we are Crees. This is the image that is stuck in my mind.

We always knew that he was going to be successful, just from the way that he carried himself and spoke. We could already see the aggression in his personality.

His first major success was organizing the people into a union to be united against the Quebec government’s hydroelectric projects in the 1970s. He was the unifying force behind that unity. That union began to take on a life unto itself and that has really helped the Crees over the last 40 years.

He was able to create that dynamic and I think he will be known as the father of the contemporary Cree nation. Of course, the Cree nation is also thousands of years old but he is responsible for how we know it today.

That union also preserved the Cree nation. We still have over 95% of our people in the communities and the other 5% are working for the nation or attached to it somehow. In other Aboriginal communities across Canada 51% of the people have dispersed because there is no housing or schools or clinics or opportunities. If you don’t have housing in the communities people will leave and if people leave the government doesn’t have to build schools or clinics or roads and so they save a lot of money. This is why they have been squeezing the housing money for the last 25 years; it is a way to evacuate the reserves across Canada. Our nation is still intact.

Billy was Grand Chief for about 12 years, from 1972-1984. First, he was made Grand Chief by the Cree Chiefs and then when the Cree Regional Authority (CRA) was formed in the 1970s, he ran to be the first publicly elected Grand Chief and he won that office. He was the first to be elected by the people at large into office in 1978 or 1979 and he led in office until 1984, when he went back to Waskaganish and he has been there ever since.

Billy set the mold for Cree leadership. He was a great organizer and a great presenter; he would present the facts as well as the pros and cons on the issues. He knew the issues inside and out before he would make a presentation to Chiefs and Council on the Council Board and he always had a recommendation on what would be the best way to go. The people would just follow. He mastered the details and had an uncanny ability to recall many, many meetings and how the issues had evolved and then take a position on it.

When we negotiated the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA) he knew that the traditional way of life had to be preserved but at the same time he knew that the Cree nation needed an option on how to pursue the modern economy and that is how he crafted the JBNQA. He told the people that we have an option, we can preserve the traditional way of life and that it should be economically viable and so he designed the income security program for hunters and trappers. He also gave the option to younger people to pursue a modern economic way of life.

Billy also wanted Cree control of education and the way to do that at the time was to create a school board under the provincial system because that is where the education experts are in the province. If you look at the constitution, education is a provincial matter so all of the experts go to the province. There are no experts on education working for the Department of Indian Affairs and so we wanted to get out of that. It was the same thing with health, can you imagine what it would be like if we had stayed with the federal government on education or on health?

He had that vision in 1975 which was unheard of and he went against the thinking of the Aboriginal leadership of the time. The leadership did not want anything to do with the provinces; they wanted to maintain a relationship with the so-called crown, which is the federal government. But the services available from the federal government at the time were lousy because there was no expertise behind it. By choosing the province he went against the views of the Aboriginal leadership across Canada.

The Aboriginal leaders had this perception that if they dealt with the provinces that somehow it would diminish their role as nations. I think that the lesson from Billy was that it was not about how others perceive you, but how you perceive your own people and how they perceive themselves that matters the most.

Diamond was behind the JBNQA negotiations, he directed it and he was the force behind that. His vision and ability to extract decisions from the people through consultation was paramount in those days. He did not do this by himself of course and he had a lot of people who he had energized to help him. He got the views of the Elders, the trappers and the hunters.

You cannot take a position in a vacuum, you need support and he was good at getting that support from the people and he fed off them.

I think he understood the non-Native world too, much better than the people back home. This was because of his education and what he had managed to teach himself. He was able to transcend some of the differences and then translate them.

I think Billy only went to high school and then maybe did some other courses. He was Chief when he was 21, when he should have been in school.

After being Grand Chief, he returned home and became president of Air Creebec from 1984 until 1988 I believe and then his brother Albert took over. He was also a Councilor on the Council and then he became Chief of Waskaganish for about 12 years.

He was the kind of guy who could have been National Grand Chief had he wanted to. It was his for the asking but he never asked for it. He just wanted to go home.

When Billy ran Air Creebec, it was a young company just getting its wings. It needed a lot of support from the Crees and a lot of capital. People believed in it because it was the only company. If it was not Air Creebec it would have been some other non-Native company in there.

Just the fact that he started this company and was revolutionary because Premier René Lévesque told him at the time that Indians can’t have airlines. That both rallied and propelled him to prove Lévesque wrong. I remember at the time there was a non-Native company that was granted a license to fly into the Cree communities. But, the partnership that the Crees formed with Austin Airways at the time was not given the license. The license was given to one of the owners of Propair instead.

So, we went to court over this and I was one of the people who testified as a witness. On the stand my role was to testify as to what kinds of services were in Waskaganish and what the benefits of an airline would be. It was during the court case that Joe Clark’s minority government fell. When it fell, the Transport Minister Don Mazankowski changed the license, taking it away from the non-Native consortium and gave it to Air Creebec and Austin Airways and that was his last act as a minister. So, we didn’t have to finish the court case because the minister had already made the decision to grant the license to us. Billy had proved that Indians could own and operate an airline.

After Air Creebec, Billy ran his community as Chief until he was replaced by Chief Robert Weistchee.

One time he told me that it was difficult to handle this transition as he felt lost in his community because he had been living the life of high-profile politics since his 20s and all of a sudden he was back in this tranquil place. He said he had a hard time readjusting but of course it didn’t take him long. I guess it was like culture shock in reverse and we have all experienced that at one time in our lives when we move from one world to the other.

Billy was dynamic as a leader in his community, but at the same time he was Chief he was also sitting on the Grand Council Board and was able to share a lot of his wisdom and experience at that level to the new members of the Grand Council and new Chiefs. He had that kind of presence where you always knew when he was in the room.

After he was no longer Chief, he was elected as a member to the GCC and again we gained wisdom from him. We didn’t always agree with everything in his view, there were differences in opinion but he always affected the quality of the decision in the end.

But as a person, he had two dimensions to himself in every decision he would make: one would be about whether it was good for the issue for today and then how that decision would affect people in the future. This is the decision-making process that a good leader possesses and he possessed that.

After running his community, Billy was also a negotiator for the Grand Council under Matthew Coon Come for the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) agreement that we had with Quebec for some of the water and sewer infrastructure agreements. I think he did this for three to four years.

After his life in public office, he became a businessman. One of his businesses was for mosquito killing among other companies.

The day before he died he gave me a call at the office. I called back at around lunchtime and I asked him what he was doing. He said he had been watching a lot of TV and reading a lot, the kinds of things people do in retirement. He said, “I am retired now” but he was sitting around watching the Parliamentary channel. He was watching the Senate hearings on the Residential School issue. He told me that if the Grand Council needed someone to appear before the Senate he would be willing to fly to Ottawa and appear before them.

Knowing his physical state, I couldn’t ask him this and so I passed the phone over to Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come and they had a good discussion too.

This was the way that I remember him; he was willing to fight until his last day. Twenty-four hours later we received the news that he had passed away.


Billy Diamond was laid to rest in his home community on Wednesday, October 6. Though he will be missed by many, it is certain that he will be remembered by every Cree for his contributions to society. Rest in Peace.

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