A personal tribute to Dr. Matthew Coon Come

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It is a most humbling experience to have been chosen by the people of Eeyou/Eenou Istchee to serve you as your next Grand Chief.

It is also profoundly humbling to realize that I will be following in the footsteps of the truly great leaders of the Cree Nation who have guided us, fought on our behalf, and given of themselves for over 40 years. Following upon the leadership of Dr. Matthew Coon Come, I know that I will have very big shoes to fill.

It was under Matthew’s leadership that the Cree Nation waged a monumental battle against further hydroelectric development on our traditional Cree territory. It was under Matthew’s leadership that we fought a mighty battle to preserve our Cree rights in the context of possible Quebec secession. It was under Matthew’s leadership that we fought a bitter campaign against forestry practices, which ignored our Cree hunters and trappers. And it was under Matthew’s leadership that we forged a new governance regime that replaced the old, antiquated and undemocratic Municipalité de Baie-James (MBJ) and created a new regime that extended our Cree jurisdiction over larger parts of our traditional territory.

When I was Chief of the community of Oujé-Bougoumou, we could always count on Matthew’s support, particularly in those very difficult times when, in order to move forward with our vision of having our own village, we established road blockades and took other dramatic measures to have our voices heard. Matthew was always our reliable champion.

Matthew and I go back quite a long time. We attended residential school together and experienced the tragedy that was the Indian Residential School system. It was there – at the La Tuque Residential School – that we both, perhaps individually, decided that we would devote our lives to turning things around so that institutions such as those would never operate again, and that the underlying relations between Canada and Indigenous peoples would need to change.

There are things we learned together at La Tuque – some lessons – which became useful in our individual journeys. We learned, for instance, about knowing when to pick a fight. One evening while at the La Tuque school, Matthew and I carried out a midnight raid of the kitchen. We were both hungry and decided to try to make ourselves something to eat. We managed to find bread and peanut butter and quickly put together a nice thick peanut butter sandwich. So as not to get caught, we were in a hurry and only made the one sandwich. Unfortunately, each of us thought we were entitled to the sandwich, and rather than dividing it, we wrestled over it. To this day, I do not remember who eventually got the sandwich, but what I learned was that we should have gotten out of the kitchen before deciding whose sandwich it was. I think this may have been my first lesson in Cree unity.

Matthew and I also learned a bit about fundraising. After the La Tuque Indian Residential School, we both attended Philemon Wright School in what is now called Gatineau. At that time, it was called Hull. On the weekends, we would sometimes go to Parliament Hill on the Ottawa side of the river. We invented our own very special way of earning some spending money. At the site of the eternal flame in front of Parliament, and when there were many tourists around, we tossed pennies into the pool surrounding the flame. When asked by tourists what we were doing we replied that this was a wishing well and the more money people put into the pool the greater the likelihood that wishes would be fulfilled. Of course, after the tourists threw their coins into the pool, and after the tourists turned around, Matthew and I went in after the coins. We learned that to secure funds, we needed to think outside the box.

We are each of us, now, carrying on with our individual journeys. Matthew’s career has been extraordinarily challenging and rewarding. He has made major contributions wherever he has been. The Cree Nation, in particular, will always be grateful for the sacrifices, the incredibly hard work and the passion he has shown toward improving the lives of our people.

I am proud to count Matthew as a friend, a colleague, a teacher. I will always treasure his advice and his wisdom. May I be given the strength and the wisdom to carry on in his footsteps.

Meegwetch Matthew.

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