Referendum called in Waskaganish to decide on cultural event

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A referendum has been called in Waskaganish to decide the fate of the community’s first powwow, despite winning approval from the local band council. Fierce opposition by Chief Darlene Cheechoo and some community organizations has turned what is normally a popular cultural event into a raging controversy.

“In the spring we started raising money for the powwow,” Susan Esau, who sits on Waskaganish’s powwow planning committee, told the Nation. “In March, when the radio station announced that we were fundraising, our chief went to them and told them to stop.”

Esau’s group began planning the event in the fall of 2017. In January they sent a letter to the local tallyman. The group received the go-ahead with the stipulation that no ceremony be performed at the powwow. They agreed – but from then on, it’s been an uphill battle.

“When we started planning, we said this is a social event, it’s not a political matter,” Esau said. “We didn’t need to ask the chief and council’s permission, we needed to ask the local tallyman.”

Months later Esau was asked to present to the tri-council committee, an advisory board made up of Waskaganish Chief Cheechoo, and the community’s Elders’ and Youth councils.

“I stated my piece and thought to myself this was a good educational session,” said Esau.

But following Esau’s June 4 presentation, the committee voted against having the event in the community.

“I was quite shocked and saddened by the meeting,” Esau revealed. “I went to residential school. All my life I’ve been oppressed by others, and I come home and sit around a table with my own people and I’m still oppressed.”

However, the Waskaganish Band Council approved the event at a July 11 council meeting.

According to Waskaganish band councillor Gordon Blueboy, only Chief Cheechoo and another councillor voted against the powwow, while four voted in favour of going ahead with the event. Three councillors abstained from voting.

“Right after the vote, the Chief abruptly said, ‘We’re going to have referendum on this,’” Blueboy told the Nation.

According to Grand Council Executive Director Bill Namagoose, a referendum shouldn’t be called over a non-governance issue.

“The question is, who is going to enforce this referendum?” asked Namagoose. “Is the Eeyou Eenou Police Force going to be called in to arrest people for dancing?”

No date has been called for the referendum, but Blueboy believes that discussion will take place at a council meeting scheduled for September 6. He’s also determined to broach the subject of the July 11 vote that he feels remains unresolved.

“Why did she call this vote if the result weren’t going to be accepted? Regardless of what the chief and council believes, people have a right to their religious freedoms,” Blueboy emphasized. “We live in a democracy, not a dictatorship.”

Chief Cheechoo did not respond to an interview request from the Nation.

On August 30, a public notice was posted to the Waskaganish Eeyou Nation Facebook page informing the community of the decision to hold a referendum on the powwow. Since then, there’s been an outcry of online support from Indian country – but within the community, things aren’t so simple.

“It really has blown up and it’s causing divisions within the community,” said Blueboy. “Not just between the two opposing sides but within the church as well.”

Waskaganish’s director of culture, sport and leisure, Charles Hester, woke up to an overflowing inbox in the days following the public announcement.

“I’ve received at least 15 direct messages on Facebook,” Hester told the Nation. “I also received a phone call informing me that it’s all over powwow country and that a lot of people are planning to attend in support. It might turn out to be a lot bigger than they planned for.”

Hester, who isn’t part of the powwow committee, believes the event should go ahead. He’s also done his best to help out the committee where possible.

“I was brought up in a Christian home and I was told to respect everybody,” explained Hester. “We’re all different but we pray to the same god in different manners.”

As for Esau, she says the uproar of support has been uplifting during what’s become a difficult time.

“This powwow was intended to bring people together and celebrate the diversity of our community, not create divisions,” lamented Esau. “What’s happened – it’s ugly. This isn’t what I wanted.”

The law, however, is on the side of the powwow planners.

The Cree constitution states in section 1.4 that, “The Cree Nation subscribes to the fundamental values of freedom, […] and honour […] for Cree traditions.” Meanwhile, freedom of association is protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Regardless of what happens with the referendum, Esau and the committee remain steadfast. “We’re having this powwow,” she concluded. “I mean, what are they going to do? Arrest us?”


Photo by Saige Mukash

UPDATE: the referendum has been scheduled for September 17.

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