State of the Cree Nation 2015: Grand Chief Coon Come reflects on the past year and looks ahead

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The past year had more than its normal share of triumphs and tribulations for the Grand Chief of the Crees, Matthew Coon Come.

Pushing Quebec to respect the Baril-Moses Agreement, winning an historic agreement with Val-d’Or to fight racism and abuse of marginalized women, and celebrating the 40th anniversary of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement were among his accomplishments in 2015.

But there were difficult moments as well. The loss this year of cherished members of the Cree Nation, the tragedy at Lake Bussy, and the allegations of abuse in Val-d’Or and a disappointing response from the Quebec government were among them.

Here, the Grand Chief reflects on the past year in our annual State of the Cree Nation interview.

The Nation (TN): Looking back on 2015, what were your greatest highs and your lowest lows?

Grand Chief Coon Come (GC): It is always a high point when you can identify a problem, work hard to develop a solution, and then see that solution take form in a binding agreement that protects or extends Cree rights. This is what happened this past year in our effort to ensure respect for the Baril-Moses Agreement of 2002. In that agreement Quebec made a commitment to acknowledge Cree rights in an area outside the boundaries of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. After several years of discussions and negotiations with Quebec we arrived at an agreement, which not only reinforced the acknowledgment of Cree rights in the original agreement, but also expanded the range of protected areas within Eeyou Istchee. This was another victory for the Cree Nation.

As for the low point, it is very saddening when we have worked so hard over the last number of years to improve relations with Quebec, and to develop mutually respectful attitudes and practices together with our neighbours in the region which demonstrate inclusiveness and a desire for harmonious relations, that we encountered the difficult situation in Val-d’Or with very serious allegations of sexual abuse toward Indigenous women on the part of the SQ. It has been a reminder that although we can all make commitments and pronouncements about “new eras” and “new beginnings”, the more difficult task of changing attitudes and moving beyond old ways of thinking is a longer process and we need to keep in mind that sometimes progress in these areas is slower than we would like. But this is a challenge that we must take on and one where we must make progress.

The other low point this past year has, of course, been the loss of two of the pioneers in the recent history of the Cree Nation. We have lost Gerti Murdoch whose commitment to education of our Cree youth was steadfast and unwavering since the establishment of the Cree School Board and who left her mark on so many of us. We also have lost one of our early contributors to the negotiations of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, and long-time Returning Officer, Lawrence Jimiken whose vast experience and wise counsel will also be missed by both his community of Nemaska and by the Cree Nation.

the late Lawrence Jimiken

the late Lawrence Jimiken

TN: How has the Cree economy fared?

GC: As a Nation, we continue to enjoy employment which is derived from the administration of our local governments, our regional Cree government and our Cree entities. This continues to be a positive aspect of our overall development. However, as I have said many times over the last few years, these administrative positions can only absorb a limited number of Cree people in our workforce.

In order to address the needs of a large number of younger Crees just entering the workforce, and those who will be entering the workforce in the future, we need to look to economic development as the future source of employment. The economic aspect of addressing our housing needs will be a significant contributor to the overall Cree economy and this represents yet one more reason for us to develop a financially sound and effective initiative with respect to the housing needs in our communities.

To take full advantage of all the opportunities within Eeyou Istchee for the creation of future employment, we need to prepare our people. This is why I have been saying for a long time that capacity-building is among our highest priority. And by extension, it is our youth who we must focus on to develop the skills to take the jobs which are available within the region in the area of resource development and other kinds of development which are now, and which will be, part of our future landscape.

I cannot overstate the importance of this for our future. We will be continuing with our capacity-building initiative in order to drive this message home to our youth. If we are successful in doing all these things, our economic future is a bright one filled with opportunities and successes.

Mary Shecapio weaves a snowshoe as part of the traditional showcase at the Mistissini Career Fair

Mary Shecapio at the Mistissini Career Fair

TN: And the environment?

GC: In recognition of the central importance for our Cree people of our relationship to the land, and our obligation to protect the land, this principle informs everything we do as a Cree Nation and as a Cree Nation Government.

We have continued to defend our position on uranium mining and we will not stop being vigilant on this issue. The position of the Cree Nation in support of Mistissini is clear and we will do everything necessary to ensure that this position is respected.

We have also concluded an important IBA [impact benefit agreement] with Nemaska related to a lithium-mining project within the community’s traditional territory. All of our IBAs – Goldcorp, BlackRock, Nemaska Lithium, Stornoway – are negotiated so that they include an important component in them to take into account the concerns of our hunters and trappers about environmental impacts, monitoring and mitigation.

And, as I mentioned earlier, we have successfully extended Cree rights on our hunting territories in areas outside the JBNQA territory with the conclusion of an agreement to resolve the Baril-Moses Agreement and in doing so we have also extended protective measures for parts of the Broadback River watershed.

We will continue to identify all possible avenues for furthering our commitment to environmental protection.

Uranium walk

Grand Chief Coon Come at a march against uranium development

TN: People’s well being is always a concern as well.

GC: We will be talking a lot in the next year about the housing situation in our communities and what to do to address the unacceptable backlog of housing and what to do with our current housing needs. There are many aspects of the health of our people that are related to housing issues. Overcrowding and its consequences have an impact on a wide range of health concerns as well as social issues. This area must, and will, become uppermost in our minds over the next year. We will be coming forward with some new initiatives over the next year to begin to address this issue.

Diabetes continues to be a serious concern. We are looking forward to welcoming new initiatives from our Cree Health Board to address this epidemic in a way that is effective for our communities and respectful of our culture and traditions.

Having said all this, we have made very major strides in improving the living conditions and the standard of living in our communities when compared against Indigenous communities across the country. Although we still have a great deal to do we should not lose sight of the fact that we have also come a very long way and that in many ways we are better off than many of our Indigenous brothers and sisters throughout Canada. But we will continue to make progress and we will continue to set new benchmarks.


Cree Patient Services launched its new medical charter flight program last November

TN: It has been several weeks since the Val-d’Or scandal began. What do you feel has to happen next for the boycott to be lifted?

GC: As you may know, we have just very recently held serious meetings with the city of Val-d’Or to discuss a wide range of issues surrounding the allegations of abuse of Indigenous women in the region by SQ officers. These discussions have resulted in the Val-d’Or city council passing a resolution committing the city to become a member of the Canadian Coalition of Municipalities Against Racism and Discrimination.

They also passed a resolution calling on the Government of Quebec to establish a provincial commission of inquiry into discrimination and racism in the public security forces and the justice system in Quebec. The city has put into place some new initiatives to bring about change in the relationship between the city’s population and Indigenous peoples of the region. These initiatives include such things as diversity campaigns, cultural awareness sessions and a review of the city’s policies.

I certainly welcome these announcements and I applaud the initiatives. However, these initiatives alone will not resolve the underlying systemic issues that have come to light in recent months. Precisely because the problem is systemic it is not just Val-d’Or’s problem and Quebec will need to demonstrate the same kind of willingness to address the underlying issues.

Because of the seriousness with which the city of Val-d’Or is now taking this issue I would feel comfortable lifting the current moratorium, which the Cree Nation has adopted toward the city. They have clearly received our message that our Cree spending power cannot be taken for granted and that the recent revelations must be addressed very seriously.

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the Grand Chief addresses a press conference in Val d’Or

TN: With Crees staying away from the city, can you estimate what Val-d’Or’s losses must look like at this point in time?

GC: The purpose of our moratorium was to send that very clear message that attitudes toward Indigenous peoples in the region need to change. That message has been received. It was not our intent to damage the economy of Val-d’Or so we haven’t really done an analysis of the economic impact of our message, but I am certain that the impact on Val-d’Or has been well into the many millions of dollars.



TN: What was it like to celebrate the Grand Council’s 40th anniversary?

GC: The celebration of the 40th anniversary of the signing of the JBNQA was a very touching event. We had the opportunity to see and hear from so many of our people who were involved in the negotiations at the time and it was a fitting opportunity to acknowledge and express our gratitude to so many. Our last 40 years have been unprecedented and remarkable in our fervent belief that by staying firmly committed to our understanding of Cree rights that it is possible to have these rights recognized and made into tangible benefits for our people. Celebrations like this give us the opportunity to reflect not only on the past and appreciate just how far we have come as an Indigenous Nation, but also to look forward and imagine what our future as a Cree Nation could look like.



Romeo Saganash, NDP member of Parliament for Abitibi—Baie-James—Nunavik—Eeyou, Quebec, speaks at the NDP Federal Convention, Vancouver, June 2011 copy

Romeo Saganash, the re-elected MP for Abitibi—Baie-James—Nunavik—Eeyou

TN: How has the change in federal leadership impacted the people in Eeyou Istchee?

GC: Whenever there is a change in government leadership where there are positive signals about the way in which Indigenous issues will be dealt with, it will be positive for the Cree people. The new prime minister has sent a number of these positive signals. He has talked about his willingness to fully adopt the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, he has stated his desire to implement all of the 94 recommendations in the Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and he has announced the establishment of a National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.

These are all very positive signs for Indigenous peoples across the country and we will see if that same spirit of openness and commitment will translate into positive actions and initiatives, which provide benefits for Indigenous communities. And, of course, we will see if that same spirit will enter into our own dealings with the federal government on specific issues.

TN: What are you looking forward to in 2016?

GC: I am of course looking forward to continuing to ensure that the issues surrounding the Val-d’Or revelations are dealt with in a manner that is respectful of the women who have come forward and that is respectful of the many missing and murdered Indigenous women. I will continue to urge Quebec, in every way that I can, to launch a provincial inquiry that will honestly address the issues which have come to life. I will also keep a close eye on the developments related to the National Inquiry on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. I have made a commitment to the women of Eeyou Istchee and I will keep that commitment.

I also look forward to assuming chairmanship of the regional government for the next two years. As you know, the Eeyou Istchee James Bay Regional Government is structured in such a way that the chair of the regional government rotates every two years between a Cree representative and a Jamésien representative. It will be an honour for me to assume the chair for the next two years and continue the work of the regional government for the benefit of everyone who resides within Eeyou Istchee.

I am hopeful that this coming year will be the year when we can get our Cree Development Corporation up and running so that we can take full advantage of the opportunities available to the Cree Nation to become actively involved in the economic development in the region and to provide employment and incomes for our people.

I am also looking forward to the development of a Cree Nation approach to housing for our people. This has, as everyone knows, been a growing problem for our communities and I look forward to presenting a major initiative in this area. We have been having many discussions internally about the best approach to adopt to address both the current needs as well as the significant backlog of housing requirements. I hope to have something to announce in this coming year.

I will also be keeping an eye on the national situation to see if there is any contribution that we can make, based on the experiences of the Cree Nation, to furthering the cause of Indigenous rights across Canada and for the benefit of our Indigenous brothers and sisters.

So I think there will be a lot to do to keep us all very busy next year.

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