Transforming Eeyou Istchee while upholding Cree cultural and traditional values

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No one knows what to expect when they hear the words social economy. Is socialism rebranding itself or just getting its act together? The Social Economy Conference of Eeyou Istchee tended to feel like the second assumption. Like many people living in Canada when you hear co-host Alfred Loon say, “Social economy is by the people for the people,” alarms bells tend go off. Then participants were reassured when he added, “The community works together to find solutions for community economic challenges.”

Indeed social economy is the part of life that not only responds to our needs, the community’s needs but requires taking “the economy into our own hands.” Loon made it even more clear when he said, “Social economy is how I best describe this. There might not be a huge market for a particular product or service, but there is a viable need such as for childcare, radio stations, arts, tourism and even telecommunications. We make positive change in our community by our business and if it makes tons of money, so be it.”

Social economy is not just looking for a profit but what will benefit the community. In his opening statements Loon said, “Social economy projects and businesses create sustainable, rewarding jobs that contribute to the quality of life and well-being of individuals and the community as a whole by upholding the cultural and traditional values of the Eeyou of Eeyou Istchee.”

It includes friendship centres, daycares, the Cree Board of Health and Social Service, the Cree School Board, the Cree Trappers Association, youth councils, and so on. They are all organizations and businesses that benefit and enhance the life of a community.

“This doesn’t mean that social economy has to be poor; it means we make more than just money,” said Loon. He said there are many “people who have a strong interest in business development but their reason to create a business is not merely for profits but in other tangible benefits that come from helping out a community.”

Other presenters emphasized that social economic entrepreneurship can be the foundation of a lasting business model.

Cree Elder Dianne Reid said part of the mandate was “to support the consolidation, experimentation and development of new niches and projects.” She said such projects and businesses would pursue “collective wealth and sustainability without compromising the cultural and traditional values of the Eeyou of Eeyou Istchee.”

She said in the past the Cree were a matriarchal society but Indian Affairs changed that to a patriarchal chieftainship. In the past Cree learnt through an apprenticeship system but that has changed today. Looking at Cree population demographics, a shift will have to be made towards self-employment. Reid said the social economy combined with traditional knowledge and values will assist in this process as it means each individual would have pride in their talents, creativity and capacity.

The March 5-7 conference grew out of the Cree Social Economy Regional Table, which was created following the signing of the Specific Agreement concerning consolidation and development of the social economy in the Cree communities of the Nord-du-Québec region.

Loon said they are putting their money where their mouth is. “Last but not least, we have realized that financing is a challenge for social economy businesses. We thus created the Social Economy Fund, through which eligible businesses can apply for grants ranging from $500 for small micro projects to $10,000 as a support for a feasibility or business plan. We are still accepting applications, so come talk to me if you’re interested.”

Alfred Loon can be reached at the Montreal office of the Grand Council of the Crees (Eeyou Istchee) at 514-861-5837.

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