Thanks to the hard work of our employees and the collaboration of our many partners, we have successfully implemented many different programs, ranging from the training of Crees for skilled jobs with Hydro-Quebec (over 50 Crees now occupy permanent positions), the rejuvenation of Cree community and family fisheries, the support of numerous cultural activities including summer gatherings and the enhancement of goose hunting facilities. This is not to mention the hundreds of kilometres of snowmobile and ATV trails already built throughout Eeyou Istchee.
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An interview with Grand Chief candidate Matthew Coon Come
TN: How did the first portion of the election go for you?
MCC: I thought that all of the candidates campaigned superbly. They all made important contributions and they made me proud to be Cree. But, of course I would have liked to get an extra 45 votes in the first round. I believe fundamentally in the wisdom of the people and the democratic electorate. They decided as did my present opponent that there should be a stronger mandate for the next Grand Chief than getting 49.2 percent. I agree because in the past years the Crees have only succeeded when the outside world knew that the Cree Grand Chief had the strong support of the people and I have been Grand Chief for four successful terms. I would not have it any other way.
There were no other run-off elections when I ran previously, this is the first time I have ran where there has been a runoff.
TN: Were you disappointed at all because you were in the lead?
MCC: No, I am not disappointed, I appreciated the people that elected me, that had confidence in me and I have no problem with the people that did not vote for me. They now have another opportunity to vote for me on July 29 and 30.
TN: How did it feel to be out there campaigning again?
MCC: I feel good to campaign and I believe that I have been giving everything; I have been giving 100 per cent. My campaign manager is my son, Brian. He is only 22 and has contributed tremendously towards my campaign. He set up my Facebook page and he has been dealing with my website and he is very young to be doing this. Today (July 21) I am traveling with my family, with my daughter Sarah and my wife so I have a tremendous support from my family who believes in me and believe that this is a great opportunity. We have seen some great challenges and they agree with me that we need a leader that has great experience, who has courage, who has vision and who is willing to stand up for the Crees and be the voice of the people.
TN: Why are you the better candidate or the better choice to be Grand Chief of the Cree Nation?
MCC: I believe that the people are looking for a leader who has experience, who has courage, who has vision and my campaign has been an excellent work of them a vision as to why they should vote for Dr. Matthew Coon Come.
Of course I believe that I am very approachable, I am friendly, I care about my family, I care about my community, people believe that I am a strong and determined leader. I have devoted over 30 years of my entire life to protecting Cree rights locally, regionally, nationally and beyond.
I believe that it is time that the Crees elected someone that is not only know locally but nationally also. I also believe that I have an unmatched record of achievements. I have probably done about four or five major complimentary agreements that are amendments to the JBQNA, dealing with improving the Income Security program for the trappers and setting up the board, the administration and the committees to decide who should be on the income security board.
I have done all of these complimentary agreements and I have launched a major court case that assisted the Crees in reaching their objectives in setting standards to further the social and economic benefits for the present and the future generations of our people.
I believe that I have the experience. I am an experienced hunter. If I can win three consecutive terms in a row from 1988-2000, I believe I have demonstrated that I can deliver.
I have founded many of the Cree entities in the Cree world and I believe that this will help me have a really good grasp of what the foundation is that we can build upon. I believe that I have the national and international profile to be able to address these issues because we do have to raise some of our issues with the United Nations and the Commonwealth and other international forums.
There is one thing that I did that I am very proud of, it was that I launched a court case, the Coon Come case which recognized the First Nations as one of the three orders of government in Quebec. Now is the chance to set up our own form of Cree government and we have a basis for that. I believe that I have the experience to do that.
TN: What is your basic campaign platform?
MCC: I am asking people to join me in my vision to be able to do things that have not been done before. I think we cannot use the methods that were used in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s or even in the 2000s. I think that we have to think outside of the box. The reason why nothing is happening is because we are using the same methods. I believe that I have stated time and time again that I can lead the Crees into a new era where we can have new economic opportunities where we can really build our communities, where we can really address the youth issues and we can not ignore the social conditions of our people.
We need to be able to move the agenda foreword in terms of establishing our own government with real nation building that is based upon a foundation led by our Cree leaders from past. We need to recognize the community differences and I believe that I am the leader that can be the real voice of the people.
TN: What would you do with another term?
MCC: I think the economic development opportunities are there. I am one of the negotiators for dealing with the mining companies; I am one of the negotiators dealing with the wind and solar energy projects. I am also a chair of the Cree Nation that governs working groups and I think I understand what the issues are to be able to push the agenda forward.
TN: How would you tackle some of the major social problems and the education system?
MCC: Well, look at how the Cree Health Board and the Cree School Board as entities were conceived as administrative arms of the provincial government. The government of Quebec for example saw the health and education boards not as Cree governing structures but as extensions of their own administrative apparatus. These boards have their own priorities established in Quebec City and not in the north. We do not want to be mere agents of the state. That is why we have problems in education and that is why we have problems in health because these are just mere extensions or agents of the provincial government down south and that is totally unacceptable.
That is why I think that if we set up our own Cree government that we can have real control and be real masters of our own destiny.
TN: How would you try to improve the drop-out rate and school outcomes for students?
MCC: As Grand Chief you are responsible for the whole Cree Nation even though there is a separate board that is responsible for education. I think as Grand Chief I would have the political persuasion to address these issues and to work closely with the Cree School Board and tackle the issues of the high drop out rate and tackle the gangs that are dividing our communities and really rally the parents to come out in support of this.
I have even looked at alternatives for people who want have their own private schools to encourage their kids to finish. I really think that there are different aspects that can be tackled and those can only be dealt with by working with the school board, the local school committees and of course the teachers that have their own issues at a local level.
TN: The Nation heard a rumour that you were specifically targeting “Christian voters” during your campaign, were you?
MCC: We Crees have a freedom of conscious and belief. That is a Cree value, to live and respect others, their opinions and their beliefs even if they are different from one’s own. These Cree values have saved our people for thousands of years because we have never had any serious internal conflict.
As Grand Chief of the Cree Nation, whether they were young or old, man or woman, living on the land or in the city, left wing or right wing, hockey player or skidoo person, Christian or Traditional, I, myself am all of these things. I am seeking everyone’s support in my campaign for the higher power of our Nation. It would not be in my interest of anyone or the interest of the sacred communities for me to try to deal with one particular group, whatever they may be. I believe that it would be dumb politics to only play to one particular group and my people would judge me for being sectarian which I have never been. I respect everybody’s beliefs including the people who may vote against me. If I win this election, which I working hard to do, I will be the proud Grand Chief of all Crees.
TN: Right now there is a proposal within Quebec to revive the plans for the Grand Canal, to divert waters from the Broadback, the Bell and the Waswanipi rivers to the south for sale to the U.S. What is your take on this?
MCC: I am well aware of proposals for bulk water export to the U.S. The previous plans of Robert Bourassa, which were outlined in his early books, included both hydro power and water diversion to the U.S. It seems to me that external governments are still very slow to learn about our Indigenous rights. They have come up with all sorts of plans for our lands and resources without talking to us or even acknowledging our existence. As stated in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which I and other Cree leaders contributed to significantly, our free and prior consent is required for such content.
My entire life has been devoted to asserting this right of consent. My current campaign says that the Crees must be the dominant players in Eeyou Istchee. This means one thing for other governments: Read my lips, you can’t make plans for the Crees and you can’t make plans for our land and resources without our consent.
There is also a great concern that these water diversions may have very serious implications in the area of climate change and global water shortages. We Crees will not allow the environment of Eeyou Istchee to be altered in major ways that will be unsustainable for future generations or allow such huge decisions to be made lightly by the same people who engineered the current financial crisis.
Our Elders said that our land is not for sale in the ’70s. I agree with them and I say our water is not for sale.
TN: What was your greatest achievement that benefited the Cree?
MCC: I could mention my leadership of the international Great Whale Hydro Mega-Project campaign as my greatest achievement. After all, we saved a river and an entire watershed, and defeated Hydro-Québec and two external levels of government.
Or I could mention my leadership of the successful Cree campaign in the context of Quebec separation. We successfully asserted our Nation's human right of self-determination in Iiyuuschii through a Special Cree Referendum, right across Canada and internationally.
I led these successful Cree campaigns for many years, in Canada and internationally. We raised Cree Nation political leverage to unprecedented heights. All of the complementary agreements that were signed while I was Grand Chief, and the major agreements that were signed by the two Grand Chiefs that followed me, were made possible because of this leverage.
But are these campaigns, and these valuable agreements, my "greatest achievements"? These campaigns were really the achievement of the Cree people who gave me, their Grand Chief, strong and courageous mandates.
I could mention that I inspired Cree youth to strive to be the very best they can, and as a result, they went onto post-secondary careers or lives on the land that benefit themselves and our people. I can already see that their children are taking their place in the world as Iinuu with confidence and great hope for the future. But again, these achievements belong mostly to them.
I have had the privilege to be a Cree leader all of my adult life. I have been Chief of Mistissini, Grand Chief and CRA Chairman for 12 years, and I have also held many other leadership positions in Cree entities and boards. All of the many great and beneficial achievements that I have brought about as Cree leader have been a team effort. The team was my own family, other courageous Cree leaders, Cree youth, Cree Elders, Cree women, the Cree people, and many others who supported us.
I think my greatest achievement has been to work effectively with all of these people in unity and strength. Together we have overcome many obstacles and achieved many great things.
But it is very clear that there is still much more to be done. I believe that together we can achieve many more great things for the benefit of our people!
TN: What would you do over if you had the chance and how would you change the outcome. In other words have you learned from past situations?
MCC: This question assumes that I have regrets. There is nothing of any importance that I would want to do over! Seriously, though, of course there were things that could have been done differently, and perhaps even done better. This is true for all of us, otherwise we would not be human.
As a lifelong leader, I would not have achieved what we did over the years for and with our people unless we learned constantly from past situations. I evaluated and assessed every situation we had been through to gain valuable lessons for the future, particularly in our successful fights against powerful governments and corporations.
This learning is the essence of experience. This is one major reason why the Cree Nation has achieved what it has to date: our people respect and support leaders with the long experience that has been gained from many years of taking on the biggest and hardest challenges, and sometimes winning (though not always winning!).
Of course, I believe that one can learn many important lessons from life's defeats as well as from life's big victories. As a son, a father, a husband, and a leader I have always made sure that I learn from both!
TN: What aspects of governance do you think the Crees need to work on?
MCC: Eeyou / Iinuu are a Nation and a People. We have the fundamental human right of self-determination. Our exercise of the right of self-determination has been narrowed because of colonialism, governmental and corporate encroachment, laws and policies that have been imposed upon us, and also because there has recently not been adequate vision internally in the Cree camp.
I do not believe that effective and powerful "Cree Governance" can come solely from negotiations with other governments. Negotiations are an important part of the picture. But other governments also want to use negotiations to narrow Cree options and put us in the standard federal "self-government" policy box.
Our inherent right of self-determination derives from our status as an Indigenous People. True Cree government and Cree self-determination can only come from ourselves. It will come from our own courage to assert our fundamental human right of self-determination, and to insist upon full respect for all of our fundamental human rights.
We need to work on important internal aspects of Cree governance. Our Cree entities, especially Health and Education, need to be more integrally strong and centrals part of our Cree government. And all Cree citizens who are working in Cree governance and administration, and that is a lot of people, need to receive the best ongoing training and empowerment to be the most effective and productive servants they can be of our People. This is their and our privilege!
Externally regarding governance, we Crees must once again become the dominant voice and the dominant players in our traditional territory, Eeyou Istchee. To put it another way, we Crees must be "Maîtres Chez Nous". Re-establishing our Nation's status as the dominant player in Eeyou Istchee now requires a leader who has the experience, leadership abilities, record of achievements, determination and the necessary vision to take on external governments – including Quebec and MBJ – and win.
We cannot afford or accept limited vision or "thinking inside the box". We have to work on all urgent aspects of Cree governance, both internal and external. Now is the time for vision, courage, boldness, comprehensiveness, and insisting on a real and sustainable future for our People -- in Iiyuuschii and beyond!