Every annual general meeting is different and this year was no exception. The biggest difference in Chisasibi Aug. 2-4 was that the large entities, such as the Cree School Board (CSB), Cree Board of Health and Social Services (CHB) and the Board of Compensation/CreeCo, held their own AGAs. This allowed for a more in-depth look at the Cree Nation Government and more time for presentations by smaller entities such as the Cree Trappers’ Association (CTA).
Unlike in previous years, there were no protesters or demonstrations present. Instead, two people dressed as clowns showed up offering hugs to delegates, but with no apparent message apart from a little free love.
While Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come had no comment about the clowns, he did say that Solomon Awashish always used to do a walk to each AGA to support the fight against diabetes. “This time we don’t have that,” said Coon Come. “When we asked Solomon if he was going to be here, he said he was retired now.”
Host community Chisasibi Chief Davy Bobbish said that with all the planning the AGA was falling into place. “I’m happy everything is going so well,” he said. Later on he would belt out a few songs as part of the evening’s entertainment. Nemaska Chief Thomas Jolly decided there needed to be more than just one singing chief and climbed onto the stage later in the show.
Protecting the land, protecting the people
Coon Come said the focus of this year’s AGA was to inform the Cree of Eeyou Istchee of what is happening on the ground. “We have achieved the securing of whole traditional family traplines with the governance agreement, with the Eeyou Marine Agreement and we are going towards land use planning and land use management. So we are informing our members that where we were excluded from any planning that it’s very important we participate,” said Coon Come.
He said there would be public consultations both under the CNG and the James Bay Regional Government within two years. “We have to identify our traditional use,” he said.
Coon Come said they have to know how the trappers use the land, how the animals use the land and what areas do the Cree want protected. He said most communities already know what areas need protection. The CNG is taking action to protect Cree interests in more ways than most people think. Coon Come said there are non-Native cabins popping up, concerns about sports caribou hunting and even repercussions because of Cree showing their hunting/trapping skills on social media as it might be misunderstood in another culture.
The CNG doesn’t want the baby-seal-clubbing tag to be applied to the Cree trappers, in other words. “Then there is the gun control issue that affects the trappers… and that’s why there is no protest,” said Coon Come.
No more agreements
One resolution asking for a moratorium on all agreements failed to pass. Coon Come said that would be difficult as it would mean they couldn’t negotiate on any of the 179 agreements. “Some of those agreements are expiring and we have to begin negotiations. The most important one is the new relationship with the federal government,” he said.
As most Cree will remember, the last deal involved over a billion dollars. “We’re talking about funding capital to keep communities running and to policing them. This resolution would say we couldn’t talk to the government to ensure communities and the Nation runs smoothly. There wouldn’t be any funding,” said Coon Come. Plus, he pointed out that agreements governing the CSB and the CHB needed to be addressed as they were coming to an end.
Coon Come said another resolution demanding a moratorium on natural resource exploitation wouldn’t be possible as the CNG doesn’t have the power decide those things. The local band council, tallymen and the people of the affected community make those decisions.
In the end, the resolution was defeated. But Coon Come’s statement describing the limits of the CNG and the Grand Chief’s power could be seen as surprising. That’s why he felt that this needed to be clarified as well as letting people know what issues are being negotiated and why.
Fishing derbies, a hot topic
It was on the agenda and it was on Facebook – fishing derbies are a hot topic. “I think there’s a misunderstanding on the fishing derby. The CNG is not saying we are going to stop the derbies,” said Coon Come. He said the Quebec government is looking at them and wants the Cree to regulate them or it might have to. Coon Come feels the Cree should set the regulations and standards, as this is what was always done in the past.
One Elder said fishing derbies were not a traditional practice. Coon Come said the local trappers have said the derbies are taking away too many fish. He pointed out that even with catch and release, the trappers say afterwards they find dead fish along the shores. Then he added Wemindji has already closed down its fishing derby. “They’re asking about their guaranteed harvest as a hunter who’s living off the land,” said Coon Come.
The issue of sports hunting is part of the right to harvest and “there’s a reduction on the permits that are given,” said Coon Come. There will be certain zones in which sports hunting will not be allowed. “People are happy with this – especially with the waste that was shown on Facebook last year. So we dealt with that,” said Coon Come.
There was some concern over the lack of game wardens to adequately patrol all of Eeyou Istchee. It was said that there are provisions in the JBNQA (S 24.10.4) for tallymen to be appointed auxiliary conservation officers. It’s expected that between 30 to 50 Cree hunters and trappers will be trained to carry out wildlife conservation duties. Many thought this was a great idea, as these individuals know the area intimately as they live, hunt and trap there.
Honouring Robert Kanatewat
Robert Kanatewat was honoured at this year’s AGA with a lifetime achievement award. Along with the award, Robert received a house, jointly paid for by the Chisasibi Band Council and the CNG, and had the Chisasibi airport named after him. It might seem a lot but this man has given so much to the Nation.
Back in the 1960s he was an unpaid councilor and then chief as those were volunteer positions at the time. It wasn’t until late 1969 that Robert’s work would convince the federal government that Aboriginal peoples were no different from the mainstream population. He fought for Aboriginal rights all his life – not only those of the Cree – from the time he started in the Catholic residential school to this day.
Robert remembers those early days when being a chief meant more than it does now. He also functioned as an ad hoc policeman and marriage counsellor. You wouldn’t see many chiefs taking on that last position willingly these days.
Robert also was on the executive of the Indians of Quebec Association. During that time he worked on getting housing for the communities. He started off with a cheque that allowed Cree men to be trained in construction and to build 150 new homes for Fort George. The men who were trained would go to other communities to do the same.
He believed that the Cree should have their own businesses in their own communities. He convinced the Catholic Church that they could run the local gas station. Josie Sam operated the gas station and Roderick Herodier took over a restaurant. Though Robert wanted to buy out the Hudson Bay store, many Cree felt loyalty to the HBC as it had helped them when times were tough and food scarce.
Then, of course, the man followed his own advice, taking on two partners and starting up Kepa Transport, which exists to this day.
Somewhere in the midst of all this, then-Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa had the biggest wet dream in provincial history. However, Robert was there. He was there for the first-ever gathering of the Cree chiefs and leaders who looked at how to deal with James Bay Phase I. In fact, the first court case to deal with project was titled Robert Kanatewat et al vs. the James Bay Development Corporation et al. The case was initially won, but was later defeated in the Quebec Court of Appeals.
When the Cree Naskapi Commission started in 1986, Robert was named a commissioner, a position he has held for 30 years without any sign of slowing down.
First Nations Bank
The First Nations Bank (FNB) hosted a supper to celebrate its 20th anniversary. Chisasibi was the site of only the second branch the FNB opened. Now they have a branch in Nemaska and plan to open another in Whapmagoostui. CEO Keith Martell said they are happy to talk to any other James Bay Cree community about opening up a branch there. “Cree money matters,” Martell said.
Awards were presented to James Bay Eeyou Corporation, the Board of Compensation, Chisasibi and Nemaska Cree Nations, Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come and Bill Namagoose. Three more awards were given to Lily Bobbish, Lily Neacappo and Roberta Neacappo, among the first James Bay Cree customers for the Chisasibi branch.