Some Cree elders prefer traditional governance over western structure

“This traditional governance was already here,” said Robbie Matthews, “and it was our elders who ran it themselves. This is the most ancient governance we have in our nation.”

Speaking by phone, Mathews, Chairperson of Nishiiyuu Council of Elders, says that it’s important that the Cree Nation Government implement traditional governance.

The council of elders consists about 9 members, who are a traditional governing body of the Cree Nation.

There are two different means of governing in the Cree Nation one set by the Indian Act of 1876, where Chief and Councillors are elected to govern their community, and a traditional governance system where elders are leaders who have traditional laws passed through oral traditions by their ancestors.

The James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA) of 1975 was the first modern treaty agreement between the Crown and the Cree since the numbered treaties.

More recently, the Cree Nation Government filed Bill C-70 with the Government of Canada, which was to have Cree Governance and the Cree Constitution as a force of law. The bill passed through royal assent on March 29.

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A sponsored bill passed through royal assent. (Parliament of Canada)

The modern treaty was set by the Cree to govern themselves on their traditional lands, and have control over the environment, education, community development, health, and justice.

Matthews said the traditional governance structure did not have a justice system where people are charged for their crimes. Instead, elders would help those who made a mistake and they found a way for them to be reintroduced in the community.

“Since the JBNQA of 1975, those systems started coming into our Cree Nation,” he said.

“We took JBNQA without really understanding it,” he said, “and not really taking what we already have in the future.”

He said that the Cree will not understand traditional governance if they don’t practice the Cree lifestyle, which includes living in the bush and having a land-based education.

The land-based education is an important part of Cree traditional lifestyle, where they learn to hunt, trap and fish, but also find spiritual awareness by being part of the land, according to Matthews.

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A photo of snowshoes used for trekking on snow. (Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute)

He said traditional governance existed before the signing of the agreement of 1975 when the elders led the people and were a key part of Cree society.

Matthews is a respected elder, who said he worries about the youth who are easily incarcerated for their crimes, since the new development of the justice buildings in 2012, all nine Cree communities have a court for a Quebec judge who is not Cree.

Those communities are Whapmagoostui, Chisasibi, Wemindji, Eastmain, Nemaska Waskaganish, Mistissini, Ouje-Bougoumou, and Waswanipi.

“We don’t protect our young people, why don’t our leaders say anything about it?” he said. “And why don’t they do something about it? Why is that? How did we allow our nation to go this far?”

He said that he does not like seeing a justice system that does not consult with elders to help a person who commits a crime.

“If we were to run our own affairs, the true Cree way,” said Matthews, “we would take them on the land as opposed to taking them out of our land.”

Matthews has strong faith in the Cree language, Cree culture and the Cree customary laws that used to govern the Cree people before the James Bay Project in 1971, which dammed rivers and flooded traditional territories.

Matthews said that he attended the four-year battle of court cases with the Gouvernement du Québec and Hydro-Québec ending in 1971 when the Cree won.

The legal wrangling forced a settlement, resulting in the JBNQA.

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Cree going to a Québec court to oppose the hydroelectrical project. (Grand Council of the Crees)

“We had elders in the court and our people were translating for them to the judges,” he said. “They were speaking in Cree in a white man’s court and we were able to fight strong by using our language.”

Lena Bates, a Cree cultural woman from Chisasibi, Que., said that traditional governance needs to come back into the current systems.

“Once the residential school system hit,” she said via video chat, “it broke Cree systems down to a patriarchal system and that’s not working for us.”

Bates said Cree elders were the governing body but since the signing of the JBNQA, it seems as if they were let go of their duties and not given a chance to be part of the new governing system and implementation of traditional governance.

She said that the elders’ minds will revert back to a traditional governance system when explained to complex issues to guide their community in the best direction.

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Bates, middle, with Cree women after traditional ceremony. (Lena Bates/Facebook)

“It was like any other government, but our well-being was put into consideration,” she said.

Bates said that decolonization is happening in Eeyou Istchee, where language, culture, and spirituality are revitalized.

The Eeyou Istchee covers about 450,000 square kilometres of Cree traditional territory governed by the Grand Council of the Crees in northern Quebec, near James Bay.

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Borders of Cree traditional territory. (Grand Council of the Crees)

“It’s maintaining that we’re still practicing our way of life,” she said. “We’re still implementing it in our homes, it’s ensuring that implementation continues.”

Violet Pachanos, a former deputy grand chief in 1998, Grand Council of the Crees, said that Indian Affairs used to decide who would be a leader in each community.

“The chief and council system was created by them,” she said in a phone interview. “That’s when the Grand Council of the Crees was formed.”

She said the signing of JBNQA replaced traditional governance with a westernized structure, but that the current Cree government still speaks for the people.

“When we talk about the Cree Constitution,” she said, “this is what we always wanted, to be independent and run our own affairs and decide how we want to live our lives in Eeyou Istchee.”

Pachanos said that it’s important to recognize that the Cree Nation was colonized and the responsibility to govern Eeyou Istchee was transferred to Cree Nation Government.

“Decolonization is our responsibility,” she said. “We need to make our people understand that this is our life we’re talking about here.”

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Traditional handmade moccasins. (Grand Council of the Crees)

Pachanos said people need to be cautious about the Cree Governance and Cree Constitution and make sure the Cree people understand this new governance structure.

“We still have the power,” she said, “We must be strong and continue to run our affairs, and keep our culture and language, those are the basics of life.”

By phone, Matthew Mukash, former grand chief, Grand Council of the Crees, said that colonization made an impact in Eeyou Istchee.

“One of the ways that contradict(s) the traditional governance of leadership is the Chief and Council system,” said Mukash.

He said Cree people had a reverence for their elders because of their long life but since the signing of the agreement elders were not a priority.

“Their experience was being on the land and living on the land,” he said, “that’s how that system worked when that system was changed, it was different.”

He said there is a life philosophy of the Crees, that can’t be changed and that is their identity.

“A birch will never tell a tamarack, ‘hey you’re not a tamarack because you don’t have the branches of a tamarack,’” he said. “It’s based on that philosophy of life, natural system of things.”

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Six Cree youth and one man marching to Parliament by foot in part of Idle No More movement. (Nishiyuu)

He said the Cree Constitution needs to acknowledge traditional governance existed and needs to be built on it, remembering and recognizing the knowledge of the elders.

“You can have a good system of governance as long as you have the Cree philosophy of life, as long as we acknowledge who we are.”

He said the Cree will need to recognize that they were a colonized nation and need to reflect on what they lost as individuals in order to move forward.

“If you want to understand our culture, you must first understand the untainted, which are the elders,” he said. “In order to decolonize, we have to strip the modern objects first and understand what was there before colonization.”

The elders consist of Cree men and women, who are over 60-years-old and have a deep-rooted land-based education. These elders want to implement traditional governance to the Cree governance system and bring balance to a diverse nation, according to elder Robbie Matthews.

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