Moose Factory, Ontario: When Chief Randy Kapashesit returned this time his remote community in northern Ontario, the earth shook: tremors of 4.4 shook the region, and Randy came home for the last time.
Kapashesit died unexpectedly on April 25 in Minneapolis, leaving a loving companion, Donna Ashamock; two biological children, Waseyabin LaDuke Kapashesit and Ajuawak Kapashesit, both residents of the White Earth reservation of Minnesota; and a grandson, Giiwedin Buckanaga. He also left a community of Cree in northern Ontario, which he had led for some 25 years.
The MoCreebec Council of the Cree Nation exemplifies in many ways the depth of challenges of First Nations. The Cree nation has lived well for generations on the shores of James Bay, adapting with the coming of the Hudson Bay Company, Anglican, Catholic (and a multitude of later) churches, freighter canoes and snow mobiles. Nothing so impacted the MoCreebec community, perhaps, however, as the Hydro Quebec dams of the 1980s and into this millennium. The dams put under water a lifestyle of the Eeyou, the Cree of eastern James Bay, drowning traplines, places where medicines were gathered, ancestors and a history.
The dams also hailed the advent of a new politic in Canada, where new “treaties” were signed over resources, and over the future. The infusion of hundreds of millions of dollars of compensation, transformed Cree communities, but also caused divisions. The MoCreebec people were excluded from consultation under the James Bay Northern Quebec Agreement (1974), despite their origins in the northern territory. Their residence in Ontario, largely a result of fur trading posts, and residential schools, meant that the MoCreebec Cree, although their traplines and way of life had also been largely destroyed, did not receive benefits. It was not only the financial benefits which were denied, but also the ability of the MoCreebec people to oppose new mines and dams in the region, or in effect to be self determining in Cree territory.
Most of this generation of MoCreebec was born in what was called “Tent City,” essentially a northern refugee camp in the island village of Moose Factory. MoCreebec formed as an organization in the l980s to address basic human rights of the community, and became a political government of the Cree, using traditional governance systems. MoCreebec people, who speak the “y” dialect of Cree have always been in this part of the world, generations even before the start of the organization. Brenda Small, sister of Randy, spoke in the eulogy of how Crees in both the west and east coasts of James Bay have traveled and lived together long before border and assimilation policies became entrenched. These were forefront issues that impacted the lives of MoCreebec people, and Kapashesit was the chief since 1988. MoCreebec took a route which was different than many other first nations in Canada or the US, they affirmed their own self determination through their governance and practice, not through recognition under Canada’s Indian Act. Randy understood that MoCreebec’s work was part of the recovery work of the larger Cree Nation.
MoCreebec’s website discusses their Constitution and political structures of the community- led by a deep reverence for Cree culture, and “Recognizing the supremacy and will of the Creator, the people who have chosen the name MoCreebec renew the social contract of Sharing, Kindness, Strength and Honesty which was the basis for the first meeting of Aboriginal and European peoples….” The founding documents “…reaffirm the aboriginal rights guaranteed by the Canadian Constitution, asserting that these rights also embody a sense of community, equality, a need for independence and self reliance…” MoCreebec’s constitution reaffirms traditional governance, and has been a very successful example of self determination in practice.
Over twenty five years, MoCreebec has created a political entity to represent the interests of the Cree people of the community, outside of the “ box” offered by the Indian act of Canada, somewhat akin to federally recognized tribal governments in the US. For instance extended family governance systems, representational governance, and self determination, are key principles of the MoCreebec community. Through this work, the government of MoCreebec has succeeded in housing tribal members, creating economic development opportunities, and moving from a $30,000 budget in 1986 to a $6 million budget in 2012.
For his part, Randy Kapashesit was honored by his community, national, and international dignitaries in a packed school auditorium in the community of Moose Factory. Kapashesit was remembered for “how he loved his people." Angus Toulouse representing the political communities of 132 First nations in Ontario talked about how Kapashesit reminded “ us of our relationship to the environment. We weren’t going to get more land , nor any new water…” Grand Chief Louttit of Mushkegowuk Council commented, “you couldn’t take the puck away from him on the ice, and you could never take a puck away from him at the table. Randy never gave in…” His international work at the United Nations was recognized by a number of national and international organizations.
His service included both traditional Native and Anglican services, as Kapashesit was the “Chief of All the People." The service also included readings from the Dalai Lama and Malcolm X.
When a great leader passes on, families mourn, communities mourn, and the Creator has brought home someone great. On the morning of May 4, Randy Kapashesit was laid to rest in the cemetery on his island. A snow had fallen in the night, unusual for the region, but ,perhaps the favorite weather of the Cree chief. Kapashesit is survived by life partner Donna Ashamock, sister Brenda Small and her husband Gerald Rayner (Thunder Bay, Ontario), his father, James Small, mother of his children, Winona LaDuke (White Earth), adopted children, Ashley and John Martin, Winona’s son Gwekaanimad Gasco, and many cousins in the northern Cree communities of Canada.
Winona LaDuke is an Anishinaabekwe (Ojibwe) enrolled member of the Mississippi Band Anishinaabeg who lives and works on the White Earth Reservations, and is the mother of three children. She is also the Executive Director of Honor the Earth, where she works on a national level to advocate, raise public support, and create funding for frontline native environmental groups.