Former NAN leaders honoured at Special Chiefs Assembly
Former Nishnawbe Aski Nation leaders Frank Beardy and Chris Cromarty were honoured with gifts of headdresses and leather jackets for their dedication and service to NAN’s development during the Nov. 13-15 Special Chiefs Assembly.
“We’re going to do more of this because I think it is important,” said Grand Chief Harvey Yesno. “They have a lot more to contribute to our nation, advising us and maybe to remember some of the things that have gone on.”
Yesno said community airstrips and many other modern conveniences did not exist when former grand chief Beardy and Grand Council Treaty #9 founding vice-president
Cromarty began working to improve the lives of NAN community members.
“When these guys started, the two people we are going to honour today, we may have had trappers radios; today we’ve got cell phones in the communities, we’ve got video conferencing,” Yesno said. “As the new leaders come in, we need to appreciate and value the contributions our former leaders have made.”
During the special ceremony Beardy described an incident from the 1970s when he and others responded to a call for help from the Temagami band over logging on their traditional lands.
“Everything took on a very military approach by the government,” Beardy said. “They came in with their police officers and told us that by laying on the road or occupying heavy equipment, we were being mischievous. That’s what they called us for wanting to protect our land. We were being mischievous.”
Beardy served as the founding executive director of Wawatay Native Communications Society in the early 1970s, chief of Muskrat Dam in the 1980s and 1990s, deputy grand chief from 1982-83 and 1985-88 and grand chief from 1983-85.
Cromarty described his introduction into First Nation politics during the special ceremony, when he attended a Union of Ontario Indians meeting in Thunder Bay in the early 1970s.
“I noticed at that meeting of the Union of Ontario Indians that nobody was translating the Oji-Cree for our people in my area,” Cromarty said. “In those days, the chiefs were still just talking in their own language. I mentioned it to Fred Plain, who was one of the leaders for the Union, that we should interpret for these chiefs who couldn’t speak English.”
After helping out with the translation during that meeting, Cromarty said he was nominated and appointed as the UOI representative for the NAN portion of northwestern Ontario.
“That was when I began to meet with Andy Rickard, who was at that time the executive director for the Union,” Cromarty said. “I was attending meetings all the time and I also met up with Tony Wesley, who was representing the Cree area on the James Bay side.”
Cromarty said the world changed in the 1960s, and one of the big changes was when the flower people began to find value in the First Nation traditions and culture.
“All of a sudden there was a kind of a pan-Indian movement, from B.C. right across Canada,” Cromarty said. “People were organizing; our people started talking to each other. We were going to powwows and people were sharing ideas about their values and the things they treasured.”
Cromarty said that was when the Treaty #3 people separated from the UOI and formed Grand Council of Treaty #3.
“We were just observers at that point,” Cromarty said about himself, Rickard and Wesley. “Then we began to talk and looked at what Treaty 9 represented in terms of territory. We actually owned more than two-thirds of Ontario territory wise and most of the natural resources on top of the ground and under the ground.”
Cromarty recalled a trip in the 1970s to most of the NAN communities with Plain, then the president of the UOI, who saw how the people of NAN were still following their own traditions and practicing their own language.
“He got so amazed at Kashechewan,” Cromarty said. “All the people, when he went over there for a visit, they all came up and gave him gifts, moccasins and mukluks, mitts and gifts piled up just for him. He was so amazed at that that he began to see the value of keeping those traditions alive.”
Cromarty served as the Treaty #9 founding vice-president for seven years in the 1970s after first working for the federal and provincial governments from 1957-67. He also managed the Big Trout Lake Co-op from 1979-85 and the Mistik Store in Wunnumin Lake from 1988-95.
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