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Following a run-off election November 10, Bertie Wapachee was elected the new chairperson of the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay (CBHSSJB) with a decisive 72% of the ballots cast.

Wapachee won over the incumbent Bella M. Petawabano, who was seeking a third term. Ironically, it was Petawabano who nominated Wapachee for his first term as health board chairperson from 1999 to 2003. In his inauguration speech, Wapachee began by admitting he never intended to return to public life.

“I was trying to figure out what would be a good reason to run, other than the usual cliches of voting for change,” Wapachee told the Nation. “What made me really decide to run was when I started to think about doing something about the cycles we’ve seen in the last 40 years, especially alcoholism and now drug addiction. I’ve been thinking over the years about how sexual abuse continues.”

While Wapachee acknowledged larger nation-building initiatives, such as the implementation of last year’s $700 million infrastructure plan. But he wanted to raise other issues that are at the root of many health and social problems and disproportionately affect children.

“I decided to run to bring those ideas into the open and find ways to deal with them,” said Wapachee. “What better position can there be to bring this issue to the forefront? I think the health board can certainly influence policy at the highest level and push to change the system over time. A full review would give us a better view of where we can improve.”

Wapachee suggested changes to the youth protection system, which he said revictimizes children while sheltering predators. He thinks sexual abuse requires a specialized department and proposed creating a task force to determine the required staff and training to address the issue.

During his campaign, he visited nearly every community, which may explain why voter turnout was more than twice that of the last CBHSSJB elections in 2016. Wapachee spoke of shifting mindsets from managing sickness to living healthier, framing his platform within the key issues of health governance, nurturing families and culture as medicine.

“In my campaign, it was very clear what the people wanted,” Wapachee stated. “They wanted to see more educated youth get into the health and social services sector, not just in frontlines but in management. That is one of my priorities – I always believe in my own people.”

Wapachee expressed dissatisfaction that Cree graduates in healthcare management had yet to achieve job advancement or salary increases. He wants Crees to assume important roles in the organization and spoke of bringing Cree healthcare back to the territory as much as possible.

“There is a plan to bring more patients North to be treated in the territory, whether it’s for hemodialysis or other specialized services,” said Wapachee. “That’s the intent of the regional hospital coming up. In 2021, we have to find our patients a better place to stay in Montreal and possibly find something else in Val-d’Or. We’re certainly not planning to stay in the same place for the long term.”

With the region’s extensive travel restrictions to prevent the spread of Covid-19, the necessity for vulnerable patients to stay at Montreal’s Espresso Hotel during treatment is a concern. Wapachee praised the efforts of frontline workers and emphasized collaboration between institutions, regions and governments.

“We’ve done pretty well,” he asserted. “It’s been a great nation teamwork. I’m looking forward to sitting down with the Grand Chief and the Cree School Board to see how we can collaborate with our services, to improve for the youth and change legislation where we need to.”

Wapachee intends to expand the role of community representatives to promote communication pathways between communities and CBHSSJB leadership. This will include increased support for the Nishiiyuu Miyupimaatisiiun department, ensuring that traditional healing and cultural safety is embedded in all services.

“One of the key areas now is how traditional healing methods will be integrated into the current system,” said Wapachee. “The main thing is keeping the nation up to date in our progress – we plan to bring the nation closer to us, and make sure communication goes back and forth.”

With such a vast organization, Wapachee’s priority is better understand operations by conducting an internal functional audit. In addition to patient care, he wants to ensure each department is being managed effectively and compassionately before moving ahead with ambitious projects.

During his inauguration in Chisasibi November 27, Wapachee was presented with a vest made from sealskin and deer hide by Nancy and Stephanie Snowboy to wish him strength in his new role. Following speeches by Chisasibi Chief Daisy House, Grand Chief Abel Bosum and CBHSSJB executive director Daniel St-Amour, Wapachee acknowledged the contributions of his predecessors, including Petawabano.

Wapachee wants to honour Petawabano’s contribution to the Cree Nation.

“I have her to thank for being part of this organization,” shared Wapachee. “She did start me off in my career by that nomination – it really changed my life. Without that confidence, I don’t know where I would be today. Without that experience, I don’t think people would have taken me as a serious option to help change things around in the organization.”

He remembers his first board meeting at a time when the organization was chronically underfunded and lacking today’s impressive array of services.

“We did a lot of work during that time and prepared the future for the health board,” recalled Wapachee. “The funny thing is I signed the terms of reference which basically started negotiations for [the current board] on November 10, 1999, working with the future Grand Chief. Then 21 years later, I was elected again, and Bella was the one I was running against.”

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