More Indigenous women elected to highest jobs in northern Quebec

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Irene Neeposh, right, and Rhonda Oblin Cooper, left, were elected as chief and deputy chief respectively in the Cree community of Waswanipi in northern Quebec on Aug. 31. Both won on a first ballot in an election that saw a high turnout of young voters. (Facebook - image credit)
Irene Neeposh, right, and Rhonda Oblin Cooper, left, were elected as chief and deputy chief respectively in the Cree community of Waswanipi in northern Quebec on Aug. 31. Both won on a first ballot in an election that saw a high turnout of young voters. (Facebook - image credit)

The village of Waswanipi has become the latest Quebec Cree community to elect women to the office of both chief and deputy chief.

Elections were held Aug. 31 in Waswanipi, a community of just over 2,000 people, located about 750 kilometres north of Montreal.

Businesswoman Irene Neeposh was elected chief. Rhonda Oblin Cooper, director of capital works for the band, was elected deputy chief. Both women were elected on the first ballot.

"I'm very humbled by the results," Neeposh said.

"I'm very grateful and honoured that my community sees that I have the ability to lead."

Eleanor Gull was one of seven councillors also voted in on Aug. 31. She said she is also grateful to the voters for their trust and happy to be part of such a change in local leadership.

"This is the first time we have two elected [women] holding these positions," Gull said.

High number of young voters

Close to 50 per cent of the population of Waswanipi is under the age of 30 — something not lost on the candidates, nor on chief returning officer John Henry Wapachee.

"The highlight of my career is when I saw so many youth walking [in] that door to vote and be part of history ... to see them come and execute their civil responsibilities was a moment I'll never forget," Wapachee wrote on Facebook.

Gull also said the high turnout of young voters is an important shift.

"I am thankful that our youth came out to vote," she said. "I think they want to be part of the conversation and want their voices to be heard."

Rise of women in Cree politics

In 2020, the largest Cree community of Chisasibi elected Daisy House to the office of chief. Paula Napash was elected to the office of deputy chief when her opponent bowed out of a run-off vote.

Last year, all of the Cree communities made history by electing their first female grand chief in Mandy Gull-Masty.

CBC/ The National
CBC/ The National

Gull-Masty, who is from Waswanipi, posted to Facebook that she wishes the best for Neeposh and Oblin Cooper.

"I am excited to see what will come from my community and to welcome chief Irene to the CNG Council Board table in a new role," she said. She also thanked the outgoing chief, Marcel Happyjack.

Before the election, Neeposh was a businesswoman, consultant and mentor, and has been a local representative on the Cree Nation Government's Council Board, which meets several times a year.

Housing, addictions among priorities

In 2020, Neeposh was also responsible for compiling the results of a consultation into private home ownership, called Market Research: Private Housing in Eeyou Istchee. 

Ryan Trapper/ Facebook
Ryan Trapper/ Facebook

During the campaign, Neeposh identified economic development, employment and housing among her priorities.

"Through programs and services such as rent-to-own ... and financial and homeownership coaching, we will make more options for housing," Neeposh said during her campaign.

She also said she will prioritize a locally based addictions recovery program and plans to open an employment centre in Waswanipi to centralize information and offer career counselling.

Neeposh won with 54 per cent of the vote on the first ballot, and Oblin Cooper won with 57.7 per cent of the vote.

Oblin Cooper worked most recently as the director of capital works for Waswanipi, but has also spent time as a local councillor and Cree Nation Government Council Board representative, and has served on other committees and councils.

"[My priority] is mental health and how we can integrate [Cree culture and language and Cree knowledge and skills] within our administration. For this it will take input from our elders," Oblin Cooper said via Facebook messenger.