I was born on the shores of Rupert River about four miles west of the Cree Village of Waskaganish. It was called Rupert House back in 1949. There was no doctor or nurse at my birth so my dad had to do the delivery. My foundation years included the times of going up the Nottaway River to get to our family hunting and trapping rounds. Our mother carried us on her back through the long portages. Sometimes, I helped pull a rope to assist in getting the loaded canoe up the swift, fast currents of the rivers. I remember dad and the other men would leave at first light with a load of supplies and equipment in a canoe and then they would return to get the women and children. You were instructed to paddle and work with the grown-ups, but sometimes laziness got the best of you I took it easy at the bottom of the canoe. I felt the sense of safety and security with my dad at the stern of the canoe and my mother at the bow of the canoe as we kids played and laughed - or sometimes a fight would break out - at the bottom of the canoe. A stern warning was barked out by dad and that is all it took to keep us in place. On one occasion while traveling through treacherous and difficult waters, my younger brother Albert grabbed George's rubber boot and threw it overboard and u e all watched in amazement on how fast that boot disappeared in the white fast water. We laughed about it while. George cried for his boot, but dad got a red willow at the next rest stop and when u e got punished, we all got punished.
My parents and family remained together through the fall and winter with fishing, hunting and trapping. Short days and long nights kept the winter lodge full of laughter, stories and intimacy with family members. Safety, security and a sense of belonging u ere well established in those years and you knell your role as a future hunter and provider to a group of people.
I did not understand why my parents left for the family trapline without me
I did not understand why my parents left for the family trapline without me. I was asked to stay with my sister Annie and go to school. One day in the third week of October on a beautiful autumn day with golden colors of leaves along the banks of the Rupert River, one of the community Elder leaders asked me to go home and change clothes and have my sister bring me to the airplane office. I changed into the best clothes that my mother had bought for me at Mrs. Watt's store and my sister took my hand and walked with me down to the airplane dock. Relief and happiness flooded me as I saw that it was the same airplane that had rescued us and brought my mother to the hospital u hen she took sick after the birth of my youngest brother. Now it was here to take me to my parents on the trapline. My oldest sister bent over and kissed me and told me to be a good boy and grow up to become somebody and then she gave me a bran n paper bag with some candy. I never suspected anything or became aware that there were other plans for me. I had no idea of what took place next on that airplane dock. The pilot of the airplane shouted as he read from a piece of paper, "Billy Diamond for Indian Residential School!" One of the big strong community leaders lifted me up and forcibly put me on the airplane with me coining to realization that I u as being sent away from my home and I began to scream, yell for mom and dad and cry for my world was shattering on that airplane. It was absolutely devastating, for every safety, security and sen
se of belonging w as being destroyed as I was tied into my seat by force. There were three of us that day and when the door was slammed shut, it was then tied with a huge rope to prevent any of us any escape. It was the longest airplane ride of my seven-year life. My parents had given me away. I was flown to Moose Factory Indian Residential School where I received my first hair cut. Crying, I was escorted to my dormitory and all my wonderful clothes that mother had given me were removed and thrown in the garbage can. My candy bag wasconfiscated and I never saw the candy again. Stripped naked, I was led to a steaming room which I learned later was a shower and not a cooking pot. Then I was escorted to the boys' dining room where a plate of food u high I did not recognize was placed before me and there was some colored stuff which was red, green, and yellow on my plate which I did not know so I did not eat the vegetables. To this day I still do not eat vegetables! I saw my older sister Gerti on the girls' side of the dining room, but I was not allowed to go to her or to speak to her. I only knew Cree, but I was not allowed to speak Cree and immediately I got into trouble. The supervisor grabbed me by the back of the collar of this new shirt that I got and pushed me back to the dormitory.
"Each time I spoke Cree, I had my mouth washed out with soap..."
I learned quickly to speak English because each time I spoke Cree I had my mouth washed out with soap. I learned the rules and prayed like hell to get out of there, but I began to develop interests in history, geography, mathematics and to speak for others. Keep an eye out for one other. Use the skills that I learned in the bush to survive in the residential school system. I won leadership awards in school and spoke up in class and learned to participate to get ahead. In the six years that I was at Moose Fort Indian Residential School, the best thing that I learned was to forge friendships and relationships that you carry for a lifetime. In the six years that I spent at Moose Fort Indian Residential School, there was absolute destruction of my foundation years and my identity and my sense of belonging were all destroyed. My sense of purpose was unknown to me. Instead I had anger, bitterness, hostility, hatred, maliciousness, vengefulness, and a very deep seed racist attitude against organized religion, government and white people in general.
It was with this background that I was sent away again to another city which I did not choose. . . Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, where there u as an Indian Residential School called Shinguauk. I resided there while I attended a public school in the city. It is here that I met "competitiveness." While attending a non-native education environment in the city, I learned that I had to excel to get ahead and study to get the grades that I needed for high school. While I lived at Shingwauk Indian Residential School and saw the abuse and lived in a tense atmosphere, attending school in the city was a thankful escape for me that I looked forward to each day. It is at Shingwauk that lifetime friendships and relationships w auld be made for me to call on from time to time later in life. Leadership skills were also starting to emerge when I got involved in the Student Council and extra- curricular activities, such as the drama club, to gain the skills in public speaking. A number of the First Nations students got together in Sault Ste. Marie and started the Indian Student Association which promoted activities for First Nations students instead of just hanging out on Queen Street. I was elected to the Executive Committee of the Association and we started to look at what the students could do in their spare time. The Indian Student Association started a newsletter, and I became the editor of the newsletter. My first editorial was about extending the curfew hours by two hours on the weekend for all First Nation students. The editorial was circulated to all the boarding parents and the Student Services of the Department of Indian Affairs and I was called into the INAC counselors offices to defend it and asked M hat gave me the right to try to change government policy about curfew hours. I got verbally rebuked for writing such an editorial and with the support of the Indian Student Association of Sault Ste. Marie, I won my first battle against government bureaucracy with a pen. With some research, argument, and support you can win small battles before fighting a major fight.
April 28, 1971 is a very important date in the history of Quebec and the Cree of Northern Quebec. Premier Robert Bourassa announced the "Project of the Century" the James Bay Hydro-electric project, which involved the harnessing of 11 major rivers flowing into James Bay and Hudson Bay.
There was no visit from anyone to the Cree communities to explain the proposed hydro project and there was no material available and there was no consultation. I heard about it on the CBC radio new-s, and a few weeks later I met James Stem-art from the Montreal Star and at the back of the Mutt Memorial Hall I outlined my thoughts and opinions. The story made front page headlines and thus began my long fight to get Cree rights recognized and Cree interests respected. The Cree Elders taught me to seize the opportunity and to make it a Cree issue. It is not about you, but about the Cree people. To build an opposition you need some people who will believe in your idea that we Cree have rights.
My dad told me "Use the white man's law to get our rights recognized
Philip Awashish, then going to school at Mcgill University, was the first to answer the call with a letter. Now the friendships and relationships made at Moose Fort Indian Residential School would be tested and honoured as w e begin to build the team on how to fight this awesome project that we had very little information about.
June 28, 1971, the Cree leadership met with the Indians of Quebec Association and we began to outline a plan to get Cree rights recognized and Cree interests respected as we started with history lessons from the Cree Elders and Cree community members. Many times I was told some 35 years ago, "You have no rights. You are not citizens, just squatters who can be removed without any notice or consultation".
During the start on the opposition to the Project of the Century, I came to realize that we needed alliances and friends on our side. So I studied our opposition as the Cree do when they set the trap for the animal. Read the water, my dad used to say. So I studied Robert Bourassa and learned of his strengths and weaknesses. One major weakness was that for a leader, he was very distant and uncommunicative to the people. So let us use this weakness to our benefit. T began a public education program about the Project of the Century and the Cree people of northern Quebec. Travel and speaking engagements to colleges, universities, clubs and public interest groups welcomed us to listen and to learn our story, while at the same time preparing to spring the main trap when the final answer from Robert Bourassa would be "NO."
Stanley and Mildred Ryerson, of Mcgill University, mentored and privately tutored me on the history of Quebec and Canada. Dr. Ryerson took me in as he gave me the university history education that I missed out when my dad and the Cree Elders asked that I take some time off from school. I am grateful to their kind spirits and hearts as we enjoyed tea on many occasions. It was through these private lessons that I came to the conclusion that conditions to extend the boundaries of Quebec that were put into law in 1898 and 1912 had not been met and therefore we had legal grounds to challenge the validity of the law to build a hydro project in Cree territory.
With no success of any negotiations and hearing the same repeated arguments from government officials that we cannot change history or policies of the government, I knew the time was approaching to go to court to defend our rights and to take the risk of losing everything.
This is quite a burden on a leader w ho is only 23 years old. Yet the government said that we do not have anything, so what do we have to lose? Our Elders said to try and speak to Robert Bourassa in one last meeting before we give our final decision on the court case. A meeting was arranged in Quebec City and we would have one hour with the Premier of Quebec. The Cree Chiefs asked that a Cree Elder speak first to explain the importance of the land and our way of life. The Cree Elder who was chosen to speak was my father, Malcolm Diamond.
My dad said to me.... "It is up to you young people now. We will be there to advise you and help you."
The meeting with Robert Bourassa was held in the third week of October 1972 and after the usual protocol of introduction, my dad began his arguments, and then to our surprise, without waiting for a translation, the Premier packed his papers and told us that he did not have time for this and walked out of the meeting. We were stunned and shocked at what had happened and I dared not look at my dad for I felt the shock and humiliation that the Premier would act in this way. I stared straight ahead and could not believe in the turn of events. My dad slow y walked toward me and in quiet voice said to me, "We have raised you up for this purpose. I sent you to school and the people chose you to lead. So lead and use the white man's law to stop this hydro project and get our rights recognized. It is up to you young people now. We will be there to advise you and help you."
With those words, I asked everyone to sit down and that we needed to make some decisions for our people. Right there in the bunker office of the Premier of Quebec, we had a meeting to proceed with the court case and James O'Reilly was given the legal instructions to go to court.
On December 2, 1972, after legal arguments before Justice Malouf, the judge said that after studying the legal arguments, he came to the conclusion that the Cree people showed that they have apparent rights "and therefore, Mr. O'Reilly, you may call your first witness." James O'Reilly rose in the Montreal court room and faced the bench and said, "If it please the court, I call Chief Billy Diamond to the stand."
History was being made and history does not necessarily pick you, but you pick the time and place to change history. You can change history with boldness and fortitude if you know where you want to go and what you want to achieve. When I look back now there was a time when we couldn't use some terminology such as Aboriginal, First Nation, Cree Nation, Nation building, but over time these words became synonymous with the Land Claims policy.
I was negotiating with Cree rights and Cree title that had been recognized by the courts, and it was my vision that these rights would never again be questioned or I never want to see another government official sit across the table from my children or grandchildren and state that they have no rights, but just privileges that can be taken away at any time. I wanted to succeed so that the Cree rights must be put into provincial legislation after the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. Therefore, when the Agreement was signed in 1975 the Cree rights were also rights in the Agreement, and when the provincial and federal legislation came into force, then those Cree rights also became legislative rights.
When the Canadian Constitutional negotiations started, I saw this as another opportunity to further enshrine and entrench Cree rights into the highest law of the land. From 1980 to 1983, I was involved in the negotiations and credited with negotiating Section 25 and Section 35 amendment of the Canadian Constitution with Prime Minister Trudeau, who years earlier in 1968 had stated that there were no Indian rights in Canada and now the highest law of the land has entrenched Aboriginal rights.
Honour is not taken, honour is bestowed and on December 19, 1986, Premier Robert Bourassa bestowed upon me the Order of Quebec in the presence of my mother, Hilda, because my father, Malcolm, was "walking on" on his journey. The ceremony was in the Red Room of the National Assembly and when Mr. Bourassa, who was once an enemy but who became a respected and mutual friend, put upon me the Order of Quebec medal, I took back the honour of Malcolm Diamond. It is this honour that I am able to pass to my sons and my daughter, Lorraine, who graduated with a B.Ed degree at Mcgill University and realizing both our dreams and goals of university education.
I did not start with the dream that I should build the Cree Nation of Quebec but the Cree Chiefs and I and many other Cree leaders had to fight many battles in the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, and now into this new century, to win the war and now the dividends are coming to pass as we see the emergence of the Cree Nation.
"What are Indian rights and what are land claims? l don't know." says dad, 'but we are going to get them."
When I look back at what has happened to the Cree Nation in the past 40 years I am amazed. I suppose I shouldn't be when I think of the quality of people that were in the right place at the right time to stand up and be counted. For years our forefathers were frustrated by government officials who kept telling them that they could never build proper housing on the land we had lived, trapped and hunted on for thousands of years before the Europeans arrived. They told us it was their land. It was Crown land, they used to tell our chiefs when they asked for proper housing. Our Cree ancestors were patient people. They knew there would come a time u hen we would be recognized as the real owners of the land.
Education was the answer. I can't tell you which Cree made that decision first. But many families made decisions to give their children the chance of an education. It was not an easy decision because our families lived in our own little world. We lived in the bush, providing for ourselves. We each had responsibilities. We respected our parents and they listened to wisdom of their parents. Elders are revered in our society. Always have been, always will be.
When young ones were sent away to go to school it was devastating for the families and for the young people. Imagine kissing your seven-year-old in August, then not seeing him or her again until June. It was hard on us all, but it was part of the sacrifice that our people made to make sure that we were able to preserve our lifestyle, our dignity and, ultimately, our rights.
I remember a conversation with my father in 1968 just after I had finished high school in Sault Ste. Marie. He told me that a Cree Chief had come to Waskaganish to help from the Indians of Quebec Association and we were going to fight for Indian rights and land claims.
I asked dad, "What are Indian rights and what are land claims?" My dad said "I don't know, but we are going to have them. Things are going to change with hunting, fishing, trapping, reserve land, housing and more welfare. We can't believe the government any more."
The following day, I went down to the airplane dock to see this Cree Indian Chief from Fort George. The airplane arrived and the Cree Chief did not show up. The airplane taxied out of the dock and made its take off run on the river and flew north. Acer the airplane was gone from our visibility, the Cree Chief from Fort George arrived in his brush cut hairstyle, white shirt and a tie, and a dark suit and he was carrying a brief case which must have been full of important papers and secret documents.
Where's the airplane?" the Cree Chief asked. "It's gone! Took off, eh. You know, that way" we answered. "We will see about than" the Cree Chief said as he turned and walked toward the airplane office. Within minutes, the airplane was heading back to Waskaganish. When the airplane was tied up the pilot got out and apologized to the Fort George Chief, who then got on the airplane and again it took off and headed north. I watched this in amazement and thought to myself that this is power for a Cree Indian Chief to turn an airplane around and get it to pick him up. That day I gave my respect to Chief Robert Kanatewat and I loved his determination to get things done for his people.
Shortly thereafter, I was asked to attend my first Indians of Quebec Association and there I met men and women that would influence and change my life forever. The Cree Regional Chief Josie Sam Atkinson would take me and mentor me. Chief Robert Kanatewat from Fort George would school me in the ways of the governments and how to get things done through the system. Chief Andrew Delisle would become one of my teachers in Indian rights and advocacy for better Indian conditions. I wanted to be like him. Chief Max Gras-Louis would become one of my closest teachers on Indian rights and land claims, and on how to approach the government of Quebec. Chief Smally Petawabano was not small in anyway. He had to be the biggest stature of a man who I ever met and he would embrace me like a little brother and I learned to love him bike an older brother. It is these leaders who shaped my thinking and direction in the late 60s as the Indian rights movement in Canada began to get heated up through the stubborn policies of the governments. The issues haven't changed much, such as housing, education, health, employment and training, and land claims.
Speak up. Participate. Equip yourselves with understanding and knowledge. Know the facts. Be passionate about what you believe in and be not afraid to express what your dreams and visions are for yourself and the people that you represent. I came to realize over time that from the foundation years to now that I was always groomed for leadership. Everything that has happened to me from birth until now was my destiny to be in a position of leadership, and it is I who must use the resources that are available to me.
My parents, my brothers and sisters, my community, our Elders and leaders, my mentors, my teachers, my friends and the circumstances would all be part of what we do with our lives and our situation. These are the greatest resource that we have and we have to use them wisely. The Cree Elders taught me to seize the opportunity and to make it a Cree issue. It is not about you, but about the Cree people. Leadership is not in the title of the position that you hold, but leadership is in your ability to stretch your imagination and use it for the benefit of your people. Look inside you and see the resources that are available for you. Be not afraid, because in the end you will find out the fear is only of your own demons inside you, but allow your resources and abilities to come out from within. It is inside you where there is the greatest battle and never underestimate the power of yourself. Harness it and use it for your benefit.
Nation building is like searching for your soul and then building from the strengths of your people. I do not know how many Cree lives that I have impacted, but all I wanted was my Cree people to be honoured, respected and recognized for who they were and still are the gatekeepers and stewards of the lands, waters, and air of the North, as the Creator God had commissioned them to do so.
Today, I am still pursuing my own goals and aspirations for an economic self-sufficiency for the Cree Nation. After all these year's I am still involved and will continue to be involved in building and developing a Cree Nation.
I know that my dad and other Cree leaders who have passed on are also pleased that we have been able to bring their dreams to fruition and set a course for the Cree Nation that can benefit every single Cree in Eeyou lstchee, whether they want to live a traditional lifestyle on the land, or be a pilot with Air Creebec. And I am so thankful that I have been able to play a part in all of this success