This publication is based on the transcript of a recent video interview between Chief Cadmus Delorme and Macdonald-Laurier Institute Distinguished Fellow Ken Coates. Chief Delorme spoke to MLI about the progress he’s making on political sovereignty, economic self-sustainability and cultural rejuvenation for his community.
Chief Cadmus Delorme, a Cree and Saulteaux, is the Chief of the Cowessess First Nation. He is a graduate of the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy and the First Nations University of Canada (FNUniv). In 2012, he was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal. Chief Delorme has also been named one of CBC Saskatchewan’s Future 40, which celebrates the province’s new generation of leaders, builders and change-makers under the age of 40. Chief Delorme was re-elected as Chief of the Cowessess First Nation in April 2019.
MLI: So, Chief, welcome and delighted to have you with us today. I wonder if you could start by telling us a little bit about the Cowessess First Nation. I’m interested in the history, culture, and location. Please speak to us as though you’re talking to Canadians who have trouble finding Regina on a map.
Chief Delorme: Thank you. I am 39 years young. I grew up on Cowessess First Nation and I came back to it at the age of 34 to run as Chief. The way that our elections work is it’s a popular vote today through an election, minus the [political] parties. You run for your position, and other people will run for the Chief position. And that’s how elections happen. They happen every four years based on our election act. Cowessess First Nation is east of Regina by 165 kilometres. We are an hour and 40 minutes east if you drive the speed limit.
The ancestors of the Cowessess First Nation include [those of] Soto Cree, Nakoda, and Minty heritage. We’re a diverse First Nation and very proud of it. Our ancestors were very nomadic on this land prior to the treaty of 1874. After 1874, our Chief agreed to Treaty 4 which we settled here around 1880. For five generations we have lived here on our land base, and today we have a total of 4300 citizens, 900 of whom live on Cowessess First Nation. The rest live as nomads across Canada. We have 1400 that live in the City of Regina. Even though we get most of our program services for our 900 citizens on the First Nation, like health, education, and areas like that, we still have a strong relationship with all of our citizens across this country.
We are working on many areas, but [one of] the three pillars that we focus on today is political sovereignty. A few months ago, you may have seen that Prime Minister Trudeau and Premier Moe came to Cowessess. We signed a child welfare agreement that gives jurisdiction and sovereignty back to Cowessess First Nation, so political sovereignty is huge in our moving forward.
Our second pillar is economic self-sustainability. We have the mentality that every one of our children should wake up and watch their parents get ready for work during the week. We don’t judge. We know we inherited a situation here today of intergenerational trauma stemming from our time spent in residential schools, from the Indian Act, from an imprisonment mentality, and so forth. But we want to make sure economic self-sustainability is a part of our future. We are in the agriculture industry and the renewable energy industry, urban development and so forth.
Our third pillar is cultural rejuvenation. We want to make sure that anybody who’s from Cowessess, no matter where you put your head on your pillow, that you know who you are, where you come from, and where we’re going as a First Nation.
MLI: That’s an impressive list. And thank you very much for that introduction. So let me ask a fairly blunt question: You graduated with a master’s degree in public administration, and you were working at First Nations University of Canada. And I’ll editorialize here a bit by simply saying that the job of First Nations Chief is probably the most difficult political job in all of Canada. What convinced you to run?
Chief Delorme: I love being First Nation. I grew up on Cowessess. Before being a Chief, I was one of those who would show up to community events and volunteer.
My drive is to get stronger for the First Nation. I got interested in being a Chief when I started to learn about the true history. Just because I’m First Nation doesn’t necessarily mean that I know my history through and through. I learned the majority of what happened to my people – my parents – from First Nations University of Canada, and that warrior spirit awakened in me when I was there – that warrior spirit is to bring peace.
How do we bring peace between Indigenous people and Canada so our children and children yet unborn can have a prosperous future as we share this land? I feel that the tone starts at the top. I also hold an Institute of Corporate Directors designation. One of the things that we learned there is that tone starts at the top. So, I wanted to be the Chief because I really feel the tone starts at the top.
And you’re right: being a Chief is not a prime minister; it’s not a premier; it’s not a mayor; and it’s not a reeve. You’re a Chief. In [a typical] day, [I can find myself] dealing with injustice in hospitals. This morning, I was dealing with a citizen who she felt she was treated unjustly and faced racism, so I had to work with the Regional Health Authority. At lunchtime, I’m helping another family plan for a funeral coming up. Then we have to have a COVID-19 taskforce team meeting. Then I had an economic development meeting. And I’m talking to you now. And right after this, we’re doing another COVID taskforce thing. And then this evening, we’re doing a sports event. So you know, ultimately, as a Chief, I’m not a decision-maker, I’m the spokesperson. And I am asked to be present in a lot of different scenarios. And that’s something I take very seriously.
I am optimistic and hopeful that in this country my five-year-old daughter will have a different life than how most Indigenous people today have to live in this country.
MLI: That’s a great description, and I love your enthusiasm and your commitment to your community, and to the First Nation itself and indirectly to the country. You’ve got an interesting perspective because you don’t oppose Canada – you’re not opposed to the federal system or the provincial system – you really seem to be willing to work within the structures as they are, but are simply demanding far more for your community. Is that a fair statement?
Chief Delorme: It is. We are all here today sharing because of treaty. Unfortunately, our education system missed the opportunity. But I am optimistic and hopeful that in this country my five-year-old daughter will have a different life than how most Indigenous people today have to live in this country. I will strive, one day at a time, to help implement the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s “Calls to Action,” the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls “Calls to Justice.” And I’m also Canadian. I love my passport. I go to other countries, and they asked me where I’m from. I can’t say Cowessess in Cuba, because they don’t know where Cowessess is. But when I say Canada, they’re like, “Oh, Canada!” I’m what you call a dual citizen. And that’s not a bad thing. It’s something that we just must understand. As First Nations people, we’re rights holders in this country; we’re not shareholders or stakeholders. So, I have my inherent right in this country and I’m also a Canadian citizen. There is nothing wrong with us understanding that First Nations do play the role of dual citizen. Where the opposite of hope comes from and what we must fight against is the White Paper mentality to just be one or the other. And that’s not what we want for our children.
MLI: So few people really remember what the White Paper was all about. Yet it’s so important to First Nations people because in 1969, the Government of Canada released a White Paper that talked about the abolition of First Nations status, the absolute violation of First Nation reserves, the division of the land, and whatever. I don’t think most Canadians understand how aggressive that action was: the Government of Canada thinking it could just obliterate this whole concept of identity and process.
So let me ask you a question that I think is most important. In all of this, you’ve talked about treaty and the fact that you understand this in the context of your relationship with Canada. I had four children who went through the school system in Saskatchewan and they did not get an introduction to treaty. They did not grow up with a sense of connectedness to your community, or to other First Nations or the Métis people. How do we fill the treaty vessel with real power so that non-Indigenous people say with as much pride and commitment as you just did, that you are a treaty person?
Chief Delorme: I’m going to just start with truth and then I’m going to get to the analogy of treaty. In this country, the education system that we inherited failed us in describing the truth of Indigenous people when it comes to the relationship with Canada. For the Baby Boomer Generation, their education comes from Hollywood movies, so teepees, feathers, horses, making warrior calls, and so on. This was the most education [about First Nations that] baby boomers [and even] Generation X got in this country. That’s why the White Paper is seen as an option. It is not an option.
Generation Y started to get a little better, but residential schools were still here. Treaties were starting to be talked about, and the Indian Act was starting to be talked about by the millennial generation and the generation today. They are getting taught about the spirit and intent of treaty. So we are going to see a shift. But today, we’re not all [required] to attend Indigenous Studies 100 class in this country. We have to try and come to our understanding of truth. But this truth is treaty, to the ones that are looking to better understand.
The signatory Chief of Cowessess First Nation, his name was Chief Cowessess. (If you want to use the correct language, his name was Ka-wezauce.) Two days before we agreed to the treaty, Chief Cowessess, my signatory Chief in 1874, saw a lawyer sitting there. He didn’t understand what a lawyer was, but he knew that he wanted. So, my Chief said to the lawyer, “If we agree to a treaty, can my children be like you while still being [like] me?” And he said, “Absolutely they can. Your kids can do that. That’s what treaty is about.” So that’s what my Chief agreed to.
Think of it as two canoes going down a river. One canoe is Cowessess. The other canoe is the Crown, Canada – Saskatchewan, where I am right now. We agreed to float down this river as long as the sun shines, the grass grows, the river flows. Every generation, we were to exchange a child with the other canoe to raise them to know the ideology. And that way we would always prosper together. That didn’t happen.
Two years after Treaty 4, the Indian Act was thrown in our canoe without our consent. It had one purpose: to imprison the minds of the Cowessess people. [It said] that we don’t know our own governance, that women [are to] play a lesser role, and so forth.
Twenty-two years later, the residential school was thrown in our canoe. It had one purpose: to brainwash Indigenous people so we would not know our language, not know the spiritual connection of men with braids, and so forth.
So today, the Cowessess canoe has fallen behind. We’re not asking Canada to slow down; we’re asking Canada to invest in our canoe so we can catch up to what a true treaty relationship should be in this country. If anybody thinks that we should have abandoned our canoe – you’re thinking White Paper – that’ll never happen. Delete that. And let’s just focus on a true nation-to-nation relationship. That’s what I mean. I love being Canada because that’s our treaty. But I love being Cowessess. And we shouldn’t be shy about.
How do we bring peace between Indigenous people and Canada so our children and children yet unborn can have a prosperous future as we share this land? I feel that the tone starts at the top.
MLI: Chief, you give us many reasons to be proud. Please speak to us about the agreement you have signed with the Government of Canada and the province of Saskatchewan. It’s a child welfare agreement; it actually gives you resources. It’s not just about sovereignty, because sovereignty carries responsibilities. How do you exercise those responsibilities? You’re going to see a fairly substantial growth in the size of your government with these [added] responsibilities for dealing with [First Nations] child welfare across the country. And clearly nothing is more important to your community than the children. So, speak to us a bit about how important that agreement is to you.
Chief Delorme: We have had jurisdiction since April 1, so we are in month seven right now. We had three children in care on Cowessess on April 1. As of August, we have no children in care. We have already repatriated our children to their families. That is why it is so important. We asked this question of Canada: “When did we give you jurisdiction to look after our children in care? When did we say, ‘Canada, Saskatchewan, here are our children. Look after them’?” We never did. In 1876 the Indian Act came. Canada never came and consulted with Cowessess. It was just assimilation. In 1951, the province of Saskatchewan said, “we’re taking section 88 of the Indian Act and we’re going to assert jurisdiction over Cowessess children in care.” Nobody ever came and asked us.
In 2021 Cowessess looked at Canada and Saskatchewan and said, “we are asserting our jurisdiction over our children in care.” And so, from the Canada canoe it’s Bill C-92 which now, today, is an act representing First Nation, Métis, and Inuit Children and Family Services. To Cowessess, it’s our Constitution.
And our law it is called the Miyo Pimatisowin Act, which is our child welfare. We gave it to Canada after we ratified it and said, “Insert this into Section 35 of your Constitution, invest in our canoe and …. get out of our canoe and let us do our thing.” And so that is a prime example can of how the Cowessess canoe and the Canada canoe are aligning better. We’re in month seven, and we are just so far ahead already. We’re repatriating families, growing culture plans, kinship plans, making our youth and children more proud to know where they come from and where we’re going as a First Nation.
MLI: You know very well the difference between what life was like five and 10 to 15 years ago, and 30 years ago, when dozens of your children were lifted out of your communities and raised outside of the Cowessess First Nation with no contact. You’re changing lives and changing the whole culture in a very dramatic sort of way.
Chief Delorme, it has been a real privilege to watch your evolution and development. You’re doing some of the most creative things we’ve seen in the country. We just applaud you for the work that you’re doing and support you and all that all that you have under way.
And I think of your description of the canoes and the speeding up of one canoe so it catches up with the other. That is a wonderful way of telling us about the future, as is the picture you’ve painted of a community in control of its destiny, absolutely sure of where it’s wanting to go, and led by one of the most phenomenal young leaders in this country. So, thank you very much for being with us today. This has been a brilliant description of the future of your community and the plans and vision that you have for it. Thank you for being with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, Chief Cadmus Delorme.
Lagace, Naithan, Niigaanwewidam, and James Sinclair. 2015/2020. “The White Paper, 1969.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. Available at https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/the-white-paper-1969.