North

New chairperson elected to Cree health board

The Cree health board in northern Quebec has a new person in the top job after an election Tuesday. Bertie Wapachee beat out the incumbent and won a convincing 72 per cent of the ballots cast. 

Bertie Wapachee promising change after winning 72 per cent of vote

Bertie Wapachee served as chairperson of the Cree Board of Health and Social Services from 1999 to 2003. Most recently, he was general manager of the Chisasibi Business Service Centre. (CBC North/ Christopher Herodier)

The Cree health board in northern Quebec will have a new person in the top job after an election Tuesday. Bertie Wapachee beat out the incumbent and won a convincing 72 per cent of the ballots cast. 

"The people have spoken and they came out to vote for change," Wapachee said, who is currently the general manager of the Chisasibi Business Service Centre. 

"I appreciate that very much. I'm still very overwhelmed with the support we got," Wapachee said, who previously served a term as Cree health board chairperson from 1999 to 2003.  

In Chisasibi, the largest of the Cree communities and the place he calls home, Wapachee got 94.5 per cent of the more than 1,600 ballots cast. 

I'm still very overwhelmed with the support we got.- Bertie Wapachee, new Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay chairperson

Wapachee, who is originally from the Cree community of Nemaska, won in a run-off election against Bella M. Petawabano, who was seeking a third term.

Petawabano received nearly 28 per cent of the vote.

"I want to say thank you to all the people who voted," Petawabano said in a video-taped address shared in Cree and English on her Facebook page.

"Your vote means you care about health ... your health and that of the Cree Nation," Petawabano said.

Wapachee said he and Petawabano spoke after the results were made public and there was no animosity or negativity. 

''We both share that passion in serving our people," Wapachee said.

Bella M. Petawabano served two terms as chairperson of the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay. (Facebook)

Voter turnout higher

Voter turnout was also higher this time. In the last Cree health board elections in 2016, Petawabano won in the first round and there were a total of 2,100 ballots cast. In 2020, in a second round runoff, there were approximately 4,400 ballots cast. 

Wapachee said one of his priorities will be to ensure more Cree people are hired to work within the health services. 

"There are plenty of educated people in our communities that don't have jobs and don't have careers in our organization. I'd like to open that door for them," Wapachee said.

Wapachee's election comes at a time when there are many, large-scale health infrastructure projects underway for the Cree Nation.

In 2019, Quebec and the Cree health board announced infrastructure spending of more than $700 million, including funding for a new 52-bed regional hospital to be built in Chisasibi, new elders homes and specialized services, among other projects.

Wapachee said he doesn't plan to make major changes to any of the priorities that are already in the works, such as the hospital.

But he does hope to add new priorities such as improving care and services for patients sent to the South, particularly at the Espresso Hotel in Montreal, where many Cree patients stay when in the city.

Wapachee said among his other priorities are to improve services for those with special needs and those needing respite care. 

"There is a long list of things that we will have to put on the table immediately," Wapachee said.

Daisy House, the chief of Chisasibi, congratulated Wapachee on his win and thanked Petawabano for her service. 

"I wish to thank Bella in all she has done for the Cree Nation, her service to our people … and congratulate Bertie on his election win yesterday, and I want to wish him the best in his mandate," House said.

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