‘Making history’: Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation elects Karen Bird as chief

Three Woodland Cree First Nations in northern Saskatchewan now led by women

Newly elected PBCN Chief Karen Bird. Photo courtesy of Karen Bird

“History has been made with three ladies governing the Woodland Cree,” said Karen Bird, newly elected chief of the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation (PBCN) after election results were confirmed on Wednesday. 

“I’m happy, overjoyed and overwhelmed.”

Bird is with her home community of Southend celebrating the win. As the second woman elected to the role of chief in PBCN history Bird said she’s excited to work with Montreal Lake Cree Nation Chief Joyce Naytowhow-McLeod and Lac La Ronge Indian Band Chief Tammy Cook-Searson. She said those three Woodland Cree nations all being led by women at the same time is significant.

“We have greater power when we work together — because we understand each other — what we go through and how much more we can support each other as chiefs. We’re all rooted and grounded in our culture, our language and our traditions,” Bird said.

I’m really looking forward to meeting with them and sitting down and making plans — work together and just get back to our land based education and to help our kids grow in that way.”  

The other candidates for chief were Simon Daniel Jobb, Roland Natewayes, Horace Morin, Weldon McCallum and Jason Linklater.

Bird won a strong majority with 1,466 votes. Jobb took 784 votes and McCallum took 771 votes. Morin won 648 votes, Natewayes received 451 votes and 202 votes went to Linklater.

Bird said she wants to improve the housing situation on PBCN reserve lands and help find solutions for the urban community in Prince Albert. 

“The communities, of course, have their own different needs. But the thing that I’m seeing everywhere is the homelessness and the housing shortage. We have so many people living together and that’s a really bad thing right now, especially during this pandemic,” Bird said. 

“There are a lot of people that have to move from the reserve into the city because of the housing shortage, because of medical needs or for better opportunities. They need that support in terms of funding for education, in terms of housing needs and medical transportation. We have a lot of our members that are on dialysis or relocate for proximity to the hospital, just so that they can get their medical needs met.”

Bird said that the PBCN Housing Committee did a study in Southend about 10 years ago and that the community was already short 250 houses for a population of 1200 people. Bird said she will further assess the situation and take action.

She said those conditions need to be addressed — adding that the material used to build houses on reserve is not adequate and leads to early decay of those homes.

Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation consists of nine communities: Amisk Lake, Deschambeault Lake, Kinoosao, Pelican Narrows, Prince Albert, Sandy Bay, Southend, Sturgeon Landing and Kiskaciwan west of Prince Albert. 

PBCN members live on both Treaty 6 and Treaty 10 territories. Bird said band members living further north face particular hardships such as transport and access to food. 

“Living further up north comes with challenges and struggles.”

Bird said she wants to address the PBCN elections process right away, too. She said delays in this election due to COVID-19 were compounded by other issues.

Chief Electoral Officer Burke Ratte called for a new election in the PBCN community of Pelican Narrows after votes were counted early. But a federal court judge ruled the votes were valid under the band’s election act and that the electoral officer cannot nullify them. 

“It was due to COVID-19 – but we also need to work on our election act here. That needs to be worked on right away,” Bird said. Bird said she hasn’t yet reviewed the federal court’s decision. 

“I believe that the people have elected their councillors in Pelican Narrows. When the people speak, the people speak.”

Bird said that as chief she’ll be keeping her ears open to her communities and membership as she did on the campaign trail. 

“I can see the things that need to be done. A lot of people know what they want in the communities. It’s just that they need the support, and I’m there to be that support.”

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Michael Bramadat-Willcock covers Saskatchewan's north with a focus on natural resources, climate change, mental health, reconciliation and equitable access to health care, education and other services. His work primarily appears in the Northern Advocate. He can be contacted at mbwillcock@paherald.sk.ca. His position was made possible by funding through the Local Journalism Initiative. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada. L’Initiative de journalisme local est financé par le gouvernement du Canada