Michael Petawabano elected Chief of Mistissini

·4 min read

After a first round of voting ended neck and neck, Michael Petawabano was elected Chief of Mistissini and John S. Matoush as Deputy Chief in a run-off election.

The first vote, held July 13, had incumbent Thomas Neeposh win 39% of the vote, and Petawabano with 38%, while the other three candidates garnered the remaining 23%. The run-off election was held July 20. In that vote, Petawabano narrowly edged out Neeposh, receiving 52% of the 1,547 votes.

The election for Deputy Chief also ended with a run-off vote between John S. Matoush and Jerry Matoush, after each candidate received 39% and 30% of the vote, respectively. Two other candidates received the remaining 31%. In the run-off election, John S. Matoush received 62% of the vote.

Nine councillors were also elected, including Margaret Stacy Anderson, Ashley Iserhoff, Robert Jimikin, Samuel S. Mianscum, Linda L. Shecapio, Richard Shecapio, Abel Trapper and Denise White.

The newly elected chief and council were sworn in July 25 at the Neoskweskau Sports Complex, where a farewell to the outgoing chief and council was held.

Petawabano said he set up a tent outside his house on election night to await the results with friends. When they came in, he was incredulous. “I couldn’t believe it – I was elected by the people,” he shared with The Nation. “There were cheers, it was an honour. I said ‘wow’!”

Soon he was joined by supporters who came by to congratulate him. While some of them decided to do a joy ride around the community, Petawabano stayed home out of respect for those who also ran.

Petawabano had previously worked in construction before becoming a police officer. “One of the reasons I went into policing was I was informed by the director of policing if I was hired, they’d prioritize my home,” Petawabano said with a laugh.

What was originally going to just be a few years turned into 15, but eventually Petawabano said he needed to prioritize his health and wellbeing. He ended up working for Cree Human Resources Development (now Apatisiiwin Skills Development), which he described as another way of helping people.

“I liked the idea of it – it was supporting Cree to get employment and training in industry sectors – mining, forestry, construction. It was fitting, it was human resources but in a different way,” he explained.

After 14 years at that job, Petawabano was tapped as deputy executive director for the Cree Nation Government (CNG) in 2016. He had been approached then to run for chief in Mistissini, but told his supporters, “Let me finish these four years with CNG, then if you still feel I could be the chief and you want to nominate me I’d be honoured.”

Petawabano credits the job with helping him understand how things work at a regional level, but also how to “be a bit more innovative.” He pointed to technology, community growth and relationships with community members and other partners as things he thought could use improvement.

When Petawabano finally decided to run for chief, he wanted to make education a priority, as well as building the economy. He is also focused on social aspects. “We’ve got a lot of youth, our population is very young, we have to learn how to work with them, and understand some of the mental health issues that are going around.”

Part of Petawabano’s education focus involves informing youth of the resources, jobs and other opportunities. He wants to prioritize language revitalization with the school board and encourage Cree to be used internally within the governance structure.

Petawabano is committed to engaging with hunters and trappers, Elders, youth and women in the community. “We have all these agreements, but we haven’t taken care of social problems for people. We need to build the economy and build our people,” he added. He said his phone and office are open to anyone who wants to share their thoughts with him.

“I’m looking forward to the next four years, working with people, working with council. We have a very strong council. We can start improving our lifestyle and our opportunities and building on our people,” he said. “I’m very honoured.”

Benjamin Powless, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Nation