Matthew Coon Come is a national and international indigenous leader and advocate for the aboriginal, treaty and other human rights of indigenous peoples in Canada and internationally. His election in July 2009 to the office of Grand Chief of the James Bay Cree Nation of Iiyuuschee and Chairperson of the Cree Regional Authority is his fifth re-election to those positions.
Matthew was first elected as Grand Chief of the Grand Council of the Crees and Chairman of the Cree Regional Authority in 1987, and served for four terms of office. Matthew was former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations from 2000 to 2003. He became known throughout Canada for his efforts:
Matthew never avoided a fight to defend the fundamental rights of indigenous peoples. Under his leadership, the Grand Council of the Crees (Eeyou Istchee) stayed at the centre of every major political issue that concerns aboriginal peoples in Canada.
In recognition of his leadership-marshalling "local, national and international environmental, human rights and tribal communities to create a strong coalition" to stop a massive hydro-electric project on his people's land-Matthew Coon Come was awarded the Goldman prize, the "Nobel Prize of Environmental Awards" (1994). In 1998, Trent University granted him the degree of "Doctor of Laws Honoris Causa" in further recognition of the significance of his work, and in 2000, the University of Toronto also awarded him an honorary Doctor of Laws. He also received the National Aboriginal Achievement Award in 1995.
Matthew insisted that the James Bay Crees be clearly heard in all Constitutional processes. He gathered nationwide, and even international, support for the right of aboriginal peoples in Quebec to choose their own political future if Quebec tries to take aboriginal peoples and lands out of Canada. When the rights of all of the aboriginal peoples in Quebec were endangered by the 1995 Quebec Referendum, he asserted the Crees' of Eeyou Istchee right of self-determination through their own historic Special Referendum.
He made sure that the Grand Council of the Crees held its standing as an organization known for its principled, effective, persistent, and knowledgeable advocacy of crucial issues that concern aboriginal peoples -- issues that others were too often reluctant to broach.
Matthew's voice has been one that has been heard throughout Canada. He has met with Prime Ministers and foreign, religious and corporate leaders, and has spoken out to the Assembly of First Nations and other organizations on the danger posed to all aboriginal and Treaty rights across this country by federal policy.
Under his direction the Grand Council intervened during the Supreme Court Reference on Quebec Secession, and argued successfully before the court that the rights of the aboriginal peoples may not be ignored. He has effectively called upon the courts, the United Nations and the international media to defend Cree Rights. His name is attached to two significant Treaty rights and Treaty implementation cases to reach Canadian Courts. He was instrumental in several well known court cases and international initiatives launched by the Crees where judgments have significantly advanced Cree Rights, and aboriginal rights in Canada.
Matthew is perhaps best known for his international work to protect the traditional way of life of aboriginal peoples. He brought this issue to the Earth Summit in Rio and formed a coalition with other indigenous peoples and environmental organizations to defend the indigenous peoples' traditional use of the land. In addition to the Goldman Prize, he was also recipient of the Equinox Environmental Award and the Conde Naste Environmental Award.
Born in 1956 on his parent's Mistissini Trapline, Matthew was soon recognized by the elders as a natural leader. He was asked to be coordinator for all the inland Cree communities for the negotiations with Canada that enabled the James Bay Crees to escape the Indian Act and achieve the first ever aboriginal self-government legislation in Canada, the Cree-Naskapi Act.
At the start of his political career, Matthew served two terms as Chief of the Mistissini First Nation. By the time he left to work with his father on his trapline, his community had a new arena, an adult education centre, a bank, new administrative offices, new health facilities, and major improvements to its housing and community infrastructure.
He went on to become Executive Director of the Grand Council of the Crees (Eeyou Istchee). He was directly involved in the Grand Council's successful effort to gain consultative status at the United Nations, and supported the Grand Council's use of its international status to being issues vital to all of the world's indigenous peoples before the international community.
Matthew has been a Director of Aircreebec; Creeco (Cree Regional Economic Enterprises Company); the Cree Construction Company; Servinor; the James Bay Cree Cultural Education Centre; the Centre for Indigenous Environment Resources; and the Cree School Board.
He was Chairman of Cree Housing Corporation responsible for implementing the housing and infrastructure program. He was Chairman of the James Bay Eeyou Corporation, managing over one hundred million dollars in assets. He was also Chairman of James Bay Native Development Corporation, which under his leadership assisted in starting up fifty-four businesses within the Cree Communities. In 1995 he became a founding director of the First Nations Bank of Canada.
After serving on term as National Chief of the AFN, Matthew worked as Advisor to the GCC(EI)/CRA on political, cultural, social, and economic issues working on Indian Residential School issues, mining, renewable energy, and on national and international issues.
He is Chairperson of Cree Nation Trust, being a social trust created for the benefit of the Cree Nation responsible to manage and invest the Capital and Income of the Trust and to distribute the Funds in accordance with the provisions of the Trust Deed. The Cree Nation Trust is the recipient of payments from the New Relationship Agreement signed between the Government of Canada and the Cree Nation.
He is also Chairman of Cree Nation Governance Working Group, responsible for the development of a Governance Agreement as provided for under the recent Cree-Federal New Relationship Agreement and to expand Cree Nation Governance by establishing a framework for a Cree Constitution setting out the relationship between the eventual expanded Cree Nation Government, the Cree bands, Cree entities and the Federal and Provincial governments. The CNGWG has the mandate to consult with all involved in the Cree Nation and the communities and to advise Grand Council of the Crees. This process will be most challenging but as Chairman will make a contribution to the development of a stronger, effective, accountable and respected Cree government for the Cree Nation for years to come.
Matthew is also Chairperson of Eeyou Communication Network, a project sponsored by Grand Council of the Crees for a non-profit commercialization of broadband, with a mandate to have our own electronic highway to connect institutions, businesses and residents to the world of Information and Communications. He was highly instrumental in obtaining the required licenses from Federal Government (CRTC), and participated in the funding discussions with the Quebec and Federal government, successfully obtaining $18 million for the ECN telecom project for deployment to start in the summer of 2009.
Matthew studied political science, economics, native studies and courses in law at Trent and McGill Universities, and also undertook theological studies in the United States following his tenure as National Chief in 2003.
He married Maryann Matoush in 1976, and together they have three daughters and two sons.