It was a historic moment in late October when Cathy Merrick was selected by First Nations leaders in Manitoba as the next grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.
For the first time in its more than 30-year existence, a woman will carry the title of grand chief of the organization that is made up 62 of the 63 First Nations in Manitoba.
Merrick, who is a former band councillor and chief of Pimicikamak Cree Nation, in northern Manitoba, replaces former grand chief Arlen Dumas who was removed in August because of harassment and sexual assault allegations.
An external consultants report, obtained by the Winnipeg Free Press also revealed a workplace that was “most often described as toxic” at the AMC.
Merrick says she hopes to create a culture of healing at the organization.
“That’s something that we need to work on. As leaders in all our Nations, as a matter of fact and to be able to speak to those issues to be able to bring healing into our work so that nobody needs to be afraid or nobody needs to feel that they’re being looked down on and so those are the things that I want to bring in,” says Merrick on the latest episode of Face to Face.
The first few weeks on the job have been fast and furious for Merrick who has been meeting with people and organizations that have been waiting for the AMC to come to the table.
She hopes to create a unified voice for First Nations in Manitoba and has met with the grand chiefs of the Southern Chiefs Organization which represents 34 Anishinaabe and Dakota communities in the province, and Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak which represents 26 First Nations in northern Manitoba.
Merrick also wants to be a voice for First Nations in the north that she says have been left behind.
“To be able to assist the forgotten Nations, where they still have to go and get their water from the lake. We don’t hear very much about them and so, those are the ones I’d like to advocate for. As well, in the north, there are four communities that don’t have electricity,” says Merrick of her priorities.
Merrick says there are a lot of social issues for First Nations in the province. The grand chief believes many of those issues stem from a lack of housing and addiction.
Earlier this month, four chiefs in the province made an appeal for help, saying unresolved trauma is leading to drug addiction and a risk of suicide in their communities.
Red Sucker Lake First Nation declared a state of emergency following two recent deaths by suicide.
It’s an issue Merrick is all too familiar with. In 2016, when she was chief of Pimicikamak Cree Nation, they too had to declare a state of emergency after six deaths by suicide. It was the third time in 30 years, the nation had experienced a wave of deaths by suicide.
“The thing that we heard most was of our youth being bored, of our youth having nothing to do,” says Merrick reflecting back on the crisis.
“What we have done was to be able to take them out on the land. It’s such a healing process that we be able to do that and that we be able to entertain them in whatever way they need. And to be listened to. We have to listen to our young people because they’re the ones that are going to be our future leaders.”
The Cree Nation had been pushing for a new hospital for decades and $ 40 million in federal funding was provided during the crisis.
Six years later, the new, state-of-the-art facility is inching closer to completion.
“One of the things that’s close to my heart is to someday have all our children born in our communities,” says the new grand chief.