Early Life and Education
Coon Come was born in a hut on his parents’ trapline, near Mistissini in northern Québec. At the age of six he was separated from his parents and sent to a residential school; he spent many of his early years at La Tuque Indian Residential School in central Québec, where he suffered physical and sexual abuse.
In the 1970s he studied political science at Trent University, where he was also president of the Trent University Native Association. He studied law at McGill University, but was then asked by a delegation of Cree elders to become coordinator for the inland Cree communities during negotiations that led to the historic Cree-Naskapi Act of 1984, which made the James Bay Cree bands and the Québec Naskapi largely self-governing (see also James Bay and Northern Québec Agreement). Coon Come then served two terms as chief of the Mistissini First Nation, during which time the community gained an adult education centre, new health facilities, and significant improvements to housing and community infrastructure.
In 1987 Coon Come was elected Grand Chief of the Grand Council of the Crees and Chairman of the Cree Regional Authority. One of the most notable features of his four consecutive terms as Grand Chief was his leadership in opposing the James Bay hydroelectric megaproject. In 1988 Hydro-Québec signed a multi-billion-dollar contract with the New York Power Authority to export electricity. In order to meet this demand, Hydro-Québec planned to start the Great Whale phase of the James Bay hydroelectric project, which would have built over 30 dams and 600 dikes, blocking a number of major rivers and irreparably damaging a large portion of the James Bay region. Coon Come organized a canoe trip of elders from James Bay to New York City to demonstrate opposition to this project; the trip gained national and international attention, and contributed to New York’s decision to cancel the contract in 1992; the project was officially cancelled in 1994.
Coon Come also mobilized Canadian and international support for the rights of Aboriginal people in Québec, particularly the right of self-determination in relation to Québec separatism. During the 1995 Québec Referendum, Coon Come established a separate Special Referendum, in which the Cree overwhelmingly voted to stay within Canada. In 2000 Coon Come campaigned for election as National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, accusing the AFN of serving as a bureaucratic arm of the federal government rather than a strong advocate for Aboriginal peoples. Coon Come won the election, replacing the more conciliatory Phil Fontaine. After his term ended in 2003, Coon Come became Advisor to the Grand Council of the Crees on a number of issues, including mining, renewable energy, and residential schools.
In 2009 Coon Come was re-elected Grand Chief of the James Bay Cree Nation of Iiyuuschee and Chairperson of the Cree Regional Authority. In 2012 he negotiated the historic Agreement on Governance with Québec, which gave the Cree more power and control in the James Bay region. Through this agreement, the municipality of James Bay was replaced by the Eeyou Istchee James Bay territory, a regional authority which would be governed by Cree and non-natives alike. This effectively gave the Cree more influence in terms of mining projects, hydroelectric developments, and wind-power schemes in the area.
Coon Come has been chairperson or director of a number of organizations, including the Cree Nation Trust, the Cree Nation Governance Working Group, and the Eeyou Communication Network. He has promoted the rights of Aboriginal people across the world, and has received several national and international awards and honours.
Awards and Honours
Goldman Environmental Prize (1994)
Condé Nast Traveler Environmental Award (1994)
National Aboriginal Achievement Award (1995)
Honorary LLD (Trent) 1998
Honorary LLD (Toronto) 2000