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Breaking with Colonialism

The Crees of James Bay and their New Relationship Agreement with Qué

Indigenous Politics

In February, 2002, the Grand Council of the Crees signed an agreement with the Government of Québec popularly known as the Cree New Relationship Agreement. This is the same organization that rejected and defeated the James Bay Phase II hydroelectric proposal of the early 1990s, and that later held their own referendum against Québec’s plan to separate from Canada while taking the Crees and their territory with it. Shortly after the signing of the new agreement with Québec, Grand Chief Moses issued this statement:

“For years we have confronted development in our traditional territories and for years we have resisted it for two reasons:

“First, we believed that development was being done at the expense of our way of life. Second, development on our lands clearly benefited others who lived mostly in the south and we did not benefit in a substantial way. Few of us found permanent jobs in development and our communities remained lacking needed services.

“However, our analysis has fundamentally changed. For the first time the agreement is not based on damages, exchange, or surrender of rights, but rather upon the recognition of our rights to resources. The Crees not only become part of the developmental process, but become part of the decision-making process and planning process for future development on our traditional territories, for the first time.

“Frankly this disturbs some people. Many have become used to the idea of indigenous peoples as the universal opponents of all development… . Having fought for years at the United Nations to have the right to benefit from our own resources, it is difficult now to hear people say we should not exercise our right to participate in the resource economy.”

The New Relationship Agreement

What is it about this new Agreement that the Grand Chief sees as a break with the colonial past? Is he right to claim that this is, in fact, a break with the colonial past? The new agreement promises a new relationship on a nation-to-nation basis between the Crees and Québec characterized by “cooperation, partnership and mutual respect.” Development is to be “sustainable” and “compatible with the Cree way of life.” These are big words – what do they mean? The Agreement is supposed to resolve the sometimes acrimonious and always litigious relations that existed between the parties pretty much since the signing of the James Bay and Northern Québec Agreement in 1975.

Under the new Agreement, the Crees assume the responsibility for implementing what Québec undertook itself to do for the Crees in the 1975 treaty. The Agreement provides for a base amount of funding to carry out these promises of approximately $70 million per year over 50 years. The Crees will use this money at their discretion to support community development and local and regional economic development, as called for under section 28 of the 1975 treaty. The funding will be indexed according to the increase in the revenues from resource development (mining, forestry and hydroelectricity) from the whole extent of the Cree traditional lands, not just from the Cree community lands.

In addition to this, the Agreement calls for the creation of a new forestry regime that protects more forest than was called for in the previous Québec Forest Act, and is based upon close cooperation between the forest companies and Cree trappers.

The Agreement also gives Cree consent to Hydro-Québec, submitting the Eastmain 1A/Rupert Diversion Project to an environmental review process that would decide whether the project would go ahead and, were it to do so, under what conditions. This project would flood an area of 350 square kilometres and, if approved, Hydro-Québec agrees to renounce its rights to the much larger NBR Project, which would have required 6,500 square kilometres of flooding.

The Agreement gets “re-opened” after 50 years with the intent of negotiating a new package at that time. This is important, since it opens the space for ongoing nation-to-nation negotiations, rather than the once-and-for-all model that has dominated modern treaty making.

Still a Colonial Relationship?

Is the Agreement still a colonial relationship? Critics of the Cree-Québec deal tend to say three things:

  • The Agreement is just another agreement between the Crees and Hydro-Québec to approve yet another hydroelectric project.
  • The Agreement was forced on the Crees, as it was decided too quickly and the Crees did not have the time to really decide about the proposal.
  • The Crees should have all of the revenues coming from all development on their traditional lands and, until their sovereignty over those lands is recognized, they are stuck in a colonial relationship with Québec and Canada.

Is It Just Another Cash-for-Project Deal?

In fact, under the agreement the indexed $70 million will flow to the Crees whether or not the new project is approved. If the project is built, the Cree annual funds will increase by about 12 per cent. What the Agreement does is give the Crees an interest in future mining, forestry and hydroelectric development. Moreover, the funding is greater in value than any land-claim agreement signed between Canada and an Aboriginal people to date.

The Agreement is not just about money. It establishes a new forestry regime that gives the Crees a say in how forestry companies plan their annual tree cutting. The Crees will also receive an increased annual allotment of commercial wood in the amount of 350,000 cubic metres and will receive the support of Québec for increasing Cree employment in the forestry sector.

There are also a whole variety of similar initiatives with respect to mining, future projects, the hiring of game wardens and other matters, including some other negotiations. Under the Agreement, since 2002 the Crees have been able to negotiate a settlement of past grievances in regard to Hydro-Québec’s obligations to them on the La Grande Project. The Agreement just signed calls for $7 million per year of perpetual remedial works on the project to be carried out by the Crees. In addition, the Crees and Québec are just completing an agreement to vastly improve health and social services in their communities.

Given its scope, the new Agreement is hardly just another cash-for-project deal.

Was the Agreement Forced on the Crees?

The Agreement was negotiated over a period of a month in the autumn of 2001, under a mandate conferred upon Grand Chief Moses at the Cree General Assembly in August. When the Cree proposal was accepted by Premier Landry, it was agreed that the negotiation would be carried out in a confidential manner. Why was this done?

It was done because it was felt that the idea of an Aboriginal people having a share of resource-development revenues derived from the whole of their traditional territory was such a break with the status quo that it would not be readily understood by many people in Canada. Certainly the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs, with its layers of policy and approval processes vested in maintaining the status quo would have killed any such Agreement. The proposal touched so many areas of public administration that the very possibility of negotiating a package covering all of the problems was uncertain. The controversy surrounding the British Columbia claims raised the spectre of scorched-earth political tactics being used by interest groups to undermine the Agreement.

When the Agreement-in-Principle was signed in November, 2001, Grand Chief Ted Moses received the unanimous support of his chiefs, all of whom signed, as well. They then undertook a tour of the communities to explain the Agreement and to seek approval to complete a final Agreement. The final Agreement was completed in late December and, in January, another tour of the communities was made. Only after this second tour was completed did the chiefs of the nine communities decided that each would determine its own decision-making process, and would carry it out independently of the others. Each held a referendum, and, of the 65 per cent of the electorate that voted, some 70 per cent approved of the deal. Overall, the turnout was about normal for a Cree election, although some complained it was not strong enough to be a clear approval. Chisasibi, the only community to vote against the agreement, voted “no” by a margin of 51 per cent. Mistissini, a community of comparable size (about 3,000) was the community most in favour of the Agreement, with a “yes” vote of 80 per cent.

There are those who complain about the speed of the whole process. However, the Crees discussed the Agreement at length and they made their decision. Hydro-Québec and the Province of Québec did not say: “Sign the Agreement or else.” In fact, they proposed to undertake alternative developments elsewhere if the proposed project was, in fact, rejected outright.

Should the Crees Be Recognized as Sovereign over Their Lands and Therefore Receive All the Development Revenues?

It is probably a universal truth that all “peoples” seek greater control over their homeland and recognition of their sovereignty. It is also true that, as time goes on, states and nation-states are increasingly cooperating and defining conditions that constrain unilateral action – except, of course, the United States. Such constraints are something that states must take account of and have the effect of reducing, or at least conditionalizing, sovereignty. It is also true that in a capitalist economy it is corporations and banks, not governments, that largely reap the benefits of development and pay the costs and assume the risks incurred in implementing projects. The exceptions to this are, of course, crown corporations like Manitoba Hydro and Hydro-Québec.

The point Aboriginal peoples in both provinces often make is that they suffer the consequences of the hydroelectric developments – flooded lands, exclusion from development, under-funded community development, education and health services, and so forth – while the majority down south benefits from cheap electricity and refuses to share those benefits through spending on northern development. Prior to the New Relationship Agreement, such complaints were common among Québec Cree communities. But the practical issue is not how Aboriginal peoples can separate from Québec or Canada, but how they can best express their own sovereignty as one of the levels of government that share in the sovereignty of the Canadian federation through the constitution.

Within this framework, Aboriginal peoples, the provinces and territories, and the Government of Canada must work together so that Aboriginal peoples can develop strong and healthy communities and nations. It is to the detriment of Canada that it continues to pursue a policy based on the extinguishment of Aboriginal title, rather than upon recognition and ongoing long-term relationships with Aboriginal nations.

Colonialism Must Be Beaten Where It Is Found By Those Who Find It

The Cree New Relationship Agreement fits the situation in northern Québec. Other, similar arrangements are possible across Canada, but each will have its own characteristics particular to the economic and social realities of each particular Aboriginal people, territory and province. If the Québec Crees manage to develop their communities and to become even more important players in the regional economy, then they may well overcome the disempowerment, poverty and marginalization typical of those in colonial relationships with larger states.

Colonialism continues to exist in the Cree relationship to Canada. The dead weight of Canadian Aboriginal policy delays destabilizes or threatens to undermine every positive move that the Crees make under the New Relationship Agreement. This is the next dragon that must be slain if the Crees of James Bay Québec are to realize the full potential of the 1975 Agreement.

Brian Craik is director of federal relations for the Grand Council of the Crees.


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