The Grand Council of the Crees

Crees and Trees: An Introduction

Impact of Forest Activity on the Crees Subsistence, A Fundamental Right

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In 1975 the Crees signed an out of court agreement after having failed to stop Québec from building the La Grande Hydro-electric Complex in Eeyou Astchee. The James Bay Northern Québec Agreement (JBNQA), confirmed in law the Crees right to subsist from the natural resources of their land as they had done for thousands of years. Furthermore these rights were to be protected by the Canadian constitution and were to take priority over and be protected from all other laws or forms of inappropriate development. In other words, the land and its resources were to be safeguarded from the kind of wholesale destruction that has flowed from natural resource development in other places.

Despite the rapid pace of change that we have faced in the last 30 years, we still are hunters. One third of the 12,000 Crees continue to live primarily from what the land provides. This way of life is at the heart of Cree tradition and forms the Cree sense of self and community. To ensure that our culture continues to flourish, our traditional ways of living with the land make up a regular part of the Cree school curriculum. Our children continue to learn the traditional skills in the hunting territories which are necessary for surviving in Eeyou Astchee. In this sense, the land is a key educational resource.

Hunting Territories Under Siege

The Cree hunting lands are divided into family hunting territories. Families harvest these territories in a cyclical manner, changing locations from year to year so as not exhaust the land's resources. In this fashion we have been able to live in balance with nature for thousands of years. Much of this balance can be attributed to our traditions of sharing and communal living. We have always believed the land's wealth belongs to the people who respect its finite capacity and live by the tradition of sharing. These traditions have sustained the Cree system of hunting territories and they remain the foundation of our culture.

However, these hunting territories are now under assault from logging companies that continue to clear-cut the forests. The continued destruction of territories in Eeyou Astchee threatens our way of life, endangers our culture, and violates our rights.

The Community of Waswanipi

The hunting lands of the community of Waswanipi have endured impacts of logging for the greatest period of time. On average thirty-eight percent of the trees on each territory have been cut in the last 25 years. Some of these hunting territories have had over 80% of their forests cleared. Over 25 years, the amount of forest cleared in Waswanipi territory is equivalent to seven family hunting territories. According to the Québec government's forest management plan for Eeyou Astchee, 100% of the forest in Waswanipi territory is slated for commercial logging. In human terms this means that over 100 families will eventually be displaced from their land.

Oujé-Bougamou, Nemaska, Mistissini, Waskaganish

A similar situation is unfolding in four other Cree communities whose hunting lands fall within the commercially designated forest. In the Cree community of Oujé-Bougoumou, two hours north of Waswanipi territory, 76% of the forest in hunting territories is allocated to be logged. Already several of Oujé-Bougoumou's territories have had over 30% of the forest cleared. Further to the north the communities of Waskaganish, Nemaska and Mistissini respectively have had 42%, 31% and 44% of their hunting forests earmarked for commercial cutting. Mistissini is already being logged.

Until recently both Nemaska and Waskaganish had been untouched by logging activity. However, as the logging companies continue pursuing policies of expansion, advance roads and camps are being constructed in the territories of these two communities. Once the infrastructure is in place the assault on these forests is set to begin.

It should be noted that the forests of these two communities are at the extreme northern limit of the commercial forest. It is still not clear if these forests, whose trees are a fraction in diameter and height of those in the south, will ever be able to regenerate due to the harshness of the environment and the existing method of logging. Bluntly put, these unique tracts of boreal forest may be lost forever.

Impacts of Opening Up The Territory

Until the early 1980s, public road access to Eeyou Astchee was limited to major highways. Logging roads were not considered public roads so access to the forests was controlled to a large extent. The government of Québec has since changed the law, classifying all roads in Eeyou Astchee as public. This has led to an increase in the number of non-native sport hunters in Eeyou Astchee.

Sport hunters have placed added pressure on animals like moose that already have suffered major habitat losses. Intensive clear-cutting removes the protective shelter for large animals and they become extremely vulnerable to hunters and poachers. It is no surprise that in areas where logging is the most extensive, the population of moose has collapsed.

The influx of non-native sport hunters has also led to an increase in theft and vandalism of Cree hunting camps. Cree hunters have reported thousands of dollars of equipment essential to their livelihood being either stolen or wrecked. Boats, motors, snowmobiles have been stolen while cabins have been burned or shot-up. Some non-native sport hunters have even illegally attempted to post land belonging to the Cree as private property. Official monitoring of Eeyou Astchee either by game wardens or police is insufficient and complaints made by the Crees are not acted upon. The situation is so bad that in some cases elderly hunters, repeatedly threatened by non-native sport hunters, have been forced off their land out of fear.

Beyond opening up Eeyou Astchee to non-native sport hunters and anglers, the logging roads have also enabled mining companies to increase their activities. In the past few years new mines have begun operating and the level of exploration has been stepped up. These activities have placed an added burden on the natural and human environment of Eeyou Astchee.

Who Benefits From Logging?

For the most part it is the company shareholders and company employees who derive most of the wealth from logging in Eeyou Astchee. Very few Crees are employed by forest companies. For example, the Barrette Chapais mill, which is located 22 km from the community of Oujé-Bougoumou, did not employ any Crees to fill its 400-450 mill and field positions in the summer of 1995.

The only jobs in logging for Crees are those that they have created themselves. Two of the five communities currently have small-scale companies operating on exclusive Cree land, but these opportunities in no way reflect an equitable sharing of the wealth of the resource. The forests of Eeyou Astchee represent 16% of Québec's total forest. In export dollars this works out to about $1 billion of the $6.5 billion that Québec's forest industry exported in 1993. Each year enormous amounts of wealth leave the territory and the only thing the Crees receive in return is environmental destruction in the form of clear-cuts, habitat and species loss, and polluted land and waters.

The government of Québec has deferred its legal responsibilities to the Crees by encouraging logging companies to make informal, nonbinding arrangements with individual trappers and communities. Companies have offered trappers a new cabin, boat or snowmobile for the right to move operations onto their hunting territories. These arrangements play on the financial vulnerability of the trappers and are equivalent to the time when aboriginal people were offered beads and blankets for their land. This is the level at which the Québec government views our right.

Conclusion

The Crees have not been silent about the impacts that forestry activity is having on Eeyou Astchee. We have striven for meaningful long-term change to the present situation. Over the last twenty-five years we have met with the Québec government many times only to be told to negotiate with the forestry companies. We have sat down with the companies only to be told that they are following the laws set by the provincial government. It would have been easy for us to address these problems with road blocks, but we should not be forced to break one law to have another law enforced. Our Treaty rights under the James Bay Northern Québec Agreement, our right to a land/resource base that has the environmental integrity to allow us to subsist as we have for thousands of years, is law under the Canadian Constitution. This law and our rights under it must not be superceded by ill-conceived provincial forestry legislation which places profits ahead of people.

We know that people in Canada, the U.S. and the rest of the international community also believe that fundamental human rights must take priority over environmentally destructive resource exploitation. This is why we have created this information booklet. We hope, upon reviewing this material, that you will inform your local government representatives and Québec representatives of your feelings on this situation. In Québec please contact:

Minister of Natural Resources
5700, 4th Avenue West, Suite A. 308
Charlesbourg, Quebec, Canada
G1H 6R1
Tel: (418) 643-7295
Fax: (418) 643-4318

or

Minster of the Environment
675 Boul. René-Lévesque E.
Marie-Guyart Building, 30th Floor
Quebec City, Quebec, Canada
G1R 5V7
Tel: (418) 643-8257

Québec Sovereignty

The present government in Québec is committed to separating from Canada to form a new country. The leaders of this government have attempted to win the confidence of the Crees for their goal by promising special concessions. This is the same government that has opted to ignore the Crees' existing rights concerning forestry, the protection of the environment, and our way of life. The promise of partnership in all forms of development in the Treaty (1975) has been denied through Québec's unsustainable resource policies.

"Your rights," we are told, "are a matter to be taken up with the forestry companies which are cutting your lands." Once sovereign, will this government then adopt policies which protect our hunting lands and animal habitat, and encourage our participation in the management of Eeyou Astchee? Not likely, considering the heavy financial burden of separation. It is more likely that Québec would adopt even more aggressive resource exploitive policies in an effort to boost its economy. In this scenario, the possibility for a just and equitable partnership between the Crees and Québec is even more remote.