The Grand Council of the Crees

Growing crisis over wealth-sharing from resources on Cree lands concerns Annual General Assembly

Posted: 0000-00-00

The fact that immense wealth --- several billion dollars a year --- is being taken off lands in Eeyou Astchee, our Cree homeland, and that we Crees get no share of this wealth, either in the form of royalties, business opportunities, or work, emerged as a major concern at our 1997 Annual General Assembly in Oujé-Bougoumou. "Sharing of Cree natural resources" was the title of one of the most important resolutions passed by a worried Assembly.

This Assembly is, in a sense, the annual Parliament of the Cree Nation. Unlike the Euro-Canadian Parliaments, it is not restricted to elected representatives, but is open to every Cree who is registered as a beneficiary under the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA) of 1975. Everyone of them is entitled to attend, to speak to any resolution or in any debate, and to vote. Every Cree political and administrative leader, every Cree organization, business or entity, must report to this Assembly every year and face the detailed questions and criticisms of the people they represent.

This year was notable also for two other things: it marked the tenth year of the leadership of Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come, on which he received many congratulations and tributes; and this is the last year in which the Crees receive the compensation monies due under Section 25.2 of the JBNQA. The total received has been $136,625,450, although in real terms, taking inflation into account, the sum is nearer to $70 million.

What emerged from the three-day Assembly was a growing sense of frustration among Crees --- grassroots people, as well as leaders --- that, not only are they not benefiting from the wealth being taken off their lands, but that their way of life, especially in the southern parts of the territory, is slowly but inexorably being hacked to pieces by the forest industry.

Also worrisome for almost all Crees is the flagrant violation of so many of the undertakings made in the JBNQA. Crees were supposed to have had some priority in employment in all the lands covered by the Agreement; were supposed to have had a role in decision-making about future "developments" in the territory; were supposed to have been to some extent protected against the impact of logging, roads, and other disturbances by provisions in the Agreement which guaranteed them their right to hunt, trap and fish and use the forest. In none of these fields has the Quebec government made any effort to implement the Agreement in any way acceptable to the Crees. What has happened, and is happening at an escalating rate, is that Quebec is trying to populate the territory with more and more permanent French-speaking outsiders, so as to validate their claim that Eeyou Astchee is a region of Quebec just like all the others. Crees have been given almost no employment in the forest industry, or in running the hydro-electric structures that now dominate the region. Our Grand Council of the Crees, our main political organization, had to spend millions of dollars on an arduous international campaign to bring the threatened Great Whale hydro project to a halt. But, having lost that battle, the Quebec government appears to be gearing up for another effort to harness the Great Whale and Rupert rivers, through a different scheme involving water transfers rather than new hydro schemes as proposed before.

This is the background against which the 1997 Assembly was held. And these were the major themes put before the Assembly in the annual report delivered by Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come, who heads both the Grand Council of the Crees (Eeyou Astchee) and the Cree Regional Authority.

Report of Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come:

In his annual report to the Cree people, Grand Chief Coon Come says the Cree Nation has reached a crossroads in its relations with the Quebec and Canadian governments. Cree people are demanding "more than ever before" the "full recognition of our status and rights, and the right to benefit meaningfully from the resources and economic potential of Eeyou Astchee, our land. Now is the time to develop and discuss appropriate and effective strategies to a achieve these goals," he said.

He said that when the Cree people signed the JBNQA in 1975, "they hoped it would provide sufficient guarantees that our people would be able to maintain our society, culture and way of life, and to survive as a people to fight another day." He conceded that the era of the Agreement had brought major improvements to the difficult lives led by our grandparents and parents, but some younger Crees are now questioning whether the things "that governments now say were given up were a fair and just price to pay."

"The Crees have important rights as an Aboriginal people and as residents in Canada and the Province of Quebec. These rights exist independently of the Agreement, and are reflected in Canadian law, including the Constitution. But the Agreement resulted in the Crees entering into a formal relationship with the two governments, and gave rise to special rights in favour of the Crees."

The JNBQA balance sheet, good and bad:

Chief Coon Come said the rights gained by the Crees are political, social, economic, cultural and others. On the positive side, these included:

Political rights such as guarantees of citizenship, certain aspects of self-government, membership, nation-to-nation relations.

Social rights such as education, health, social services, justice, housing, policing and community infrastructure.

Economic rights such as economic development, the hunting, fishing, trapping regime, training and guarantees of employment and preferential access to contracts in the context of development in the territory.

Cultural rights overlap with many other areas, but include education, our right to continue with our language, culture and traditional pursuits.

Other rights include the right to participate in development of laws and regulations concerning the environment, and to special participation in assessment of the environmental and social impacts of proposed developments in the territory.

"However, said the Chief, there is also "another darker side to the Agreement.

"We have always declared that through the Agreement the Crees gave permission for one hydro project in our territory. The governments have stated, however, that they believe we surrendered and gave up all our rights, title, and claims in and to our lands and waters. The governments have also asserted that we gave up all rights to revenues and royalties from the resources extracted from our lands.

"These assertions --- and the facts of the position we now find ourselves in with respect to lands and resources --- have led some Crees, including some leaders who negotiated the Agreement, to call the Agreement a massive land-theft."

Chief Coon Come said the Agreement contains "hundreds of millions of dollars of promises that have not been kept by governments, including in such areas as community and economic development.

This failure to implement so much of the Agreement " has had disastrous results for our people" and once again the governments "must be reminded that these are binding obligations that must be fulfilled".

Six major areas of concern for the future

Chief Coon Come named six areas of major concern for the future:

In response to these problems, "it is clear that governments, and particularly the government of Quebec, intend to continue saying that they have extinguished the Crees' rights to lands and resources in the territory," said the Chief. "It is also far from clear that the governments intend to allow the Crees to benefit directly and meaningfully from the billions of dollars that are extracted from Eeyou Astchee each year.

"The bottom line is that present and future generations of the Cree Nation are being denied a fair share of the extraordinary wealth which is being taken from Eeyou Astchee.

"...our expanding Cree population sees Eeyou Astchee being stripped of its resources while our people receive no direct benefit whatsoever. We see our people forced to suffer the environmental and social impacts of the destructive treatment of the land and water. We see our Cree councils and other entities being forced to continuously fight for government handouts for our communities to survive.

"The government of Quebec claims jurisdiction and ownership of all lands and resources in the territory (with the exception of Category I lands, over which Quebec asserts resource rights, but does not contribute any share of the costs). Canada does nothing to dispute this position."

Against this background of immense and growing difficulties, Chief Coon Come outlined what Crees want:

He doubted that, even if implemented, the Agreement provides what the Crees need. "The standards of just a few years ago are no longer the future of our people<" he said. "The Agreements and deals of just a few years ago may have been the best that could be done at the time, but...they are now very much below current standards.

"It is no longer acceptable that Aboriginal peoples remain dependent on successive government handouts.... Aboriginal peoples are entitled to ownership and jurisdiction of adequate resources and a direct and fair share of the benefit that is extracted from our traditional lands." The Crees had been saying this for a long time, said Chief Coon Come and our view has now been reinforced by the conclusions of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, delivered within the last year.

In spite of all problems, however, Chief Coon Come looks forward to a great future for the Cree people. We must resist the temptation to make side-deals that would compromise our fundamental human rights, he said. "We will be offered packages that sound good...but they should be carefully examined to see if they are good for all of our people, or good for only a few. If they are good for only a few, they must be rejected.

"We must defend our rights at any cost. Our rights are not just philosophy. Rights are also about how land and resources are fairly shared. We must demand at all levels that the arrangements we make are fully sustainable, equitable, contribute to self-sufficiency, and bring an end to handouts and dependence. This will take courage, unity of purpose and commitment on the part of all of us. We have no other choice."

The people have their say

It is not surprising, following the Grand Chief's lead, that a major priority of participants at the General Assembly was, in the words of perhaps the most important resolution, to obtain "a more equitable and just participation for the Cree Nation in the use of natural resources, both renewable and non-renewable, and the distribution of the revenues derived therefrom."

Resolution 18 --- an appeal for just and equitable treatment

That important resolution (No. 1997-18) recalls that the Crees have "full ownership, titles, rights, claims and interests in and to all minerals, trees, water and other resources in, under and over the traditional Cree territory pursuant to their status as a Nation and a distinct people"; that the JBNQA did not and does not completely extinguish all ownership, title, rights, claims and interests of the Crees to the minerals, trees, water and other resources in, under and over the territory; that the JBNQA does not provide a just, fair and appropriate share to the Crees of these resources; and that "certain companies and developers have benefited substantially from developing, extracting and exploiting the natural resources of the territory."

The resolution then mandates and delegates the Grand Council of the Crees (Eeyou Astchee) and the Cree Regional Authority to enter into discussions with the governments of Quebec and Canada and with "all developers operating in Cree traditional territory", to provide for "the most equitable and just Cree participation" in the use of natural resources, referred to above.

In these discussions, says the resolution, the focus should be on the receipt of royalties for the use of the natural resources, and this should be pursued without impact on the present or future levels of funding to which the Crees are or may become entitled.

Such royalties, when received, should be "dedicated to the development of the Cree communities, the creation of permanent employment opportunities for Cree youth, the caring for Cree elders, and other socio-economic purposes of benefit to the Cree communities."

Resolution 17 ---Opposed to diversion of Great Whale River

The continuing and never-ending nature of the battle to defend the Cree territories against outside incursions was indicated by a second highly important resolution titled, "Proposed diversion of the Whapmagoostui (Great Whale) River." This resolution recalled that although the government of Quebec indefinitely shelved the proposed Great Whale River hydro-electric project in 1994, Hydro-Quebec had just recently made public a plan to divert the Whapmagoostui River, and the Rupert River, into the existing reservoirs of the La Grande complex. The resolution recalled that this was now being studied as part of a Hydro-Quebec plan to sell surplus power outside of Quebec.

"It is a known fact that this river diversion would totally submerge Epsikameesh (Lake Bienville), the headwaters of the Great Whale River, and disrupt the drinking water supply for the communities of Whapmagoostui and Kuujawaribik," stated the resolution. "Epsikameesh is a sacred area, a major calving ground for the inland caribou, and a sanctuary for marine life, water fowl and other forms of wildlife," and the proposed diversion of the river would have the same impact as if the James Bay II scheme (now shelved) were to have gone ahead.

The Assembly, in passing the resolution, recalled that in previous assemblies the Cree people had expressed their wish to protect their land, water and wildlife resources, and to affirm their rights and total control over their resources, and the 1997 Assembly declared "full support to the Whapmagoostui First Nation in its opposition to the proposed diversion of the Great Whale River", and mandated the Grand Council and Cree Regional Authority to do everything necessary to protect their traditional lands, water and resources in Eeyou Astchee, and to give financial support to Whapmagoostui in their battle.

Drastic impact of forestry on trappers and hunters

The General Assembly gave unanimous support to a resolution from the Cree Nation of Mistissini urging special support for Cree trappers and their families who have been adversely affected by forestry activities on their traplines. The resolution says that forestry companies "have ignored the impacts of their activities on the livelihood, economic self-reliance and special interests of the traditional Cree tallyman and his family." The fundamental Aboriginal rights of the tallyman and his family and community "are protected under the Constitution Act of Canada, 1982, the JBNQA, and the laws of the Cree", but in spite of this neither the federal nor Quebec government nor the forestry companies have adequately recognized these rights, and the "stewardship role" of the Cree tallymen over Cree traditional territories. The resolution expressed concern that the process of reviewing, developing, establishing and implementing a means of protecting these fundamental rights requires so much time, and human and technical resources that it could "act to prejudice the livelihood needs of the Cree tallyman and his immediate family." In these circumstances, "interim remedial assistance" should be made available until "a more comprehensive solution" can be found. This requires "immediate action."

The General Assembly agreed with Mistissini to support "the livelihood and self-reliance goals of the Cree tallymen, including respect for their Aboriginal and treaty rights to hunt, fish and trap, and pursue the cultural and spiritual aspects of the Cree livelihood." These rights were declared to be "a birthright...of all Crees. In order to recognize and protect the stewardship role of the Cree tallymen, the Assembly called for the Grand Council and the CRA, the Cree Trappers" Association and all Cree Nations in Eeyou Astchee to establish such an interim remedial assistance program. The Board of Compensation, says the resolution, should set up such a program until "a more comprehensive solution can be found."

Trappers and hunters in the Whapmagoostui area in the far north of the Cree territories, have also been having a hard time (although they are beyond the reach of the forestry activities of the commercial companies). A resolution approved by the General Assembly declared that these trappers were having "a difficult time meeting their economic needs" as a result of "deficiencies in the Income Security Program (link to this under Cree Entities, when it is established in a week or two), high costs of transportation, long distances to traplines, isolation and the high cost of rent and electricity." (This is one reflection of the increasing monetarization of Cree life, even for trappers and hunters: people whose lifestyle has traditionally been attached to the non-monetarized life of the bush, nowadays find themselves confronted with paying rent and services for new housing in the villages).

The resolution from Whapmagoostui, which was approved by the assembly, says that Whapmagoostui now "supports its trappers and hunters through its operation and maintenance funding, in order to ensure that they can continue to carry on their traditional harvesting." But it notes that the Income Security program and the Cree Trappers Association were established to provide support for Cree hunters and trappers, and comments that "it is unacceptable...that (these programs) should have insufficient funds to secure the ability of Cree hunters and trappers to continue their traditional pursuits."

The Assembly therefore agreed to fully support and endorse the Whapmagoostui trappers and hunters in the pursuit of the Eeyou traditional way of life; to mandate the Grand Council to provide the necessary support to Whapmagoostui; and that, given the particular circumstances of the Whapmagoostui trappers and hunters, a support program should be established for them.

Continuing fallout from JBNQA

The JBNQA has had a dominant influence on Cree life ever since it was signed in 1975, and every Annual Assembly has to deal with issues arising from the way it has been implemented, or, more usually, not implemented. This year's Assembly noted this as the last year in which The Crees will receive compensation monies payable under the JBNQA. And with the end of the era in which lump sums of money arrive in the bank account of the Board of Compensation each year, Crees are very concerned to ensure that the remaining capital is used wisely, and preserved for the benefit of future generations. The Assembly approved a resolution declaring that "it is appropriate at this time that the Cree Nation review the intent and use of the compensation funds received...together with the performance of the investments made with such funds...." Such a review, says the resolution, would "also clarify the concerns expressed at this meeting...regarding certain investments made, and ventures undertaken..."

With these facts in mind, it was decided to hold a special meeting of all members of the Cree Nation to review the entire question of the compensation monies, to assess performance of the investments made, and to recommend guidelines for future investment and use of the remaining monies.

To that end all Cree entities were directed by the Assembly to co-operate in compiling and evaluating the information necessary for such a review.

Many other resolutions dealt with the continuing fallout from the JBNQA. In addition to those dealing with forestry impacts (already described) these included:

Resolution 1997-21: Debris-clearing in the La Grande Complex.:

Construction of the La Grande complex required the cutting of thousands of acres of forest. The debris from this has remained in the reservoirs and forebays of the affected waterways. Under section 8.3 of the JBNQA, the Societé d'énergie de la Baie James (SEBJ) is responsible for the cost of clearing, debris-control and other similar matters designed to facilitate Cree hunting, fishing and trapping. There is now a need to evaluate the debris that has collected in the waterways, so that a comprehensive clean-up can be planned. The Assembly urged that a debris-clearing project be undertaken throughout the La Grande waterways, that SEBJ be asked to fund an evaluation of the extent of the required work, the level of human and technical resources needed, the means of financing the project, and the appropriate consultation with the affected Cree communities.

Resolution 1997-30: Recognition of Washaw Sibi Eeyou Association:

A group of Crees who live in the Amos-La Sarre area outside the area covered by the JBNQA, who are beneficiaries under the Agreement, have formed themselves into the Washaw Sibi (Harricana river) Eeyou Association, and the Assembly formally recognized the historical, cultural and family bonds between them and the Cree Nation, especially the Crees of Waskaganish, and agreed to their having official observer status at meetings of the Grand Council and CRA. The Assembly agreed to support the Association's efforts to obtain full rights and benefits under the JBNQA, and mandated the Grand Council, the CRA, the Cree Board of Health and Social Services, the Cree School Board and the Crees of Waskaganish First Nation to give effect to that decision. There is a 10-year limit to benefits under the JBNQA for anyone living outside the area of the agreement.

Resolution 1997 - 22: Request by Eastmain for access to the capital of the Mitigating Works Fund:

This is an issue that arises from the La Grande (1986) Agreement under which supplementary payments were made to the Crees to cover extensions to the first phase of the La Grande project. The Cree Nation of Eastmain raised the issue, stating that under the JBNQA in 1975 a Mitigating Works Fund (known as SOTRAC) was created in order to fund remedial measures to offset future unknown impacts of the La Grande complex on the Cree way of life. In 1986 this fund was transferred to the James Bay Eeyou Company (a company based in Chisasibi that was set up to deal with the 1986 Agreement), and under a Cree Inter-Band Treaty of that year, it was agreed that the communities of Chisasibi, Wemindji and Eastmain, which had suffered the most impacts from the La Grande project, would continue to be the beneficiaries of "virtually all" of the SOTRAC funds that remained. This amounted to $15,006,000, in 1987, plus interest, etc, accrued since that time. Under the various agreements signed at that time this money "may be used for the benefit of any of the Cree bands or any individual Cree", and, as of the year 2001, any monies in that fund not used for mitigating measures "may be used measures..." If this happens, Eastmain argues, it would "deprive the Cree Nation of Eastmain of considerable assets in view of the fact that the other eight Cree Nations have proposed a distribution formula....resulting in a very minimal percentage being awarded to...Eastmain." Eastmain asserted its "full and exclusive rights" along with Chisasibi and Wemindji to this money, demanded immediate release of $211,000 (owing to Eastmain before the Funds were transferred to the James Bay Eeyou Company in 1987), and asked that the three communities get together to decide on a formula for sharing the residue. The Assembly agreed to support Eastmain's suggestion. In another resolution the Assembly supported Eastmain's efforts to arrange a meeting with the board of directors of Eeyou Company to be held in Eastmain.

Resolution 1997-16: 55th parallel:

The Whapmagoostui First Nation raised the issue of the 55th parallel, established in the JBNQA as the southern boundary of the Kativik Regional Government. Whapmagoostui says that the boundary does not reflect the limits of the traditional lands either of Whapmagoostui or of the Inuit of northern Quebec, with the result that Kativik now has the right of first refusal with respect to non-native outfitting camps that are on Cree traditional territories, which is prejudicial to Whapmagoostui's interests. The Assembly supported Whapmagoostui's concerns, and mandated Grand Council representatives to take part in discussions between Whapmagoostui and the Inuit "regarding management of the land, water and wildlife resources in areas where the Cree and Inuit have mutual interests."

Council of elders

The Assembly supported a request for formal recognition of a regional Council of Elders, and asked the nine Cree communities to do the same.

Problem of alcohol

The Assembly reaffirmed a 1994 resolution authorizing an effort to amend the Cree-Naskapi (of Quebec) Act so that Cree First Nations should have the power to limit the rights and freedoms of members of their own communities "regarding the importation and possession of alcohol." The Assembly noted that nothing had happened so far, and asked that the matter be pursued with a view to allowing "comprehensive regulation of the use and possession of alcohol within the traditional territory of the Cree Nation."

New Arena for Nemaska

The Assembly supported the intention of Nemaska to ask the provincial and federal governments for help with the funding of a new arena, needed to fulfill the recreational opportunities of Nemaska youth.

Financial support for Cree students

The Assembly expressed its concern that funding for studies by many Cree students is inadequate, making it difficult for them to complete their studies, and asked the Cree School Board to provide "appropriate financial and other support", especially for students whose status changes from full-time to part-time during the course of an academic year. The Board should review its policies to ensure that they reflect the needs of its post-secondary students, stated resolution 1997-20.

James Bay Cree Communications Society

A long resolution dealt with the need for the Grand Council and CRA to support the James Bay Cree Communications Society. The resolution recalled that this society was incorporated in 1981, mandated to operate radio and television services to the Cree people, to publish and circulate newspapers, magazines or other print media, to survey communications needs and conduct projects necessary to meet such needs, and, in general, to deal with communications as "a vital component of self-government" in Cree relationships with outside organizations.

Meetings in Cree communities

The Assembly urged that the Cree entities should "demonstrate their presence in Cree communities, and support them economically by holding their meetings there"; and directed the Grand Council and the CRA to do that, so that "members of the Cree communities (can) participate in such meetings as observers", and make presentations to them as required.
The next Annual General Assembly will be held in Chisasibi on a date to be determined.

Discrimination against Cree hockey team

A resolution (1997-29) recalled that Abitibi-Temiscamingue Midget AA Hockey League has twice refused to admit a Cree Nation team "for totally unacceptable reasons," and has instead admitted other teams in preference to the Crees. The Assembly resolved that the Grand Council and CRA should continue to support the effort, and that the Community Services Agency of the CRA, in conjunction with the team's Board of Directors, be directed to use, if necessary, political and legal measures to obtain entry into the league.

Cree Nation Youth Council

The Assembly endorsed a wide range of resolutions taken at the Annual General Assembly of Cree Nation Youth Council held in Mistissini in July. These included: