The Grand Council of the Crees

Address By Grand Chief Dr. Ted Moses: The 11th of November is a Cree Holiday

The 11th of November is a Cree Holiday

Posted: 2001-10-26

The 11th of November is a Cree national holiday. On the 11th of November 1975 we signed the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. That agreement was the culmination of years of struggle to protect the rights of the Cree People. And when I say "struggle" I mean struggle in its most literal and factual sense.

Consider this: The James Bay Project Project La Grande, was undertaken without our consent, without consultation, without environmental impact studies, without taking into consideration in any way that it was being built on land where people lived, where our people got their food, where our people were buried, where our history took place as recorded in the thousands of names we gave to everything on the land, where our people had lived for literally thousands of years. Hard as it may be to believe now, we only found out that there was a James Bay Project because we heard about it on the radio.

At the time we did not have a means to express our views to the larger society, nor were we organized to oppose such a massive project with the vast financial backing and power of the provincial government behind it. We did not know what the project was. For most of our people their only experience with dams were the ones beavers made. And we had no formal sense of our own legal or human rights or entitlements except for the feeling of moral indignation that most people experience when they feel that they are being wronged or cheated.

Canada did not come to the Crees and offer to defend our rights. Canada did nothing. And when we complained that our rights were being violated, Quebec said that we had no rights in the James Bay Territory.

I emphasize all of this because there has been a mythology built up about the James Bay Agreement, and I want to de-mythologize what happened and what was done. Our opposition to the project was unfairly characterized as disloyalty to Canada and Quebec, and an attack on ordinary Quebecois who wanted jobs and economic development. We were the "spoilers" who where trying to stop development so that we could continue to "live in the past". Our hunting, fishing, and trapping way of life was disparaged and ridiculed for standing in the way of development and progress.

When we finally managed to have our case heard by Justice Malouf, Quebec told the court that we did not have legal rights to the territory - that we were "squatters" in the legal sense of that term, people without title or rights who were illegal occupants on land that belonged to someone else.

During all of those months that we were at trial, Justice Malouf kept an open mind. Justice Malouf was told about things that had never before come before a Canadian court. We had to explain how we lived, what we ate, what we did on the land, how we hunted, how we fished, where we lived in the winter, how we traveled in Eeyou Istchee, the Cree Territory.

We had to explain things that all of us took for granted as Crees - how the land gave our people sustenance, and why we could not live as Crees if the land was destroyed.

After months of testimony before the court, during which construction of the James Bay Project continued, Judge Malouf was convinced that our people were telling the truth about our way of life on the land. He also determined that Quebec and Canada had not respected the conditions of the 1898 and 1912 Quebec Acts that had added to Quebec the land that today makes up Northern Quebec. The required settlement with the aboriginal peoples had never taken place.

Canada had eventually loaned us the funding for the court case, but Canada's official position in the case was "alert neutrality". We might well ask: neutral to what, the violation of our rights or neutral to the development of Northern Quebec?

When after only four days of consideration, the Malouf judgement (which had taken several months to hear) was overturned by the Quebec Court of Appeal, the Crees sought leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada. The possibility of an eventual Cree victory there, created the pressure to seek a settlement through negotiation. It took two more years to get to the 11th of November 1975.

This is a very short explanation of my use of the word "struggle", and the reason for our optimism and celebration upon the signing of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement in 1975. We had reached a settlement, and there was every indication that there was the necessary good will from Quebec and Canada and our people to carry out the work that needed to be done to implement the Agreement.

The James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement is a development agreement for Northern Quebec. It permits certain designated economic development projects, and sets out regimes that govern future development to make it compatible with the Cree and Inuit ways of life. It also provides for social and community development through the establishment of school boards, health boards, community development, housing, schools, recreational and administrative facilities - in short everything communities need to function; emergency and police services, courts, youth facilities, water treatment, everything.

The James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement also strives to attach economic development activity to social and community development activity. The massive construction projects in Eeyou Istchee and Nunavik were designated as sources of employment, business development, and contract opportunities for the Crees and Inuit in the territory. Economic development made possible by the Agreement was intended to drive social and community development. Both Canada and Quebec committed themselves to this objective.

One needs only to read John Ciaccia's introduction to the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement to understand the vision of this document. John was Premier Bourassa's Special Representative and Chief Negotiator, and I have never doubted his good faith that this is what the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement was intended to do. This is my sincere belief and it was our understanding in 1975.

Having said all of this, I should tell you that I had not intended to be here today. In fact I had asked everyone at the Grand Council of the Crees and the Cree Regional Authority not to participate in this meeting. I told our people that after almost 26 years of attempting to implement the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement we had nothing to celebrate. I certainly was not going to celebrate. I have spent the last 26 years of my life trying to have the governments and Hydro-Quebec respect and implement the agreement they signed in 1975. That I can tell you has been another struggle.

I do not know how many times we have had to go to court to have the Agreement implemented or respected. We have spent millions of dollars on litigation. We have been embroiled in endless negotiations. All of this, simply, to have what we agreed to with Canada and Quebec in 1975.

Another mythology has grown up regarding this prolonged period of disagreement and controversy. We have always understood that the aboriginal rights contained in the JBNQA are treaty rights. During the constitutional negotiations in 1981, an amendment to the Constitution was approved which confirmed that the aboriginal rights contained in land claims agreements are treaty rights, and must be respected as treaty rights.

The fact that our JBNQA rights are treaty rights is highly significant. It means that the JBNQA must be respected not only in its letter, but also in its spirit and intent.

Another persistent myth is that the JBNQA can not be implemented because it is poorly worded, vague, ambiguous, and non-binding. Newly approved land claim agreements are now accompanied by so-called implementation agreements, which, however, are deemed at the insistence of Canada, not to create treaty rights. Federal officials now claim that since the 1975 JBNQA does not have an implementation agreement, it can not be implemented.

Federal officials have also claimed that the JBNQA is non-binding - that it is only a contract. They have even argued this before the courts. Recently, they went so far as to claim that the JBNQA is not protected as a land claim agreement under the Constitution, and that our rights under the Agreement are therefore not treaty rights at all!

I find it difficult to understand how an agreement reached in 1975 that promised so much, and was backed by so many people with such good faith has since been - overwhelmed, countermanded, and repudiated by people who do not understand or have been instructed to explicitly deny and diminish the commitments that were solemnly made by their political predecessors.

I was there in 1974 and 1975 as the principal negotiator. There are others in this room today who know the promise of this treaty, its spirit and intent. They also understand that it creates permanent rights, rights that continue in perpetuity. What a shame that we have had to argue about such fundamental things. Is it so hard to see that in order to develop themselves and their communities, people need sufficient housing, training, and the institutions and means to open the door to participation?

I think of the recently signed Nisg'a Treaty in British Colombia. It was approved with much fanfare and promise, as was the JBNQA in 1975. It is now Canada's "flavor of the month". Will it too be subjected to the same process of denial, and repudiation that we Crees have been subjected to over the last 26 years, attempts to use the implementation process to reduce, cut-off, or minimize the benefits that are due to the Nisg'a People under the treaty?

But I will not dwell on these things. Treaties are called treaties because of one imperative. The rule of treaties is "pacta sunt servanda" - agreements must be respected. What characterizes a treaty is the requirement that the parties to the treaty do what they agreed to do. This is the most simple rule of law imaginable - that solemn promises be kept. One party to a treaty can not, and may not unilaterally repudiate what it has agreed to do.

In the case of the JBNQA we have a development agreement for Northern Quebec, for the Cree and Inuit peoples, for Quebecois. I have been thinking about what we have done in recent days with Premier Landry, and it has given me some insight that I would like to share with you.

Of course a treaty should be respected by the parties who signed it. That is the rule of law. Of course one party should not attempt to evade its obligations through technical interpretations that attack the spirit and intent of the treaty. That is also the rule of law. Of course the treaty must be implemented in good faith. That is also the rule of law.

Those who seek to interpret the Agreement so that it does not include the development of the Cree people and our communities stand against our development. When they do this they stand against the development of Northern Quebec. If the Agreement is to be implemented, then it will take people with vision, such as Premier Landry, to implement it.

But let's step back for a moment. What we have is a development agreement signed in good faith in 1975. Ask yourselves: Who will benefit from the implementation of the JBNQA? What happens if the JBNQA is implemented?

The answer is very simple. If and when the JBNQA is implemented the vision in Mr. John Ciaccia's speech will become a reality. The Crees and Inuit will become genuinely involved as participants in Quebec's economy and therefore in Canada's economy. Our communities will grow and prosper. The regional economy will not be burdened by the stagnation of massive unemployment. There will be new sources of investment in the economy of the North, and this will spill over into every part of the economy.

Our aboriginal communities will not be plagued by chronic disease and pervasive social ills. Our young people will look forward to the future, because they will see a place for themselves in the traditional economy, or in the modern economy. We will have houses, fire departments, and police departments, and judges, and court houses, and rational regulation of development and all of the things John spoke and wrote about when the Agreement was signed 26 years ago.

This is what Premier Landry and I saw when we met to start this process of renewal a few months ago. We saw that it was in our mutual interest to make the JBNQA work, and that it served no government's interest, or any other interest to prevent its implementation. Our new agreement with Quebec is the beginning of a new relationship between the Crees and Quebec, one built on cooperation, a will to understand one another, and a commitment to develop the Territory together.

One of the persistent myths propagated by those who refuse to respect the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement is that it is not a good agreement. I have always said the opposite, that the fault is not the Agreement, but the failure to understand that the national interest lies in implementing the agreement in good faith.

Federal negotiators have tried for years to have the Crees sign a new so-called implementation agreement that would replace the JBNQA. We have always refused and we will refuse forever. We do not need to replace the JBNQA, we need to give it a much deserved measure of good faith, we need what it promises to our people.

I subjected the Agreement in Principle that we signed with Premier Landry on the 23rd of October to a test. Does it repudiate Cree rights? No. Does it cancel the JBNQA? No. Does it force unilateral changes upon the JBNQA? No. Does it deny our treaty rights? No. It passes this most crucial test, and therefore, I could sign it in good conscience.

If I am smiling today, it is because I can now celebrate. Premier Landry has demonstrated that he understands the advantage that everyone gains when the JBNQA is fully implemented. He has decided to work with the Crees to address the larger issues. I can celebrate, even if I had to wait 26 years.

There is another persistent myth about the JBNQA - that the Crees are confrontational, that we are unwilling to reach agreements, that we like to go to court, that we are against development. You will just have to judge for yourselves.

I will say this: We will protect our rights. We will not surrender rights. We do insist on being treated with respect and fairness.

Much remains to be done. The JBNQA must be fully implemented, and Canada must begin to see that the national interest will only be met when the JBNQA is fully implemented in good faith. I believe that Premier Landry has set an example, and has demonstrated the courage to include the Crees in his vision of the future.

Thank you