The Grand Council of the Crees

Grand Chief Dr. Ted Moses' address at the Cree Nation Annual General Assembly in Waswanipi

Grand Chief Dr. Ted Moses' address at the Cree Nation Annual General Assembly in Waswanipi

Posted: 2005-08-09

This Annual General Assembly being held these three days here in Waswanipi marks an important milestone in the history of the Cree Nation.  This General Assembly marks the completion of 30 years of our existence as a Nation, 30 years of struggles for recognition of our rights as aboriginal people, 30 years of difficult decisions and 30 years of successes.

One of the purposes of our Annual General Assemblies is for us to chart a course, on behalf of the Cree people of Eeyou Istchee, for the future and to do so keeping in mind our highest ideals and our highest vision.  I believe, that after completing 30 years, it is the right time to review some of the highlights of the last 30 years to see where we have come from and to help us in articulating what that future course might look like.

Of course, our beginning as a unified Cree Nation began with the announcement of the construction of the James Bay Hydroelectric Project, the largest dam in the world at the time, and our determined opposition to that project.  After a significant court challenge which acknowledged that we Cree people had aboriginal rights which needed to be respected, serious negotiations began.  These negotiations led to the signing of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement.

The JBNQA represented the beginning of our efforts to take control over our own affairs and to determine our own futures.  The Agreement produced the Cree-Naskapi Act, which was our first step toward Cree governance, the Cree Board of Health and Social Services, the Cree School Board, the Cree Trappers Association, the Income Security Program, all of which were early steps toward transforming existing institutions to meet Cree needs and Cree aspirations.

In those early years we also saw a very serious outbreak of gastroenteritis in a number of our communities which highlighted and drew attention to the need and the obligation on the part of governments to make substantial contributions to improve the basic living conditions in our communities as promised in the Agreement.  Our vigorous and sustained struggles on this issue resulted in improved water and sewer infrastructure systems and other community improvements.

Cree Nation also brought some new challenges and struggles.  The relocation of Nemaska and the dramatic struggle to have Ouj?-Bougoumou recognized as the ninth Cree community, although difficult battles, helped us to realize that by remaining united in the defence of Cree rights and the furtherance of Cree rights we could accomplish great things.  The success of Ouj?-Bougoumou confirmed for us once again that we were correct in our view that Cree control over the planning and development of our communities would unleash a remarkable degree of creativity which could set the standard for others.

The reality of the effectiveness of our united defence of our rights was nowhere more apparent than in our Nation?s struggle against the Great Whale Hydroelectric Project.  With the determination of the entire Nation, the creativity and the passion of the Cree people, we were able to do what no one imagined we could do?we overcame the combined forces of governments and large corporations to bring to a halt a project which was clearly an environmental disaster and an assault on Cree rights within our territory.

 The first 30 years of the Cree Nation also saw many, many court challenges to ensure that our rights would not be trampled upon.  Court cases were initiated in almost every area of community life and the life of the Nation ranging from environmental issues, health issues, education issues, natural resources issues, governance issues and many, many more.

 Much of the past 30 years has been about protecting and defending Cree rights.  In the course of ensuring that our Agreement was implemented with the same spirit and intent as when it was signed, we have found ourselves in the forefront of the struggle to advance aboriginal rights not only within Canada but internationally as well.  We spearheaded the efforts to ensure that indigenous peoples have a voice at the highest levels of international institutions, including the United Nations.  We have been instrumental in advancing the standards and the benchmarks by which we measure progress in the struggle to gain proper recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples.

At the same time that we were entering the first stages of our history as a Cree Nation there was another reality developing in the background which we were not aware of and which we have only recently come to understand in its fullness.  There is now emerging a very striking and hugely important demographic reality in northern Quebec (demography is the study of population trends).  It is clear from the data which has been developing over the last few years that in a relatively short period of time?perhaps ten to fifteen years?and if things continue as they have been, we, the Crees will be the dominant population group of northern Quebec.  The Cree population has been, and continues to increase at a significant rate while, at the same time, the Jamesian population is decreasing at a rapid rate.   By the year 2021, if the current trends continue the Cree population will be approximately 17,000, and the Jamesian population will be under 10,000.  

This demographic reality needs to be understood in terms of its economic and political potential.  What the data is telling us is that the Cree communities and the Cree Nation as a whole, as the permanent and majority population, could and should become the major economic force in northern Quebec.  Any serious understanding of this territory, and any serious planning for the future, must acknowledge this reality.  It must be recognized that the future of resource development activities?and indeed most economic development sectors?in northern Quebec will to a significant degree involve the Cree communities as the permanent and growing population in the region.  The data also tells us that, in addition to the economic opportunities for us, there are also opportunities for us to exercise significant political power in the region.  We have realized that the opportunities are there and the challenge before us is to decide if and how we will take advantage of those opportunities.

All of these struggles over the course of the last 30 years, and our growing understanding of the regional population realities have brought into very sharp focus our need to remain united behind a common vision.  Our struggles have united us and they have strengthened us.  Our common struggles have opened up the possibility for us to dream powerful visions of what we can become and they have confirmed for us our strength to realize powerful visions.  

Together, over the course of the last 30 years, such a vision has emerged, and we have also taken some hugely important steps in implementing that vision.  The vision which has emerged among us is nothing less than building a genuine, effective, self-reliant and Cree Nation which is self-governing, in control over what happens within our territory, and increasingly becoming masters of our own house.  We are now at a profoundly critical juncture in our history and we are clearly on the brink of entering an era of nation-building of the kind which has never been seen before in an indigenous setting.

As I see it, the vision and the task of nation-building requires that significant effort be placed on four pillars of achieving aboriginal nationhood.

The first pillar is governance.  We need to apply our creativity to build new governance structures for our Cree Nation, new ways of regulating our affairs, new and effective relationships between the individual First Nations and the Cree Nation.  We need new kinds of laws and regulations which reflect the reality of our increasingly dominant economic and political role in the region.  To do this we will need to use our creativity to translate our traditional forms of political organization, social organization and values into a contemporary legal and political reality.   This, in fact, is the objective of our current initiative in the Federal negotiations in which we are involved.  We are hopeful that we will soon be able to make some important announcements in this regard in the near future.

The second pillar is laying the Economic Foundation for the Nation.  Our task is to build our local community economies to ensure basic needs, prosperity and hope for the future.  This was the objective and the achievement of the New Relationship Agreement with Quebec.  There is a recognition that significant effort needs to be placed on training and education through our Cree Human Resources Dpartment and other institutions, to be able to take full advantage of the opportunities of the ?paix des braves?.

The James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement together with the New Relationship Agreement have provided us with the recognition of our interest to the land and its natural resources, and now, the New Relationship Agreement will provide us with the financial resources to become major economic players in our traditional territory.   We now have a recognition of our interest in any resource development which takes place on our traditional lands and this agreement will provide us with the financial tools to leverage this recognition into future benefits.  The New Relationship Agreement represents a pivotal turning point in the historic direction of aboriginal policy and a turning point in the history of the Cree Nation.

After many years of doing battle with the Province of Quebec over our fundamental rights, Quebec finally came to understand the importance of our relationship to the land and our need to be involved in all matters related to the development of the resources within our lands.  We have now entered a new relationship with Quebec based on mutual understanding and mutual respect.

Part of this new relationship has been that we have had our fundamental rights within our traditional territory finally acknowledged.

Our historic claim to the ownership of our traditional territory has had as its objective to be able to exercise a significant measure of control over development, and to also derive benefits from the resources within our lands.  This ?paix des braves?, this New Relationship Agreement between the Crees and Quebec, has provided us with a recognition of our claim and we are now ready?as we have always maintained?to participate as active players in the economy of the region.

This agreement represents a radical departure from history.  Historically, our ability to be seriously involved in mainstream economic development was denied to us.  The Crees, as other indigenous peoples in Canada, were systematically excluded from economic development through policy and practice.  There was no acknowledgement of our social, cultural and economic ties with the land.  And consequently there was no provision of the full range of tools necessary to allow for our serious involvement in the region?s economy.

Participating in the economic development of the territory is not something we should feel fearful about entering.  If we do not become the masters of our own house and develop the resources within our territory for the benefit of our own people, then we can certainly expect that the resources will be developed by others with little benefit coming to the Cree Nation.  Our challenge is to lay the basis for economically healthy communities for the future.

The third pillar of the vision of Cree nation-building is building healthy communities.  In recognition of the reality that there remains a significant legacy of the effects of a colonial past, substantial effort needs to be placed on addressing present and ongoing social, personal, and family difficulties.  The communities have been bringing this to the attention of the Cree leadership for some time.  We are now in a position, because of the recent milestone Health Agreement with the Province of Quebec, to seriously address these concerns, which include suicide and ongoing mental health and preventive initiatives as a priority.

We will now be in a position to put in place a wide range of social services in the communities which our Cree Health Board has never been in a position to do.  We know our communities have for a long time been crying out for the need to do much more in the area of social services, and I can tell you now that we can and will make that a much greater priority than it has ever been.

We are now in a position to take genuine responsibility for putting into place the kinds of programs and services which are relevant and appropriate for our people.  A new Strategic Regional Plan for the Cree Health Board will be developed, new Integrated Service Units will be established, special measures will be possible to address priority needs in the communities, and there will be stable funding to ensure that we can implement these initiatives.

The fourth pillar of our nation-building task is the continuing defence of Cree Rights.  To ensure that there are never any efforts to whittle away, diminish or directly threaten Cree rights we will continue to place significant effort in the defence, preservation and promotion of Cree rights.  This is true with respect to the Nation as a whole and also with respect to the aboriginal rights of Cree collectivities and individuals. 

We will, for example, continue to take a leading role in defending the rights of the Washaw Sibi Eeyou.  As we continue to make progress in having our aboriginal rights recognized by governments and ensuring that this recognition is translated into tangible benefits for our people, we also need to make sure that no one is left behind.  We will continue to stand with the Washaw Sibi Eeyou.

In addition, aboriginal rights will continue to be promoted nationally within Canada and internationally through our ongoing work with other indigenous groups at various UN bodies.

This is the vision which has emerged over the last 30 years of our history and the four pillars represent the avenues of work we need to engage in to realize the vision.

The vision also demands that we each do some serious soul-searching and recognize that fulfilling a noble vision requires that we, as individuals need to take up the challenge and make the personal changes required to meet the challenge.  We need to change the way we think about ourselves, the way we think about our communities, our Nation and the region we inhabit.  In addition to being ambitious and visionary in our goals, we also need to be truthful about the realities we are experiencing.

The opportunities are clearly before us.  The challenge we face is to decide if we will be responsible for charting the course of our own future or if we will be passive observers who allow things to happen to us, and then complain about it afterwards and look for someone to blame.  

The reality is that we are no longer victims and we can no longer play that role.  It is not useful for us to be stuck in a victim view of the world around us.  We now enter this new era of nation-building not as victims of historical injustice, but as the self-confident and proud permanent residents of our territory who have overcome the negative impacts of a colonial past and who are ready to fully realize the potential which the future holds for us.  Our future is truly in our own hands.  We are no longer powerless people mired in poverty, but rather, we are the proud and confident products of our successes.  We have thrown off the yoke of colonialism through 30 years of struggle and we should now be setting our sights on genuine nation-building.

Taking up that challenge forces us to address the question of what it is that defines who we are.  We have for a long time been hunters and trappers and we will continue to be hunters and trappers.  We will continue to maintain that special relationship with the land.  But does being Cree mean being only a hunter and trapper?

Is it possible that being Cree might also be about taking very seriously the values, the beliefs and the philosophy that evolved from and developed out of the traditional Cree way of life and the incorporation of those values in everything we do.  I would like to suggest to you that we, as Cree people, are defined by our values and our principles and by what our ancestors have learned from the traditional Cree way of life and passed on to us as Cree wisdom.  

Our way of life has never been a static one, fixed forever in time to be exactly the same thing.  There have always been changes?there were many periods before contact with Europeans when we were completely independent, there were adjustments which our ancestors made to accommodate the fur trade, and there were other adjustments when the fur trade began to decrease in importance?and we have continuously adapted ourselves to make beneficial changes for our people.  What has endured is our principles and our values.

The worth of Cree values and principles is not limited only to the pursuit of a traditional way of life.  Being a genuine Cree is not just being a hunter and trapper.  You can be a proud and genuine Cree and also be a teacher, a doctor or a judge.

Part of the challenge which is facing us now as an indigenous nation is to stay true to the rich and meaningful cultural heritage which we have inherited and to apply it to our current realities and circumstances.  The challenge which I believe lies before us is nothing more nor less than a process of reinventing ourselves.  This is what our ancestors had to do when faced with new realities and new opportunities and this is now what we need to do.

We must look to the future with hope, courage and optimism.  We are leaving the era of victimization when all our problems were the fault of others.  We are entering a new post-colonial era with our fundamental rights recognized, our role in our territory becoming increasingly dominant and with a new relationship developing with our non-aboriginal neighbors.  We are now responsible for our futures and it is for us to decide what that future will look like.  With our rights intact, our rights recognized and the benefits from having our rights recognized beginning to flow we are now in a position to build the kind of healthy, strong, and assertive Cree Nation which we have dreamt about for many years.

The realization of our common vision will only be possible if we have the dedication, the commitment and the involvement of all of us.  The leadership cannot realize this vision on its own.  To successfully move our society and our nation in a new direction we need everyone with us.

First of all, we need our Elders to continue to teach us and to pass on to us Cree values, Cree principles and the lessons they have learned in life.  We need the inherited wisdom of our culture to guide us as we take up our new challenge and face difficult decisions.  As stewards of our Cree culture, the Elders will continue to play a vital role in the future of our Nation.  I call upon our Elders to teach our youth, to guide us, and to be our bedrock as we face the challenges and the difficulties of change.  We need you now, and we need your wisdom now, as perhaps we have never needed it before.

I call upon the youth of Eeyou Istchee to join in the challenge of a lifetime?to join in the great challenge of building the Cree Nation based on our cultural traditions while looking forward to new ways of improving the life of our communities.  Please talk to your Elders and learn from them, and then apply what you have learned in a way which is positive for you personally and in a way which makes a contribution to your families, your communities and your Nation.  Learn the values and the principles which have guided us for thousands of years and work to make the changes in your life and in your communities which need to be made.  Our Cree Nation needs you to do this, for you are the Cree Nation and the future generations need you to be the best you can be.

Please believe me when I say that you will have no greater sense of satisfaction in your life, and no greater sense of purpose than dedicating yourself to making your world a better place, dedicating yourself to the service of your community and your Nation.

We know we have considerable challenges in the area of human resource development.  To meet the challenge of the future we must be certain that we have the skills and the education to be the entrepreneurs, the professionals in the areas of forest management, mining, tourism, business development, accountants, lawyers, doctors, nurses, and all the other professions required to maintain a nation. 

And this is where the current youth come into the picture.  If the vision which I have described has a chance of being realized it will be because of what our youth as individuals do, the choices you make about your own futures, and your personal commitment to make a contribution to the future of the Cree Nation.  If we do not begin to seize the opportunity, if our youth do not see the opportunities for the future, then the opportunity will be lost.

And if that opportunity is lost then the Cree Nation will be relegated to an insignificant enclave of communities whose people occupy their time with a combination of traditional pursuits and narrowly defined local community development consisting of some minimal housing construction and a small range of educational and social services.  The noble and ambitious vision of Cree Nation-building will have been a passing dream.  But this scenario can be avoided by the determination of our people, and particularly our youth, to see a different outcome. 

Our Cree Nation, with all of our institutions, programs and services, have oriented themselves to ensuring that our youth be supported in every possible way so they gain the skills and education required for us to take the next steps in nation-building.  We need you and we are with you.

I also call upon all of us who are parents to participate in the building of our Nation.  I ask that you encourage and support your children in their educations so that they can fulfill their personal dreams while at the same time making a contribution to the betterment of our communities.  This encouragement can take many forms, but please let them know that it is alright to dream big dreams, it is alright to imagine better communities and it is alright for them to become involved in whatever way it is meaningful for them to be involved in the life of the communities.  Help them to understand the changes which our society is going through and let them know that the world we are creating for them is full of opportunities for their personal fulfillment and growth.  And let them know that we all need them to be the best they can be.  And when we talk to our children let us be careful about the words we use.  We should not tell them that we are victims, but rather, let us with optimism tell them that we are responsible determiners of our own history and that they are part of this new era of responsibility.

If we all resolve to do our share to bring about our common vision, then our future will be positive, exciting and inspiring.  We will live up to the challenge and we will become the major economic, social and political force in northern Quebec.  We will become the major developers of resources, the major tourism centers, the major commercial entrepreneurs.  We will be represented by Crees at all levels of government?local, provincial and federal.  We will maintain our own institutions for the delivery of a full range of educational, health and social services.  We will have our own form of democratic government which provides a full range of services to address the needs of our people.  In short, we will become a thriving, healthy and dynamic indigenous nation.

Let us now then, together, resolve to put the past behind us?a difficult past of colonial oppression, attempts at genocide, threats to our rights, a great deal of individual and collective hurt?and let us, as our ancestors taught us, orient the entrances of our tents in the direction of the rising sun and in the direction of the optimism which comes with a new day.

Opportunities are only as good as our willingness and our capacity to take advantage of them.  We cannot lose this opportunity to be the very best that we can be.  We cannot afford the kind of negativity which paralyzes us and which prevents us from moving forward.  We cannot afford to miss the opportunity to advance the cause of our own people, and the cause of other indigenous peoples in Canada and around the world.

We need to have the courage to permit our higher instincts to determine our future, not our lower ones.  Instead of dwelling in a place of negativity and looking for what is imperfect, let us believe that we are now in a position to build the kind of life for the future generations of our Cree people which other native groups can only dream of.  Let our optimism, our faith, and our inherited wisdom guide us in a noble challenge to build a genuine, a proud and a healthy Cree Nation, for the sake of our children, our children?s children and for indigenous peoples everywhere.