The Grand Council of the Crees

Statement by Deputy Grand Chief Ashley Iserhoff, Grand Council of the Crees (Eeyou Istchee) To the "United Nations Dams and Development Meeting", Nairobi, Kenya

Statement by Deputy Grand Chief Ashley Iserhoff, Grand Council of the Crees (Eeyou Istchee) To the "United Nations Dams and Development Meeting", Nairobi, Kenya

Posted: 2006-12-04

Deputy Grand Chief Ashley Iserhoff

Greetings from the Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee in James Bay Quebec Canada! My name is Ashley Iserhoff and I am the Deputy Grand Chief of the Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee. I am of two minds about hydroelectric development. Thirty five years ago my people were living on the land and selling their furs to the Hudson Bay Company as they had been doing for the previous more than 300 years.

Today we are still hunting, fishing and harvesting the furs from our traditional lands, but we are also now twice as many, with a population of 15,000 people, as we were then and we are pursuing economic development in the form of forestry development, mining development, and hydroelectric development as well as manufacturing, governmental and service sector development. In short, we want employment and entrepreneurial opportunities for our people. We could not return to our previous way of life even if we wanted to, because the land will no longer provide the scale of economic benefit that we need to develop as a nation within Quebec and Canada. Fur revenues represent today less than one percent of the Cree economy whereas 35 years ago it was almost 100% of our economy.

You will then ask why I say that I am of two minds about hydroelectric development? The answer to this question lies in the meaning of the English and French term "development". This word refers to the dis-enveloping or the unfolding of the inherent potential that exists in the land. I also believe however, that "development" is the unfolding of the inherent potential that exists in a group of people or nation. What I mean by this is that for development to be meaningful, to be progressive, to a local population it has to make sense in terms of their values and world view.

Hydro Quebec has said many times recently that the new Eastmain 1A-Rupert Diversion Project has no negative impact on the Crees. This statement serves to reveal the incredible cultural gap that exists between the Cree Nation and the Quebec Nation. To make such a statement might win applause for Hydro Quebec and for Quebec from those who do not appreciate the situation, but it is incomprehensible and callous, in our view, to make such statements.

Our culture is a hunting and fishing and trapping culture. It is a type of culture that was prevalent around the world before the rise of agricultural societies and certainly before the age of commercial and industrial development. At one time and for many, many years our ancestors were all hunters and gatherers. Hunting societies have a much longer history than do societies based on agricultural or industrial technologies but I believe that civilization predates such technologies, as civilization is based on the fine appreciation of human values, perceptions and beliefs.

In our culture, our elders take great pride in stating that our ancestors only left their footprints as evidence of their passing. We did not build great monuments nor did we control vast armies or hierarchical governments. Each person in our society is valued for their unique qualities and for their contribution to the greater good of all.

In saying that a hydroelectric project does not impact the Cree Nation, Hydro Quebec is forgetting that the Cree civilization consists of a set of values that put the uniqueness of all life as something that has to be respected. When our people harvested animals they undertook to acknowledge the animal's gift of sustenance to our people. In our beliefs, all life shares a common root and a spiritual connection.

The La Grande Project which was our introduction to industrial development flooded more than 13,000 square kilometers of the natural habitat on our lands. The flooding of whole forests, of our ancestors graves, of areas that were registered in our mythological history, we call it "atiyokan" history, was an event unprecedented in Cree society and incomprehensible to many of our elders. The EM1A-Rupert Diversion Project is however a vast improvement over Hydro Quebec's first project on our lands, but it is still a very foreign concept to our people. The diversion of a river and the flooding of 340 sq km of natural habitat is still a significant impact on the people who know and love these areas.

Let me put this into perspective for you. To the Cree people our lands have a sacred character to them. We see our life-force as coming from it. Other cultures have other symbols of their life force. For French society it is perhaps the cultural center of Paris and the revolution that occurred there, for Muslim societies it may be Mecca, for the United States it may well be its marvelous cities and for Quebec society it would be Quebec City and the Saint Lawrence River --for us it is Eeyou Istchee, the peoples' land.

Why am I then of two minds? While the land had the inherent potential to produce furs for our people it also had the potential for hydroelectric development and we must come to terms with this fact. Above all, people who live from the land are practical.

Hydro Quebec has made significant advances with the Eastmain 1A - Rupert Diversion Project. Yes, there are still unknowns about the impacts of the project. Will the sturgeon survive? Will the ciscoes at Waskaganish survive? Will the geese ever fly along the James Bay coast in the numbers of former days again? Will the land animals thrive even with the gradual reduction of their habitat due to hydroelectric development? Will the ecology of James and Hudson Bays and the polar bears, seals, whales and fish that thrived there continue to thrive even after hydroelectric projects? All of these are still questions even after the environmental and social impact review this past year, and its findings will be released shortly.

The brief answer to most of these questions is probably yes, they will continue to thrive and inhabit the area. However, the data to prove this scientific best-guess is somewhat lacking. In fact the science to prove it is deficient.

For us there is also a large question in whether we as a distinct society with our own language and values will continue to survive through the next century. I believe that we will, as we have already made great progress, but to do so we must learn to work with our Quebecois neighbours and they with us. We continue to find a path and walk to peace and reconciliation, which led to the Paix des Braves Agreement in 2002, an agreement that includes us as indigenous peoples and partners to the resource development of Eeyou Istchee.

It is evident that we cannot pin all of our future on hunting, and that our people must become more and more involved in resource development and in governance of the territory. Our future lies in education and in investing in the training of our people to compete in the Quebec workforce.

In the proposed Eastmain 1A-Rupert Diversion Project, for the first time on our lands Hydro Quebec has recognized the inherent value in working over the long term with our people to have them participate in and themselves undertake remedial works over 10 and 20 year terms or more, so that their hunting way of life will survive the construction of the project. Hydro Quebec has now made a serious commitment to the preservation of the fish and wildlife, to respect our way of life and to find mechanisms to have the least environmental and social impact on our people.

Not only do I think that it is possible to have development and to preserve bio- and cultural diversity, but I know that it is happening as we speak. I have seen a change in culture at Hydro Quebec and in Quebec and what we now have secured in long term agreements, our framework agreement with Quebec, is for 50 years. I would like to see these things established as permanent elements of the relations between indigenous nations and development companies all over the world. It can be done.

We also now work very closely with Quebec on our mutual survival as distinct societies.

In conclusion, the Grand Council of the Crees (Eeyou Istchee) would encourage this forum to continue as it allows us to have an open dialogue and to share and learn from each other's experiences and allows stakeholders to meet annually.

My message is clear to this forum, it is to always include people who are directly impacted and to listen and address their concerns with the utmost respect.

Meegwetch. Thank You