The Grand Council of the Crees

Eulogy for Grand Chief Dr. Billy Diamond

by James A. O'Reilly, Ad. E.

Posted: 2010-10-06


I wish to thank the Diamond family and particularly Elizabeth and Ian for the honour they have bestowed on me to speak about the life of Grand Chief Billy Diamond, a giant  of history who accomplished so much for his people.    However, I can never do justice to what he has done.  As Billy told me often, we can only do our best.

The Blackfoot Chief Crowfoot asked “What is life?”  He said that it is the flash of a firefly in the night.  It is the breath of a buffalo (the Crees would say moose) in the winter time. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.

Yet Billy cast a very big shadow.

The Creator sometimes creates great men and calls upon them to do great things.  So it was with Billy.

I know I speak for many when I offer sincere condolences to the immediate and extended family of Billy, particularly to Elizabeth, Lorraine, Christopher, Ian, Sanford, Philip and Kevin.  I am well aware of the sacrifices the family had to make for the Cree Nation and hope you can take some consolation in the fact that Billy has made such a positive difference to his people and to the lives of so many Crees of past, present and future generations.

Je sais que plusieurs de ses anciens collègues non autochtones, qu’ils aient été ses alliés ou autrefois ses adversaires, se joignent à moi pour offrir également leurs sympathies à la famille. Leur présence ici aujourd’hui est un témoignage éloquent du respect qu’ils ont pour ce grand Chef autochtone et de l’admiration pour ses accomplissements très significatifs pour le peuple cri, les peuples autochtones, le Québec, le Canada et tous les pays où il y a une population autochtone.

When one thinks of Billy, two songs come to mind. 

The first is a love song which starts with the words “Where do I begin to tell the story...”, How do I describe this extraordinary historical figure, charismatic aboriginal leader and path finder?  Which of these characteristics should be emphasized: Billy the Cree, Billy the person, Billy the fighter, Billy the strategist, Billy the visionary, Billy the diplomat or Billy, one of the founding fathers of the modern Cree Nation? 

The second song popularized by Frank Sinatra so typifies Billy: “I did it my way...”  I cannot properly portray a person who combined so many talents and achieved such significant results in such a short space of time and he did it his way. 

I had the singular privilege of working very closely with Billy, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s, especially in regard to the political and legal struggles regarding the preservation of the Cree way of life, the recognition of Cree rights and the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement.   Billy was not just a natural leader: he was a brother to me, in arms and in spirit.  He was also a mentor to me.

He was a brother and beloved colleague to many Crees, other aboriginal persons and non-aboriginal advisors. Some of these were my former partner Bill Grodinsky, Peter Hutchins, Monique Caron, Diane Soroka, John Hurley, Robert Mainville and Johanne Mainville.  Moreover, he admired and respected Chief Gros-Louis who is here today.  As well, he had high regard for John Ciaccia, who could not be here due to sickness but who sent a note to the family, and Armand Couture. 

Although there have been and are many outstanding Cree leaders who have been involved in the struggles for the recognition of Cree society, Cree values and Cree rights,  it is Billy who has set the highest of standards.  It is no small tribute to Billy, the first Grand Chief, that the Cree Nation has been so strong in its leadership through the last four decades.

Billy’s testament will always include his key and successful roles in the gigantic struggle for the preservation of the Cree way of life and Cree traditional territory, notably against the James Bay hydroelectric project, in the negotiations relating to the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, in the contents of the Agreement, in the elaboration of federal and provincial legislation adopted pursuant to that Agreement, in the development of the 1983 constitutional amendments and in respect to the struggles regarding implementation of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement.

I will return to some of the special qualities Billy had in a few moments.  However, any account of Billy’s life would be incomplete without at least some reference to the events leading to the strong Cree opposition to the James Bay hydroelectric project, to the epic James Bay Court proceedings and to the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement.

In 1971, with the announcement of the James Bay project, the aboriginal and non-aboriginal worlds collided in the North.

For thousands of years, the Crees had survived off the land with a distinct culture and society, largely undisturbed by non-aboriginals.  For the Crees, it was inconceivable that the non-aboriginal society in the south could with impunity destroy part of their land and compromise their existence as a people.

Worse, the conventional Canadian wisdom was that the Crees (and Inuit) had no rights under Canadian law to the land and resources.

It was into this context that young Chief Billy Diamond was catapulted and destined to play a crucial and pivotal role.

For Billy, the fight against the project was not just for the protection and preservation of Cree society and the Cree way of life but a fight for the very survival of the Cree people.

Billy went all out to stop the James Bay project.  Under his leadership, the Crees and Inuit succeeded in obtaining from the Courts (Justice Malouf) an unprecedented temporary injunction bringing the project to a grinding halt on the basis of Cree and Inuit rights.  This was a first in North America in regard to such a large project.

This injunction was short-lived and its dissolution was a bitter pill to swallow for the Crees.  However, the recognition of Cree rights remained.  In addition, governments and Hydro-Québec had a rude awakening, especially about Cree rights.

After a 3 to 2 ruling of the Supreme Court of Canada against re-instating the temporary injunction (in December of 1973), the Crees were faced with the reality that even the Courts would very likely let the project continue.  The Crees and particularly Billy, Robert Kanatewat, Philip Awashish and other Cree leaders, such as Smally Petawabano and Lawrence Jimiken, suddenly had to decide whether it was possible to somehow reconcile the continued existence of Cree society with the intrusion and projects of the larger Quebec and Canadian societies.

Billy realized that the stakes were too high for his people to either abandon the fight or accept what the governments were proposing.  First and foremost, under his leadership, intensive consultation meetings took place in the various Cree communities to determine the future course of the Crees.  Only when the Crees gave permission to their leaders to negotiate did the James Bay Agreement negotiations begin.

What followed was in retrospect truly remarkable.  Billy was instrumental in interpreting the fundamental aspirations of his people, combining these with a unique and innovative vision for the future and persuading non-aboriginal governments that there could be and should be a new constitution for over 3/5 of the area of Québec.  Thus was born the first modern and comprehensive treaty in Canada, the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, which will forever bear Billy’s stamp.

Billy often referred to the Agreement as the “Charter” of Cree rights.  He was at ease  with Premier Lévesque and Prime Ministers and Ministers in insisting upon integral respect  for the Cree rights set out in the Agreement.  Yet, Billy well knew and mentioned to me on a number of occasions that the Agreement was a solid foundation but a still incomplete work.  Billy and other Crees who have succeeded him as leaders of the Cree Nation and of the various Cree First Nations have successfully taken up this challenge.

I wish to come back now to the characteristics I referred to before. 

Billy the Cree was a Cree through and through and most proud of his heritage.  He was respectful of the Cree hunters and trappers and families who survived off the land, respectful of the land, respectful of the animals and always true to the fundamental values of the Crees.  This gave him inner strength and confidence in the battles he had to fight.  Billy respected the Elders and followed their advice.  Billy always treasured the teachings of his father, Malcolm, and held in high esteem the authority and responsibility placed upon his brother Charlie as the tallyman and protector of the Diamond family trapline.

Billy the person was very human, very humorous and very volatile.  Billy was devoted to his family and friends.  At the same time, I believe he considered that he had a number of missions to accomplish for the good of all the Cree people. We all know that he was not perfect...

An example of his humour was when we were on a trip to the communities of James Bay in late 1973 or early 1974.  We were in Eastmain and the only accommodation was a small building.  Entering the room, Billy and I saw there was only one bed.  He said to me: “Jim, I know where I am sleeping but I don’t know what you are going to do.”

Billy was without equal as a public speaker.  He had the ability to mesmerize his audience whether in Cree or in English.  I witnessed on a number of occasions his powerful oratory, including during meetings in the Cree communities.

Billy the fighter was not afraid to take on all comers, including the most powerful governments of the day, to go against all odds and to persevere. 

Billy was a brilliant and master strategist.  He had an acute sense of the goals he wished to attain and how to attain them.  His political timing was uncanny.  There are few who have been able to combine with such favourable results Court actions, political actions and public attention.  

Billy was indeed a visionary.  In his 1989 book entitled “Chief, the fearless vision of Billy Diamond”, Roy McGregor provides several examples of this vision.  For example, Billy conceptualized or helped conceptualize the notions of an income security plan for Cree hunters, fishermen and trappers, of a Cree School Board, of a Cree owned and operated airline and of a community government totally outside the Indian Act.

Despite being persistent and sometimes aggressive, Billy could be and was often diplomatic.  It was this flair for diplomacy that served him well in direct discussions with Premier Lévesque, Minister Chrétien, Minister Munro and, during the James Bay negotiations, John Ciaccia, the Québec representative, and Armand Couture, the Hydro-Québec/JBEC representative.  But Billy was always a diplomat who had an iron fist in a velvet glove.

Many people are unaware of his great feat in 1983 in persuading Premier Lévesque not to oppose an amendment to the Constitution to constitutionalize rights under modern land claim settlements or treaties which benefited not only the Crees but every aboriginal nation which has signed a treaty since 1983.  Billy was able to convince Premier Lévesque,  notwithstanding Quebec opposition to additional constitutional amendments, to remain neutral, primarily because the Premier accepted Billy’s argument that the Cree Nation and the Québec “Nation” had much in common in their quests.

Finally, Billy unquestionably must rank as one of the founding fathers of the modern Cree Nation.   While keeping intact the core of Cree society, he galvanized a new and powerful force which today ranks as one of the great aboriginal nations of the world.

The confrontations of the early 70s in Court, in the public forum and in the political forum had already established Billy as one of the most prominent aboriginal leaders in Canada.  But his accomplishments go beyond that and are not even limited to the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, for he was involved in many agreements which amended the JBNQA, many parallel agreements and a considerable number of laws relating to Cree rights.  He was also a major artisan of an amendment to the Constitution of Canada which formally constitutionalized “modern” treaty rights and achieved special status for the Crees under international law. Together these instruments, along with Cree customs, truly form a unique Cree constitution and provide the Cree people with a very special legal status.

Before closing, I wish to relate an incident about the James Bay and Northern Québec negotiations to illustrate Billy’s wit and logic.  Ted Moses and I had run into some real obstacles on November 10, 1975 which put the conclusion of an agreement in jeopardy.  We hurried to see Billy to obtain instructions.  Billy was in the midst of a big party with the Cree Chiefs and councillors.  We asked him what he was doing.  We mentioned that we were at a critical point in the negotiations which could well fail. 

Billy replied that the Chiefs and councillors had been reviewing the draft agreement line by line for three weeks.  He said the deadline for the signing of the agreement was the next night.  If the agreement was not signed, then the party was in appreciation for the efforts of the Chiefs and councillors and well deserved.  On the other hand, if the agreement was signed, then this was the celebration because the Chiefs and councillors  were leaving for James Bay right after the signing.

Although it is said that no one is irreplaceable,  I for one believe that this does not apply to Billy.  He has joined the ranks of great aboriginal leaders and even the ranks of great historical figures.  I believe he ranks with Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela.  Billy was a person, not of decades, but for the ages.  He is now a legend.

He will be much missed but he will also be much remembered for a long long time.

About James O'Reilly

James O'Reilly is a renowned jurist who in the early 1970's was engaged by then Grand Chief Billy Diamond to represent the Crees of Eeyou Istchee in their court battle in defence of their land rights and against the La Grande Hydroelectric Project, which was under construction at the time.  He and the late Billy Diamond worked closely in forming the strategy that in 1973 resulted in victory for the Crees.  In November of that year the Crees won a decision from the Quebec Superior Court that was an historic recognition of the existence of the rights of aboriginal peoples to land and to self-government.  Justice Malouf of the Quebec Superior Court granted an interlocutory injunction against the completion of the project in recognition of the prior occupation of the land by the Crees and the damages that they would suffer to their way of life if the project went ahead.  While the decision was later reversed by the Quebec Court of Appeal, the Kanatewat decision sent a warning call to governments and to the corporate world: aboriginal rights exist not just as rights of use but also as rights to their ways of life on the land. 

This recognition of Cree rights led to the negotiation of a Cree self-government including Cree rights to provide their people with services through self-government regimes recognized under both Quebec and Federal law.  After signature of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement in 1975, Me. O'Reilly and Grand Chief Billy Diamond worked together to seek the implementation of the rights recognized in the treaty-out-of-court settlement.  In 1984 Billy left office as Grand Chief to seek a career in business, to work directly for the improvement of his community and to enhance Cree access to employment and business opportunities in the territory.  Me. O'Reilly has continued to this day to advise the Crees on questions of great legal consequence.  Over the years since beginning to work with the Crees, James O'Reilly  has also acted as legal counsel to the Mohawk Council of Kahnawà:ke, to the Lubicon Crees of Alberta,    the Samson and Ermineskin Cree bands in Alberta, the Mi'kmaq of Conne River (Miawpukek) Newfoundland.  More recently he represents the Innu communities of  Uashat and Maliotenam in their battle over the hydro developments proposed for the Romaine River in Quebec.  To this day, James O'Reilly continues in his fierce fight for the recognition of the rights of aboriginal peoples.