The Grand Council of the Crees

Conservation and Stewardship through Aboriginal Governance in Eeyou Istchee (Northern Quebec)

A presentation for the World Indigenous Network Conference, Darwin, Australia May 26-30, 2013  By Ashley Iserhoff,  Deputy Grand Chief of the Grand Council of the Crees (Eeyou Istchee)

Posted: 2013-05-26




Kwei  Kwei,  

Hello  everyone,  my  name  is  Ashley  Iserhoff.  I  am  the  Deputy  Grand  Chief for  the  Grand  Council  of  the  Crees  of  Eeyou  Istchee.  I  am  from  the community  of  Mistissini,  one  of  10  communities  that  make  up  the  Cree   Nation  in  northern  Quebec,  Canada.  

First  off,  I  would  like  to  thank  the  Larrakia  people  for  allowing  all  of  us  to gather  here  on  their  lands  for  this  important  occasion.    I  would  also  like  to thank  those  responsible  for  this  wonderful  event  and,  in  particular,  the representatives  of  the  Australia  Government  who  invited  me  here  today, and  all  those  with  vision  and  determination  to  launch  the  World  Indigenous   Network.    

You  will  have  to  bear  with  me  as  I  catch  my  breath.  You  see  last  week,  I  was in  a  traditional  Cree  goose  camp  along  the  shores  of  the  Rupert  River— feasting  on  a  successful  hunt  of  geese  and  drinking  the  clean  waters  right  of the  river.    This  is  something  that  the  majority  of  Crees  do  each  spring  as  the migratory  Canada  geese  return  to  our  traditional  lands  each  spring.    For many  Crees  this  hunt  is  part  of  the  natural  food  gathering  cycle.    For  others, tied  to  a  desk  job,  we  are  fortunate  enough  as  a  modern  and  diverse Aboriginal  society  to  still  have  the  opportunity  to  live  as  our  elders  once   did,  even  briefly,  in  amongst  our  busy  schedules.    

Since  arriving  in  Darwin,  I've  had  the  chance  to  meet  some  of  the  other delegates,  and  I  have  been  struck  by  the  similarity  of  challenges  we  all  face with  regard  to  conservation  and  stewardship.    I  am  inspired  by  the  display of  novel  and  imaginative  ways  that  Indigenous  Peoples  are  approaching  the protection  of  their  lands.    Today,  I  would  like  to  share  with  you  the  Cree experience  on  conservation  and  stewardship  of  our  traditional  lands,  Eeyou   Istchee.    

To  begin,  a  little  background  on  the  Cree  Nation  of  Eeyou  Istchee.  We  call ourselves  Eeyou  or  Eenou,  which  means  "the  people."  There  are approximately  18,000  of  us,  with  about  16,000  residing  in  our  ten  Cree   communities  in  Eeyou  Istchee.  

We  call  our  land  in  northern  Quebec  "Eeyou  Istchee"  or  "the  people's land."  It  covers  some  400,000  square  kilometres  –  that's  two-thirds  the  size of  France.    It  includes  the  lakes  and  rivers  that  drain  into  eastern  James  Bay and  south-eastern  Hudson  Bay.    Like  Indigenous  Peoples'  lands  everywhere, Eeyou  Istchee  has  provided  for  the  Crees  for  thousands  of  years.  This continues  today,  as  at  least  one  third  of  the  Crees  continue  to  fish,  hunt and  gather  as  their  primary  means  of  subsistence.    This  is  why  we  consider all  of  Eeyou  Istchee—the  lands  and  waters,  the  plants  and  animals—as   being  sacred.    

Like  the  Indigenous  Peoples  here  in  Australia  and  around  the  world,  water has  always  been  critical  to  our  existence.  However,  in  the  Crees'  case,  the issue  is  not  the  scarcity  of  water.  We  are  blessed  with  an  abundance  of water—so  much  so  that  water  has  become  a  constant  in  the  development of  our  territory.    

Historically,  water  was  the  principle  means  of  transport  supporting  trade among  the  Crees  themselves  and  with  our  neighbouring  First  Nations.  In the  17th  century,  these  transport  routes  founded  the  fur  trade  with Europeans,  leading  to  the  "discovery"  and  "exploration"  of  our  lands. Throughout  the  Crees'  history,  water  has  been  a  constant  source  of economic  wealth.    

For  much  of  the  20th  century,  our  contact  with  Governments  was  sporadic because  our  location  was  remote.  But  in  1970,  this  changed  when  the Government  of  Quebec  proposed  a  massive  3-phased  hydroelectric  project that  would  dam  most  of  the  key  river  systems  in  Eeyou  Istchee—flooding thousands  of  square  kilometers  of  hunting  lands.    This  was  all  planned without  the  Crees'  knowledge  or  consent.    And  so  began  a  40-year  struggle for  the  Crees'  self-autonomy.  

Our  struggle  took  shape  when  eight  isolated  Cree  villages  came  together  to form  a  collective  nation  under  the  Grand  Council  of  the  Crees.  It  was  under the  guidance  of  our  elders  to  work  together,  thus  was  formed  the  Grand Council,  which  successfully  forced  a  legal  injunction  on  the  construction  of phase  1  of  this  massive  hydro  project.  The  courts  recognized  the  Crees' legal  claim  over  our  lands.  And  the  Governments  of  Canada  and  Quebec conceded  to  negotiate  with  the  Crees  over  the  terms  of  this  hydro  project.   This  resulted  in  Canada's  first  modern-day  Land  Claims  Treaty,  the  James Bay  and  Northern  Quebec  Agreement,  signed  in  1975.  

I  must  mention  that  the  Inuit  people  whose  lands  to  the  north  were  also affected  by  the  hydro  projects  were  partners  in  our  opposition  and  were part  of  this  historic  Agreement.  

Among  its  30  chapters,  this  James  Bay  and  Northern  Quebec  Agreement sets  out  three  regimes:  

  1. special  land  regime  granting  the  Crees  exclusive  and  semi-exclusive rights  to  occupation,  governance,  and  hunting  and  fishing  in  Eeyou Istchee;  
  2. an  environmental  and  social  protection  regime—the  first  of  its  kind in  Canada—protecting  the  Crees'  exclusive  rights  to  use  and  occupy the  land  through  the  sustainable  development  of  Eeyou  Istchee's resources;  and  
  3. a  hunting,  fishing  and  trapping  regime  establishing  the  priority  of aboriginal  harvesting  and  providing  for  the  supervision  and regulation  of  the  territories'  wildlife  resources,  including  the  training of  Cree  conservation  officers.  

Other  important  features  of  the  James  Bay  and  Northern  Quebec Agreement  were  provisions  allowing  for  the  Crees  to  set  up  their  own education  and  health  care  systems  and  provisions  for  business development.    

With  the  signing  of  the  James  Bay  and  Northern  Quebec  Agreement  in 1975,  the  Crees  believed  they  were  on  course  toward  greater  self- autonomy.    

Unfortunately,  the  Governments  of  Canada  and  Quebec  were  only concerned  about  those  provisions  of  the  Agreement  that  allowed  them  to move  forward  with  their  hydroelectric  projects.  They  neglected  to  act  on many  of  the  other  provisions  and  the  Crees'  vision  of  the  future  promised by  this  Agreement  was  not  materializing.  This  was  the  state  of  affairs  for some  15  years  after  the  James  Bay  and  Northern  Quebec  Agreement  was signed.  

In  the  late  1980s,  the  Government  of  Quebec  initiated  the  second  phase  of its  massive  hydroelectric  project.  By  signing  the  James  Bay  and  Northern Quebec  Agreement,  the  Government  assumed  that  the  Crees  had  already provided  their  consent  for  all  phases  of  the  project  so  long  as  the  project was  approved  through  an  environmental  and  social  impact  assessment. Legally  speaking,  this  may  have  been  the  case.  But  since  the  Governments were  not  fulfilling  their  promises  within  the  Agreement,  the  Crees  felt  fully justified  in  opposing  the  second  phase  of  this  project,  particularly  since  they were  excluded  from  any  of  the  economic  benefits  of  the  project.  The  Inuit had  also  come  to  the  same  conclusion  and  they  equally  opposed  the second  phase  of  the  project.  

The  Cree  and  Inuit  opposition  took  the  form  of  an  international  campaign squarely  aimed  at  the  American  markets  where  Quebec's  hydroelectricity would  be  sold.  After  an  intense  5-year  lobbying  campaign,  the  Crees  and  the  Inuit  managed  to  convince  several  American  states—such  as  New  York, New  Hampshire  and  Vermont—to  withdraw  billions  of  dollars  in  purchasing contracts  with  Quebec.  The  loss  of  these  contracts  sounded  the  death  knell for  this  phase  of  Quebec's  hydro  project.  

By  the  end  of  the  millennium,  the  Government  of  Quebec  was  once  again seeking  to  export  more  hydroelectricity  to  the  United  States.    But  this  time Quebec  drew  on  the  experience  of  having  faced  Cree  and  Inuit  opposition on  an  international  stage.  The  government  proposed  a  new  partnership agreement  with  the  Crees  that  would  address  many  of  its  broken  promises of  the  past.    

In  2002,  the  Crees  and  the  Government  of  Quebec  signed  the  Paix  des braves  Agreement,  which  serves  as  an  implementation  agreement  for  the James  Bay  and  Northern  Quebec  Agreement.  This  marked  a  new  beginning in  the  relationship  between  the  Crees  and  the  Government  of  Quebec.  The Paix  des  braves  Agreement  provides  the  Crees  with  an  annual  share  of  all present  and  future  resource  development  activities  in  Eeyou  Istchee,  plus employment  and  training  guarantees  in  future  resource  development  in Eeyou  Istchee.  The  Paix  des  braves  Agreement  created  a  true  partnership whereby  the  Crees  were  no  longer  bystanders  in  the  development  of  their lands.  

This  partnership  did  not  come  without  a  cost.  In  signing  the  Paix  des  braves Agreement,  the  Crees  provided  their  consent  for  the  partial  diversion  of  the Rupert  River  for  hydroelectric  development.  However,  this  consent  was exchanged  for  three  new  Cree-based  protected  areas  totalling approximately  14,000  square  kilometers,  and  a  new  progressive  forestry regime  that  reduced  the  rate  of  logging  in  Eeyou  Istchee  by  50%.    Most importantly,  the  Paix  des  braves  Agreement  provided  recognition  that  all further  hydroelectric  development  in  Eeyou  Istchee  would  be  subject  to Cree  consent.  

Hopefully,  by  this  point,  you  can  see  the  progression  that  the  Crees  have made  towards  having  greater  autonomy  over  the  400,000  square kilometers  of  land  and  water  that  make  up  Eeyou  Istchee.    To  be  clear,  it has  never  been  the  Crees'  intention  to  prevent  all  forms  of  resource development  in  our  territory.  On  the  contrary,  our  people  need  the  jobs and  economic  benefits  that  come  from  natural  resource  exploitation— remember,  we  were  active  partners  in  the  fur  trade  three  centuries  ago.   However,  we  are  proponents  of  measured,  balanced  development,  in keeping  with  our  long-standing  tradition  as  proud  stewards  of  the  land. For  example,  in  the  intervening  years  between  the  world  wars,  Canada's iconic  beaver  was  almost  rendered  extinct  by  three  centuries  of exploitation  and  an  invasion  of  war  veterans  seeking  their  fortunes  in  the trapping  way  of  life.  This  led  to  famine  among  the  Crees  in  Eeyou  Istchee. To  halt  the  extinction  of  the  beaver  and  limit  this  famine,  the  Government of  Quebec  created  a  7,000  square  mile  beaver  preserve  in  the  heart  of Eeyou  Istchee,  managed  by  the  Crees.  That  was  in  1930.  By  1940,  under  the Crees'  exclusive  stewardship,  beaver  populations  had  recovered  so  well that  the  area  was  reopened  to  commercial  trapping.  This  success  prompted the  Government  of  Canada  to  adopt  this  program,  and  a  further  187,000  square  kilometers  of  beaver  preserves  were  created  in  Quebec  and  across Canada.  

I  draw  on  the  past  here  to  illuminate  the  future.    Last  year,  the  Crees  signed yet  another  agreement  on  regional  governance  with  Government  of Quebec.  This  agreement  marks  the  next  chapter  in  the  Crees'  vision  of  self- governance.  We  have  moved  from  essentially  being  treated  as  wards  of  the state,  to  being  managers  of  our  small  villages  or  "reserves,"  to  at  last becoming  full  participants  in  the  municipal  governance  of  Eeyou  Istchee.    In assuming  this  governance  role,  the  Crees  will  play  an  exclusive  and  semi- exclusive  role  in  public  land  use  planning  and  regional  development  as regional  governmental  officials  rather  than  passive  stakeholders  awaiting consultation  for  someone  else's  plans.    

Still  in  its  implementation  phase,  the  new  regional  governance  agreement is  already  paying  dividends.  The  youth  of  the  Cree  community  of  Mistissini, with  the  support  of  the  Cree  Nation,  successfully  lobbied  for  a  moratorium on  uranium  mining  development  in  Eeyou  Istchee.  In  response  to  this  Cree request,  Quebec  extended  the  moratorium  to  the  entire  province  and called  for  public  hearings  on  the  uranium  question.  While  these  events were  playing  out,  the  Crees  signed  an  impact  benefit  agreement  with  a company  developing  the  province's  first  diamond  mine.  These  recent events,  in  contrast,  demonstrate  our  influence  on  deciding  which  resources will  be  developed  in  our  territory  and  which  will  not  be,  based  on  the  long- term  interests  of  the  Cree  people.  

With  this  new  chapter  in  the  Crees'  developing  self-autonomy  and governance,  the  Grand  Council  of  the  Crees  is  moving  from  a  reactive approach  to  land  conservation  and  protection—responding  to  proposed and  ongoing  developments—to  a  more  proactive  approach.  As  part  of  my portfolio,  we  oversee  the  development  of  a  regional  conservation  strategy for  all  of  Eeyou  Istchee,  some  400,000  square  kilometers.  This  strategy  will be  developed  over  time  in  accordance  with  the  Crees'  use  and  occupancy of  the  land,  the  priorities  of  Quebecers,  and  what  science  can  tell  us  about biodiversity  in  this  vast  territory.    

Right  now,  our  most  urgent  conservation  challenges  are  in  the  most southern  portions  of  Eeyou  Istchee  close  to  main  urban  centres.    Despite  all the  progress  I  have  spoken  about  here,  the  southern  portion  of  Eeyou Istchee,  especially  near  the  Cree  community  of  Waswanipi,  has  been radically  transformed  by  industrial  development.    A  satellite  image  of  this area  reveals  a  spider  web-like  network  of  tens  of  thousands  of  kilometers of  forestry  roads  as  the  once  impenetrable  primal  forests  have  been cleared  out.  To  address  this  transformation  and  forever  preserve  some  of this  region's  remaining  intact  forest,  the  Cree  communities  of  Waswanipi, Nemaska,  Oujé-Bougoumou,  Mistissini  and  Waskaganish  have  come together  in  support  of  the  Broadback  River  Watershed  Conservation  Plan. The  Broadback  Watershed  Conservation  Plan  is  the  first  part  of  the  Grand Council's  conservation  strategy  for  Eeyou  Istchee.  This  plan  is  to  preserve and  conserve  the  watershed  of  the  Broadback  River  by  protecting  the  river itself  as  a  core  and  establishing  a  network  of  carefully  planned  and  managed  buffer  areas  to  insulate  the  core  from  natural  resource development.    The  entire  plan  covers  a  total  of  21,000  square  kilometers, with  9,000  square  kilometers  devoted  to  permanent  protection  of  the river's  core.  

It  is  worth  noting  that  the  Broadback  River,  at  450  kilometers  in  length,  was one  of  the  key  rivers  that  the  Government  of  Quebec  targeted  for hydroelectric  development  in  1970.  If  our  efforts  to  protect  this  river  are successful,  the  Crees  will  have  come  full  circle  from  where  we  started  when the  government  unilaterally  decided  that  this  river  should  be  dammed  and diverted.    

This  makes  for  a  nice  story,  but  we  are  not  there  yet…and  this  is  one  of  the things  that  motivated  us  to  become  involved  with  the  World  Indigenous Network.    We  wanted  to  come  here  to  learn  and  be  inspired  by  Indigenous Peoples  who  are  in  similar  positions  with  similar  goals.    For  the  Crees,  the need  to  protect  the  Broadback  is  obvious.  As  Chief  Paul  Gull  from Waswanipi  recently  described  it:  

"In  Waswanipi's  traditional  territory,  only  the  areas  around  Lake  Evans  and immediately  north  of  the  Broadback  remain  road-less,  untouched  by forestry  development.    Once  these  areas  are  gone,  there  will  be  no  place  left in  Waswanipi  to  show  our  children  what  the  forest  was  once  truly  like  when our  elders  thrived  there."  

I  am  sure  this  is  the  kind  of  statement  that  many  of  you,  your  youth,  your leaders  or  your  elders  have  made  about  lands  that  your  people  consider sacred.    It  is  an  unfortunate  truth  that  we  all  share  this  reality.  With  the  Broadback  Watershed  Conservation  Plan,  we  are  in  direct  competition  with the  forest  industry  for  the  last  remaining  timber  stands  in  this  region.   Innocent  bystanders  to  this  tug-of-war  between  protection  and  logging  are the  woodland  caribou.  This  is  a  species  that  has  been  listed  as  endangered in  Quebec  and  Canada.  The  scientific  community  indicates  that  the  number one  threat  to  woodland  caribou  is  habitat  disturbance  and  loss  through forestry  development.  

Thus  the  Government  of  Quebec  has  an  important  decision  to  make:   perhaps  10  years  of  further  logging  to  keep  its  regional  lumber  mills operating  in  exchange  for  the  remaining  pockets  of  suitable  woodland caribou  habitat,  not  to  mention  the  loss  of  the  Waswanipi  Crees'  cultural connection  to  fragments  of  forest  untouched  by  roads  and  logging.    At  this juncture,  with  these  choices,  it  seems  clear  that  the  past  management  of these  resources  has  not  been  sustainable.    

Moving  to  the  future,  the  Crees  believe  that  it  is  time  to  build  a  new  set  of parameters  around  these  choices.    The  Crees'  vision  of  stewardship  invokes the  precautionary  principle  in  favour  of  the  natural  world.    First  and foremost,  Eeyou  Istchee  is  our  home  and  we  cannot  let  keystone  species  be eliminated  for  the  sake  of  short-term  economic  considerations,  nor  can  we allow  the  last  remaining  stands  of  ancient  forests  to  be  logged  out.   I  am  proud  to  say  that  this  is  a  vision  that  transcends  from  our  elders  on down  to  the  youth.  In  many  ways  Cree  youth  are  the  most  passionate about  Cree  stewardship  values,  as  we  recently  witnessed  by  the  journey  of the  nishiyuu  walkers  last  winter.    These  were  5  youth  from  Whapmagoostui,  the  northern  most  Cree  community  who  walked  along traditional  snowshoe  routes  and  highways  for  over  1600  kilometers  to Ottawa,  Canada  National  Capital.  Their  message  of  unity  and  respect  for  all Aboriginal  Peoples  and  their  lands  in  Canada  was  in  response  to  the prevailing  inaction  towards  Aboriginal  Peoples  in  Canada  and  the  anti- environmental  policies  of  the  current  Canadian  Federal  Government.   Starting  with  5  youth  and  2  guides,  their  journey  inspired  more  400 hundred  people  to  join  along  the  way.    When  this  mass  of  walkers  finally arrived  at  the  foot  of  Canada's  parliament  hill,  over  a  thousand  supporters greeted  them.  Their  journey  had  also  caught  the  imagination  of  over  30,000 followers  through  social  media.  

When  reflecting  on  the  journey  of  nishiyuu,  I  think  all  Crees  can  be confident  in  the  course  of  events  that  our  people  have  taken  to  this  point.   Our  language  still  predominates  among  our  people  and  our  traditional  way of  life  remains  a  vibrant  part  of  our  culture.      

To  conclude,  I  would  say  that  this  is  the  direction  that  we  are  paddling  in. This  is  the  direction  that  most  of  you  are  paddling  in.  And  hopefully  we  can convince  not  just  the  Government  of  Quebec,  but  all  governments  to  chart a  similar  course.  In  Eeyou  Istchee,  I  am  optimistic  that  our  long­earned gains  toward  greater  self-governance  will  enable  the  Crees'  vision  of stewardship  and  conservation  to  be  recognized  in  this  challenge.  

Meegwetch