I thank the members of the Chamber of Commerce and in particular Marc Bertrand, the president for inviting me to meet with you today. I would also like to acknowledge Mayor Trahan and to thank him for his support over the years to the Cree Nation in our efforts to seek implementation of our agreements with Quebec and as a friend. I come from Whapmagoostui, the Cree community that is situated the furthest north from Val d'Or, and yet when we are travelling home we feel that we are entering our homeland when we arrive here. You might say that this is the front door to Eeyou Istchee - James Bay.
Today, I just want to state that we appreciate very much having access to the health services and to the support that the presence of Val d'Or provides, through its businesses and through its infrastructure to all of the Cree communities of the region.
In the 1970's the Crees used Val d'Or as a staging place from which to begin the development of our communities. The offices of the Grand Council/Cree Regional Authority, Cree Trappers Association, of the Cree School Board and others were located here before they were moved to Nemaska, Eastmain, Mistissini and elsewhere. We originally located here to have better access to the air transport, road transportation, and commercial establishments. We also needed access to electricity and to the water system, as our communities lacked all of these things at that time. We of course eventually moved our regional government and school board into the communities to be closer to the people that they serve.
We have gradually built up our communities, with the help of many of the contractors and tradesmen from Val d'Or. Our people however continue to buy groceries, vehicles, hunting supplies, and technical services, etc. in Val d'Or.
When hydroelectric development came to our territory in the 1970's our Cree economy was still built around subsistence hunting, fishing and the fur trade. The fur trade however was decreasing and has continued to decline ever since that time. As you may know, technological change can have enormous impacts on local communities and on regional economies. We had long ago adapted our original way of life to the fur trade. In the 1970's industrial development provided opportunity for people with a variety of different skills, but to many of our people these new ways of making a living were foreign. In the 1970's our people were in the position of your ancestors when development first came to their farming ways of life. Only development did not come to us over a 50 or 100 year period, it came with the James Bay road that was built at the rate of one mile per day and within a year, development was upon us and our way of life was challenged.
I will not focus on the details of the history, as I am sure that many of you are already familiar with it. Rather, I wanted to mention that the result of our first fight for our rights was the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. It contained terms for development that the Crees accepted, because we thought that our people would have the means to adapt to the new developments while at the same time maintaining our language, culture and something of our way of life.
The 1975 Agreement was also a plan for regional development. It called for hydroelectric development projects and also for governmental regimes, with Cree and Quebec participation:
It called for a regional government operated out of Quebec, again with Cree involvement. For us, the Agreement was to provide the means needed to develop the Cree communities and to train and educate Crees to participate in the local and regional workforces and economies.
The problem was that once the ink was dry on the Agreement, it was the hydroelectric project that went ahead, while the project to develop the Cree Nation stalled - - because of the lack of funds and lack of interest in Ottawa and in Quebec City in keeping their promises to the Cree People. For fourteen years we tried to get governments to listen to us. It was only in 1989 that we decided to risk all of what was on paper by going to court and by insisting that our rights be put into effect.
Going to court can take a long time however. In fact we came to an agreement with the Government of Quebec in 2002, just as the main court case was getting under-way. This Agreement, known as the Paix des braves was a giant step for Quebec in that it demonstrated Quebec's respect for our human rights in the 1975 James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. For Quebec and also for the Crees, it was a key to re-opening the door to further development. Since signing that Agreement our people have begun to take a larger role as workers, as business owners and as partners with the Quebecois business community. We intend to continue to increase our involvement in the development and in the governance of the territory by working with you and the other Quebecois communities and companies of the region.
The time and effort that we invested in vindicating our rights was a time during which we did not have the means to improve the training and employability of our people. There is a thirty-year back-log of work that we must now do to bring our communities into their proper place in the region.
We have a young population of 15,000 with more than half under the age of 25 years. Moreover, our numbers are presently doubling about every 30 years and it is expected that there will be 20,000 Crees by the year 2020. We cannot absorb all of these into our local economies, so we must turn to regional development to have any possibility of full employment in the future. We are serious about continuing to work with the companies in the territory and we, like you, are committed to development for the long term.
The other part of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement that we fought to implement consists of Canada's obligations to the Crees. You may be aware that for the past 30 years we have taken court case after court case against Canada because it failed to respect its obligations to us. We fought for health services, transportation facilities, for local government, for community infrastructure and housing funding, for environmental protection, for justice and court services and many other matters. It was not until the Government of Steven Harper that we finally gained some serious attention. I am proud to state that we finally managed to succeed in having Canada settle with us on certain of its important obligations to the Crees.
Briefly, the New Relationship Agreement that we just signed with Canada provides for the following:
We believe that this new agreement gives us an even better chance of achieving the employment and development objectives that we must attain to provide for future generations. Moreover, we look to collaboration with regional companies and communities as a way of continuing to develop.
Our view is that we were promised what John Ciaccia described in 1975 when he said: "I think it is fair to say that great care has been taken in the negotiation of this Agreement to see that nothing prejudices their rights as citizens. Quite the contrary. The native peoples are offered, with this Agreement, reasonable condition for the pursuit of their traditional occupations. They are offered the services that are available to all other citizens of Quebec in their own communities They are offered powers of local administration as great as those of other communities in Quebec."
We believe that Bill 40 mistakenly accords to the citizens of some of the Quebecois communities in the territory, rights to regional governance that not only are not accessible to the Cree citizens of Quebec but that are contrary to the 1975 James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. We are assured however that this situation will be addressed in up-coming discussions that are set to take place with the government of Quebec.
There are those in the region who look upon the Crees with envy as we are now obtaining more of the benefits from the rights that were agreed-to in 1975. Let me assure you however that there is little cause for envy. We in the Cree community, just as you, face many serious challenges, in our case related to a serious epidemic of diabetes and also to the social problems that often befall a people who undergo rapid culture change.
Let us, as the inhabitants of this territory, look to the common objectives that we share as two peoples who have similar long-term interests in ensuring that our children can enjoy ways of living that are at least as satisfying as our own. I believe that we share interests in development not just for the sake of seeing the resources taken, but to see their extraction as a way to provide all of the people of the region with means to build a future where there is sustainable and diversified development of the territory's resources.
We all surely seek to accumulate some personal wealth so as to provide security for our families from the economic cycles, but at the same time we live here also to be able to enjoy the lakes, rivers and forests that define our ways of life. We seek to add value to the Quebec and Canadian economy but in so doing, we seek to make our region a better place for all of us to live. I believe that we should work together toward the goals that we share and that we should try to seek understanding and resolution on issues that might divide us.
I thank you, merci beaucoup, meegwetch!