The Grand Council of the Crees

Presentation by Grand Chief Matthew Mukash

Learning Together Conference on Mining

Posted: 2009-04-19

I welcome you all on behalf of the Cree Nation to this mining conference. It is evident from the variety of speakers that we have on the agenda that many Aboriginal Peoples are searching for opportunities in mining. We have many lessons to learn from the experiences that we already have. There is a generation of Aboriginal youth and there are many Aboriginal citizens of working age across Canada who want involvement in whatever type of development is occurring or could potentially occur on their traditional lands.

The people of the land look for opportunity to start or to promote their existing businesses and they also will provide a good labour force for development projects of all kinds.

From the beginning, mining has been center-stage in the relations between the original inhabitants of America and the Europeans who came to this side of the world -- starting with Christopher Columbus. The Spanish Bandit (otherwise known as “explorer”) Cortés told Moctezuma that Spaniards suffered from “a disease of the heart for which gold was the only cure.” Somewhat later, echoing these words the Inca leader (Grand Chief) Atahuallpa (pronounced: Atahoo-alpa), asked the Bandit Pizarro somewhat sarcastically: “Do you eat gold” and the reply came that yes indeed he did.

In Pre-European times, Aboriginal Peoples in Canada had no interest in gold and even for the Incas and Aztecs, it was not the basis of their monetary system but was used to decorate their important buildings.

At the time, the quest for gold must have appeared to Aboriginal People as evil lunacy, because gold had little significance in their economies and ways of life but nevertheless, many Aboriginal people were slaughtered because of the Spanish taste for gold. Indeed whole aboriginal civilizations were lost on account of gold.

While gold decimated civilizations on this side of the Atlantic, it enriched Spain and indeed the whole of Europe. The Spanish spent their gold on buildings and sunk it into Armadas while the Dutch put it into their banks.

This same extractive mentality of “take the minerals whatever the local consequences” still continues today in some companies and in some countries where gems and minerals are taken with little regard for the local peoples or their lands. The fact that extraction costs are extremely low in some parts of the world depresses world commodity prices and it often promotes the violation of human rights through pay-offs to warlords and dictators. However generally speaking, modern states and increasingly, third world countries regulate mining to reduce environmental damages so that it benefits their national economies, even if in many cases the locals are still often marginalized.

While the debate on who should benefit from mining has become a provincial preoccupation in Canada, it is increasingly also becoming a regional and local concern as well. In parts of Canada even local private property owners are organizing against mining developments to defend what they believe their rights should be.

We also see this on the part of First Nations who enforce their rights over proposed developments on their traditional territories to the extent that they are able to do so. The Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug Council’s (Big Lake Trout Council) efforts against the Platinex platinum exploration on their lake and the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation’s efforts against the Frontenac Ventures uranium development at Sharbot Lake Ontario are but two cases among others that could be cited.

The Crees also saw mining and forestry development coming to our lands in the 1950’s and in the 1970’s they stood up for their rights against unregulated hydroelectric development. We hold to the principle that development can only proceed with Cree consent and in fact Hydro Quebec and others have begun to respect this principle in recent times. The mechanisms and Cree rights in the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement in regard to consultation and the review of proposed projects are aimed to protect the environment, to minimize negative social impacts and to bring maximal benefit to the Crees and Cree communities. Cree consent for developments is required.

The Cree People want involvement in mining development as it is one of the important economic potentials that we have in the Territory and it is one of the keys to opening up participation in development for future generations of Crees. But, we cannot accept development at any environmental or social cost. Local people must understand proposed projects and they must see them as being in their own interest before they can accept them. This means that projects must provide a balance of benefits that are seen as offsetting damages but more than that, are seen by local communities as consistent with and respectful of their values. We are determined to ensure that our community interests are addressed in all development proposals.

Even if the proponent and scientists believe that the foreseen environmental impacts are acceptable, local communities must understand these impacts and must also believe this also before they can accept any project. Moreover, they must know that a proposed project will provide opportunities for the community and that the promoter will take a responsible approach to future known and unpredicted damages and will implement the necessary restorative measures.

We First Nations look to increased involvement in development and in regional governance to provide for our growing populations. Each year thousands of new First Nation job entrants come out of school looking for employment. Too often, they do not find opportunities for work, so It is essential for us to work with developers to organize training programs that qualify our people for available jobs. Moreover, the standards for training should empower our citizens to qualify for full-time employment positions within and outside of our communities.

As leaders and parents we also have a responsibility to ensure that our schools outfit new graduates with the skills and educations that they require to gain opportunities in the communities, in development of the Territory or in higher education.

Added to these challenges, we are now in a world-scale economic downturn and it will take time to recover from this. Governments are beginning to take a new role as they spend on projects and initiatives designed to reignite economic growth. We can use the next few years to plan and to train our people for projects that are coming up and will eventually be developed. We need to position ourselves to be able to maximize the benefits to our people of future mining development. What this requires is creating an environment where the rules are clear and the relationship with developers is clear in welcoming of developers.

We should also look for projects that we can support jointly with the mining industry such as roads or other infrastructures that will facilitate future developments of all types. In our region there are two potentially important roads: the access road to Whapmagoostui and the Brisay-Mistissini road that could be beneficial as they would structure long-term development. Moreover, port infrastructure is needed for our communities as it would eventually provide access from the road network in Quebec to northern ocean shipping routes.

If we look to other parts of Canada, there are places where mining infrastructure has brought long-term economic diversification and prosperity. This conference will allow others to voice their interests and points of view. It is now up to us First Nations and up to all proponents of development projects to adopt a new vision of cooperation so they can work together to resolve problems and to overcome the challenges that are before us. I am committed to this as are the members of the Cree Mineral Exploration Board, the Cree Chiefs and the leaders of Cree business ventures. It is evident that many in this room share this view also.

Finally, I must note that gold is in fact eaten. The market price for edible gold-leaf is $1,250 per ounce, much higher than the current market price of gold. Perhaps we could promote this market in Spain.
Meegwetch! Thank you! Merci!

Grand Chief Matthew Mukash