The Grand Council of the Crees

Comments by Grand Chief Matthew CoonCome at the Screening of "Together We Stand Firm"

Posted: 2011-02-03

I welcome all who have come tonight to see the film “Together We Stand Firm”.  The lives of many of us have been touched and even defined in powerful ways by the events of the 1970’s in Eeyou Istchee, Quebec.  For Quebecers in the 1960’s and 70’s hydroelectric development was to be the economic engine to bring their growing nation economically and politically into the 20th century.  For the Crees who pursued a traditional way of life in the bush, the arrival of this project on our lands was also going to bring our society into the modern world, only in our case the distance to be covered was long and the speed of the journey of change was therefore to be much more rapid.

In a manner similar to Quebec, we place conditions on our own development so that our language, values, way of life and social conventions can adapt to the impacts of development and at the same time so that we can take advantage of the opportunities that come with the transformation of the territory.

The importance of protecting culture and language is shared by Quebec and the Crees and this fact was important in the shaping of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement.       

The story that you will watch this evening is about of a generation of Crees that came out of school and took-up the challenge of helping their people to win recognition of their rights.  They had rights recognized to their traditional lands and to a variety of services and programs that were important to the future of the Cree Nation. 

This was a generation of Crees who were born in the bush where their parents harvested what the land naturally provided.  Many of this new generation, such as the late Grand Chief Dr. Billy Diamond, the late Albert Diamond, Grand Chief Dr. Ted Moses, Robert Kanatewat, Dr. Philip Awashish, the late Smally Petawabano, the late Steven Bearskin and many others bravely stood up to defend their lands and people’s way of life.

This young generation of Crees sought recognition of their people’s time honoured control over their lands and communities.  They sought it in the face of the massive James Bay Development Project already being built.  The opposition of the Crees in the courts to the James Bay Project was the appropriate reaction to decisions that had been made without our consent. It was the only way for us to be heard in Quebec at that time.

This film will take us back to the beginning of the Grand Council of the Crees, of the court case to defend our rights and of the negotiations that eventually followed.

We now live in a world that is characterized by instant communication around the world.  At the time of the James Bay Court Case and the later negotiations most of the Cree communities did not have telephone service, road access or airports. And there wasn’t any Google, Email, Twitter or even Facebook.

In the communities the Cree negotiators would hold well attended public meetings where the issues before the court or being negotiated were lively debated.  Then they would leave their communities, their families and take a plane south for the next week or month or more of meetings.  It took three hours to fly from for example, Waskaganish to Val d’Or in a single-engine Otter on floats or skis, and another hour to fly to Montreal.  It took longer from those coming from more remote communities. The conditions of travel and negotiation meant that the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement was negotiated at great personal cost to the Cree leaders and their families.

The meetings in Montreal were also not easy.  There were pre-court sessions in the mornings, in the afternoon hearings would take place and discussions on the day’s events would often continue into the evening.  Such a routine lasted for over three years but intensified during the negotiations.  Personal lives were deeply affected by those on all sides of the table. 

But there was a goal shared on all sides to strive for an agreement that would give the Crees and Quebec ways to advance their respective interests.  There was no blueprint or program for the Agreement, the needs and the means had to be negotiated one by one.

The result of these events, the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, was signed on or around November 11, 1975.  Some say that it was signed after midnight on the 12th; did someone move the clock back?  Was the Agreement born too soon as some claim or would the Agreement have died if the events of that night not come to a conclusion?

In my view, the Agreement has stood the test of time and compares well with all other treaties signed in the past or since 1975.  It is not the best agreement possible, because both sides know of ways of improving it.  On the other hand the Agreement has kept the parties talking about how to implement it for many years.  These discussions on our common interests have meant that our relationships with Quebec, Canada, Hydro Quebec and with the Inuit and Naskapis have been kept current since 1975.

Even after the serious disagreements of the 1990’s, the eventual result was to find a way forward by bringing new life to the Agreement through the 2002 Paix des Braves and by the 2006 Canada - Cree New Relationship  implementation agreements.  
More recently we are discussing implementation of the Agreement with Quebec in matters concerning democracy and regional administration, while with Canada we are also discussing Cree governance. 

The story of “Together We Stand Firm” is the first in a series of four films on the decades that have passed since the 1970’s.  The story is told in the words of the people who lived it and it is intended to let their voices be heard by future generations.  The story is also drawn from a wider library of video interviews that we are assembling and will make available to researchers.  Our intention was not to give just one version of the past but to have those who were involved share some of the ideas and recount the events leading up to and during the negotiation of the Agreement. 

You may have other views than those expressed here in the film and I encourage you to make public your views and to share photographic and other media accounts.  The intent of this film is to keep the history of the Agreement alive for future generations.  It is also to encourage debate on the Agreement as it was written and as is has been and will continue to be an instrument of change, empowerment and peace in the future.