The Grand Council of the Crees

Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come Address to First Nations Crown Gathering

Posted: 2012-01-23

Fellow Chiefs, National Chief, Prime Minister, Brothers and Sisters:

The National Chief has asked me to say a few words about economics and governance.  What I have to say comes from the experience of the Cree of Eeyou Istchee in Northern Québec.  Given the diversity of experience of First Nations, each must of course find its own paths to self-development and governance.

The governance rights of First Nations flow from our original sovereignty as nations.  These rights, expressed in terms of self-determination, are recognized by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, for which Canada expressed its support last June.  Articles 3 to 5 are especially relevant here:

Article 3

Indigenous peoples have the right to self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.

Article 4

Indigenous peoples, in exercising their right to self-determination, have the right to autonomy or self-government in matters relating to their internal and local affairs, as well as ways and means for financing their autonomous functions.

Article 5

Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and strengthen their distinct political, legal, economic, social and cultural institutions, while retaining their right to participate fully, if they so choose, in the political, economic, social and cultural life of the State.

Support for the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples necessarily means that Canada must take practical measures to recognize and implement the right of self-determination of First Nations.  Canada must remove any barriers, whether structural, legislative or capacity, to the full implementation of our right to self-determination.

If these rights of First Nations to self-determination and governance are to mean anything, the fiscal relations between the Crown and the First Nations must be transformed to ensure that First Nations have the means to implement these rights.  New fiscal mechanisms must be put in place to address the inequities and chronic lack of resources that have impeded First Nations in implementing their rights to self-determination and governance. Without proper resourcing, experience has shown that these institutions will simply wither.

By new fiscal mechanisms, First Nations do not mean just fiscal transfers.  We mean meaningful participation in the wealth generated by the development of natural resources on our traditional lands, in accordance with plans and priorities determined by First Nations themselves.

For we must recognize that a close link exists between economics and governance.  Without meaningful participation by First Nations in the governance of their traditional lands, they will always be excluded in economic development.  And without a share in the economic wealth from the development of resources on traditional lands, First Nation self?governance is a hollow phrase.

The Cree experience bears this out. One of the pillars of our modern Land Claims Agreement is the creation of Cree governance institutions.

We took control of our own governance institutions to improve the lives of our people and respond to their needs.  This required building relationships with both Canada and Québec, including putting in place new fiscal mechanisms to operate our governance institutions..

Some First Nations may have concerns that to engage with a provincial government may compromise their rights or sovereignty.  That has not been our experience.  Quite the opposite: in our case, continuing engagement with the Government of Québec has strengthened our Nation.

 Engagement with the Province of Québec has allowed us to expand incrementally our control in areas Education, Health, Local and Regional governments.

To take our rightful place in the governance of our traditional lands, and to participate in the management of natural resources on our traditional lands, we must engage with the provinces.

The Cree experience illustrates these points. Under the Paix des Braves, Quebec provides the Cree with funding to take over certain treaty obligations of Quebec to the Cree.  This funding is indexed annually, based on the value of the forestry, energy and mining resources taken from our traditional territory of Eeyou Istchee.

This arrangement provides the Cree with stable, predictable revenues over the long term in order to carry out the governance functions that we assumed under the Paix des Braves.  This illustrates the importance of using the resource wealth of First Nations territories to contribute to their governance initiatives and to their economic viability.

The Plan Nord in Québec is another example of the link between economics and governance.  The Plan Nord is intended to accelerate the development of the natural resources of northern Quebec.  It calls for the investment of some $80 billion over twenty years in this sector.

For the Cree, the Plan Nord presented both an opportunity and a challenge.  An opportunity because it promised new development that could provide our people with much needed jobs and contracts.  A challenge because the governance regime in Northern Québec was deeply flawed.

In 2001, Quebec passed legislation purporting to transfer critical powers over land use planning and management to the non-Native municipalities in the region.  This excluded the Cree, even though we form the majority of the region’s population and occupy all its territory.  This was clearly not a situation that we could tolerate.

Shortly after my election as Grand Chief of the Cree, we met with Premier Charest to discuss governance and the Plan Nord.  We told him that the governance of the North needed to be fixed.  We told him that economic development and governance are closely linked.  Without the inclusion of the Cree in the governance of the territory, the Cree could not support the Plan Nord.

To his credit, Mr. Charest understood what we were saying.  He “got it”.  We agreed to undertake negotiations to change the governance regime in northern Quebec which would be based on our “inclusion”.  Last May, shortly after the launch of the Plan Nord, we signed with Québec a Framework Agreement on Governance. 

We are now in negotiations with Quebec to define a new governance structure in the region which acknowledges Cree control over Cree territory, and builds upon, rather than undermines, previous agreements.

We have entered into these nation-to-nation negotiations with the intention of establishing a progressive and democratic model of a Cree Government which will clarify a wide range of governance issues in the territory and which will provide clarity and certainty with respect to the future development of Eeyou Istchee. It has taken us more than 35 years to get where we are today.

A word on the current governance approach of the federal Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development.  It attempts to apply limited models and solutions for the development of Aboriginal nations.  This approach fails to recognize the diversity of First Nations and the resulting need for flexibility.  The circumstances of Aboriginal communities and nations are not the same.  A model that applies in one place may not apply in another.  In short, one size does not fit all.  Solutions must be tailor made to resolve First Nations issues in a way that respects our diversity.

To sum up, in the Cree experience, economics and governance are two sides of the same coin.  Without a proper governance framework, there can be no economic development of lasting benefit.  And without economic development, governance is just a word.  To make the equation work, First Nations must engage with both federal and provincial governments.  For our future lies in establishing strong governance institutions and taking greater responsibility in the management of lands and natural resources.

Clearly, a new way of doing things is called for. If we are to fix the “Attawapiskats” across this country; If we are, once and for all, to change the nature of the relationship between ourselves and Canadian society as a whole, then we must start thinking about things differently. The Federal Government, the provinces, and we ourselves, must all have the courage to “think outside the box” and to find the workable and practical solutions this country needs now, and to do so in a way without jettisoning an understanding of, and adherence to, aboriginal rights.

Meegwetch, Thank you,  Merci