The Grand Council of the Crees

Speaking Notes for Deputy Grand Chief Ashley Iserhoff

Bishops University Introduction to Indigenous Studies on the Plan Nord

Posted: 2012-03-21

Good morning,


Since it was first announced in September 2008, the Plan Nord has generated a great level of interest among all sectors of Québec, including the First Nations and business community, as well as abroad.  Across the Province, it is the subject of conferences, seminars and courses, like this one.

I was asked to give you a short lecture today on the impacts of the Plan Nord on the youth and how it relates to education, entrepreneurship and culture

The Plan Nord will have an impact on these issues but also on our way of life in general.  The Plan Nord may be around for the next two or three decades but its impacts will be felt for many more decades and it will affect our way of life and that of future generations.

In principle, the Cree support the sustainable development of the North.  They also support the Plan Nord, on certain conditions, and they are committed to working with the Government of Québec to implement it.

I will explain to you why we support the Plan Nord, on which conditions, and what it means for our people and our youth.  But first, I will give you a brief overview of who the Crees are, the work of the Grand Council of the Crees (Eeyou Istchee) and the context that led to our support for Plan Nord.

Who are the Crees

We are the Cree of Eeyou Istchee. We call ourselves Eeyou and Eenou. Our name means, simply, the “people”.  There are more than 18,000 of us, and almost 16,000 of us reside in the nine Cree communities.

The five communities located along the east coast of James Bay are Waskaganish, Eastmain, Wemindji, Chisasibi and Whapmagoostui.  The four inland communities are Waswanipi, Nemaska, Oujé Bougoumou and Mistissini.  A tenth Cree community, Washaw-Sibi, is in the process of being established.

For thousands of years we have lived off the land by hunting, fishing and trapping. Respect and gratitude were the values that guided us - respect and gratitude for the land and all it contained, for our families and the people who came before us, and for the Creator for all that was given to us.

For thousands of years, our identity was shaped by our relationship with the land, the animals and one another. The challenge facing us today is how to be Cree in this rapidly changing world.

Culture and identity are core dimensions and also at the center of our concerns.  Our culture has been eroded and weakened especially in a context of accelerated change where many major projects have impacted our culture and identity.

The Cree language is very much alive.  It is spoken by almost all the Cree.  But like our culture, our language can be eroded over time.

“Eeyou Istchee” is our traditional territory and homeland. The term means “the land of the Eeyou/Eenou” (“people”).  We, the Cree, have used and occupied all of Eeyou Istchee for thousands of years, from time immemorial.  We continue to do so today.

Our traditional Territory covers some 400,000 square kilometers.  It includes the lakes and rivers that drain into eastern James Bay and south-eastern Hudson Bay. This enormous territory embraces a wide range of environments, from the salt marshes and islands of the coastal zone to the areas far inland, and from the dense, coniferous forests in the southern areas to the sparsely-treed tundra further north.

Eeyou Istchee is not empty or unoccupied territory. This Territory is, in fact, the basis of the Cree traditional economy and self-sufficiency.

Eeyou Istchee is divided into a system of ‘traplines’ which are occupied and managed by family groupings for purposes of hunting, fishing, trapping and other traditional activities. A management system for Cree traditional family territories has been in place for many decades and it works very efficiently.

The Development of the James Bay Territory

On April 30, 1971, the Premier of Quebec, Mr. Robert Bourassa, announced the intention of the Government of Quebec to develop the vast hydroelectric potential of the James Bay territory.

In pursuance of this, the Quebec National Assembly enacted in 1971 special legislation – the James Bay Region Development Act – that set forth the framework for the development of our traditional territory.

The proposed James Bay hydro-electric project along the La Grande River was to have dramatic impacts on our entire Territory and our way of life.

In light of this proposed development, various Cree leaders at the time regrouped under an organization known as the Grand Council of the Crees (of Quebec) in order to defend the collective rights of the Crees.  This organization acted initially on an informal basis and was eventually formally incorporated in 1974.

Through the Grand Council of the Crees (of Quebec), the Quebec Cree approached the Indians of Quebec Association in order to initiate court proceedings to stop the proposed hydroelectric development.

In September 1972 a motion for interlocutory injunction was filed in the Quebec Superior Court in Montreal.  And on November 15, 1973, the Quebec Superior Court issued an interlocutory injunction to stop all construction activity related to the hydroelectric development in the territory.

This interlocutory injunction was suspended a few days later by the Quebec Court of Appeal.  But these events led to negotiation in 1975 of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement with the Governments of Quebec and Canada as well as the Crown corporations involved in the development of the James Bay hydro-electric project.

In signing the James Bay Agreement the Crees consented to the James Bay hydro-electric development project.  However, this consent came with many conditions.

The James Bay Agreement provides for, among other things:

Under the special environmental regime, the Crees sit on a panel with government officials to review the social and environmental impacts of all projects in the James Bay territory and they make a recommendation to the Government on whether to approve any project.  This was in fact the first environmental assessment regime in Canada – for which we are very proud.

Communities that may be affected by particular projects also have a chance to voice their concerns at public hearings conducted by the review panel.

For example, the Community of Mistissini, along with the Grand Council of the Crees, expressed their serious concern over a recent uranium project near that community and the lasting impacts that such project may have on the land and future generations.

The Crees will normally support development that is sustainable, that respects Cree rights, respects the environment and provides tangible benefits for our people.

The youth will often express their views on proposed development.  They are concerned about the impacts of development on their culture, on their relationship with the land, and on their ability in the future to pursue traditional activities.

The Crees are also involved in the planning of forestry activities in Eeyou Istchee. In fact, there is a unique forestry regime that applies in Eeyou Istchee that was agreed to in 2002.  This regime ensures Cree involvement at all stages of forestry planning, and imposes conditions on how the forest is cut to ensure that harvesting and traditional rights are protected, and to ensure that forestry can remain a sustainable form of economic activity in our territory.

Cree Vision of Plan Nord

As you can see, the Plan Nord is not our first encounter with development in our territory. Since the 1970’s the Cree have been struggling with the balance between protecting our traditions and territory, while at the same time embracing appropriate and sustainable development.  After all, development may be necessary to provide a viable economic base and to ensure that our youth have a real future in our communities.

In response to the Government’s Plan Nord, the Grand Council of the Crees set out its own “Cree Vision of Plan Nord” in February 2011.

In this Cree Vision of Plan Nord, we affirm that  the Cree welcome the responsible, sustainable development of their lands, Eeyou Istchee.  We declare that the Cree want to be real partners in the development of the territory’s vast potential. 

The Cree Vision of Plan Nord summarizes key principles which must be respected throughout the implementation of the Plan Nord. For example :

Respect for rights

Link between the Plan Nord and Governance

The Plan Nord and governance in Eeyou Istchee are inextricably linked.  The governance structures in Eeyou Istchee must provide for real, meaningful participation of the Cree.

Protected Areas

The footprint of past industrial developments in Eeyou Istchee must be taken into account in identifying the 50% of the area to be protected under the Plan Nord from industrial activity. 
The Cree must be fully involved in the definition of the concepts and principles that will guide the Plan Nord.  The Cree must be fully consulted in the preparation of any legislation to give effect to the Plan Nord. 

Access to Resources

The Cree must have our fair share of any funding provided by Government in connection with the Plan Nord. 

Tangible Benefits

In order for the Cree to support the Plan Nord, it must provide the Cree with concrete and tangible benefits. 

The Cree Vision of Plan Nord states certain basic Cree expectations with respect to the Plan Nord.  Some of these principles are that:

The Plan Nord must facilitate new partnerships between the Cree and Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal entities.
The Plan Nord must promote wealth creation for the Cree and other residents of Eeyou Istchee, through direct investments, contracts and employment.
The Plan Nord must accelerate job creation for the Cree through the development of Cree technical, professional and managerial workforce and provide a fair share of well paid jobs for the Cree.

Cree Support for Plan Nord

It was on the basis of Québec’s commitments to reform the governance of Eeyou Istchee and to include the Crees in such regional governance that the Crees expressed Cree support for the Plan Nord and agreed to sign the Partners’ Declaration at the launch of the Plan Nord in May, 2011.  This Declaration states, among other things:

THAT the Plan Nord must abide by the agreements already concluded with the First Nations and the Inuit living in the territory and their ancestral rights and that its implementation must be sufficiently flexible to allow for a case-by-case examination of each development project, take into account current and future negotiations, and adapt to changes in such negotiations, in particular in respect of governance; …

The Cree Nation has consistently stated that the Cree support the implementation of the Plan Nord provided that it respects Cree rights, respects the environment and provides tangible benefits to the Cree in terms of training, employment and business opportunities. 

Implementation of Plan Nord

Assinica Park National Reserve

Since the launch of the Plan Nord, several important announcements have been made.  On May 17, 2011, Premier Charest announced in Oujé-Bougoumou the creation of the Assinica National Park Reserve.

Extension of Route 167

In August 2011, the extension of Route 167 to the Otish Mountains was also announced.  This is one of several Plan Nord strategic transportation projects announced in the Québec Budget for 2011-2012.  Representing an investment of nearly $280 million over five years, the project will promote development of this region.

The Cree broadly support the extension of Route 167 as one means to facilitate the economic development of Eeyou Istchee.  In this regard, the Cree must share in the benefits associated with this project and any development facilitated by the project.  We need our fair share of the jobs and contracts created by these developments.  We have qualified, experienced Cree firms and workers who can contribute to these projects.  They must have the opportunity to get involved.

Environmental protection is a key consideration for the Route 167 extension project.  The potential impacts of the Route 167 extension project on woodland caribou must be minimized.  Woodland caribou are under severe pressure from loss of habitat and are in fact a threatened species.  The Cree seek concrete action from Québec to protect the woodland caribou and their habitat.

Specific Priorities

We have communicated to the Government of Québec certain Cree priorities and expectations in relation to the Plan Nord, more specifically regarding social housing, energy, transportation infrastructure, tourism and protected areas.  To date, there has been little in terms of concrete measures to address these priorities.  More concerted action is needed to demonstrate to the Cree that the Plan Nord will bring them tangible benefits.


While we support Plan Nord, we need to be mindful of its impact on our people and the youth.  The youth are concerned about development and the impact on our traditional way of life.

At the same time, the Cree have certain concerns with respect to the Plan Nord. These include, among others:

And so, our job of balancing development and tradition continues. Although we continue to spend a significant amount of time on our traplines and practice traditional activities, the reality is that young people need jobs. The Youth, ages, 13-29, are the highest largest demographic in our Nation, therefore as leaders it is incumbent upon us to create opportunities and sustainable economy in which our population can proper.

Right now, our best response to this difficult question of how to achieve a proper balance is to ensure that only development that is sustainable can move forward. When sustainable, the development must minimize negative impacts on our territory and our way of life. And finally, we must be involved in the project at every stage – whether it be through jobs, contracts or whether we become partners in the project itself.

We feel that this approach best respects both our past and our future.  It is not always easy. But I am proud to say that the Cree have been taking up this difficult task for every major form of development in our territory since the 1970s – when the North was first ‘opened up’ for development.  And since that time, we have had an enormous positive impact on how these projects have developed and were carried out – whether it be environmentally, socially or economically. Therefore, for us, the work continues.