The Grand Council of the Crees

Conservation and Stewardship through Aboriginal Governance in Eeyou Istchee (Northern Quebec)

A presentation for the World Indigenous Network Conference Darwin Australia By Deputy Grand Chief Ashley Iserhoff

Posted: 2013-05-27

Kwei Kwei,

Hello everyone, my name is Ashley Iserhoff. I am the Deputy Grand Chief for the Grand Council of the Crees of Eeyou Istchee. I am from the community of Mistissini, one of 10 communities that make up the Cree Nation in northern Quebec, Canada.

First off, I would like to thank the Larrakia people for allowing all of us to gather here on their lands for this important occasion.  I would also like to thank those responsible for this wonderful event and, in particular, the representatives of the Australia Government who invited me here today, and all those with vision and determination to launch the World Indigenous Network.

You will have to bear with me as I catch my breath. You see last week, I was in a traditional Cree goose camp along the shores of the Rupert River—feasting on a successful hunt of geese and drinking the clean waters right of the river.  This is something that the majority of Crees do each spring as the migratory Canada geese return to our traditional lands each spring.  For many Crees this hunt is part of the natural food gathering cycle.  For others, tied to a desk job, we are fortunate enough as a modern and diverse Aboriginal society to still have the opportunity to live as our elders once did, even briefly, in amongst our busy schedules.

Since arriving in Darwin, I’ve had the chance to meet some of the other delegates, and I have been struck by the similarity of challenges we all face with regard to conservation and stewardship.  I am inspired by the display of novel and imaginative ways that Indigenous Peoples are approaching the protection of their lands.  Today, I would like to share with you the Cree experience on conservation and stewardship of our traditional lands, Eeyou Istchee.

To begin, a little background on the Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee. We call ourselves Eeyou or Eenou, which means “the people.” There are approximately 18,000 of us, with about 16,000 residing in our ten Cree communities in Eeyou Istchee.

We call our land in northern Quebec “Eeyou Istchee” or “the people’s land.” It covers some 400,000 square kilometres – that’s two-thirds the size of France.  It includes the lakes and rivers that drain into eastern James Bay and south-eastern Hudson Bay.  Like Indigenous Peoples’ lands everywhere, Eeyou Istchee has provided for the Crees for thousands of years. This continues today, as at least one third of the Crees continue to fish, hunt and gather as their primary means of subsistence.  This is why we consider all of Eeyou Istchee—the lands and waters, the plants and animals—as being sacred.

Like the Indigenous Peoples here in Australia and around the world, water has always been critical to our existence. However, in the Crees’ case, the issue is not the scarcity of water. We are blessed with an abundance of water—so much so that water has become a constant in the development of our territory.

Historically, water was the principle means of transport supporting trade among the Crees themselves and with our neighbouring First Nations. In the 17th century, these transport routes founded the fur trade with Europeans, leading to the “discovery” and “exploration” of our lands. Throughout the Crees’ history, water has been a constant source of economic wealth.

For much of the 20th century, our contact with Governments was sporadic because our location was remote. But in 1970, this changed when the Government of Quebec proposed a massive 3-phased hydroelectric project that would dam most of the key river systems in Eeyou Istchee—flooding thousands of square kilometers of hunting lands.  This was all planned without the Crees’ knowledge or consent.  And so began a 40-year struggle for the Crees’ self-autonomy.

Our struggle took shape when eight isolated Cree villages came together to form a collective nation under the Grand Council of the Crees. It was under the guidance of our elders to work together, thus was formed the Grand Council, which successfully forced a legal injunction on the construction of phase 1 of this massive hydro project. The courts recognized the Crees’ legal claim over our lands. And the Governments of Canada and Quebec conceded to negotiate with the Crees over the terms of this hydro project.  This resulted in Canada’s first modern-day Land Claims Treaty, the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, signed in 1975.

I must mention that the Inuit people whose lands to the north were also affected by the hydro projects were partners in our opposition and were part of this historic Agreement.

Among its 30 chapters, this James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement sets out three regimes:

Other important features of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement were provisions allowing for the Crees to set up their own education and health care systems and provisions for business development.

With the signing of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement in 1975, the Crees believed they were on course toward greater self-autonomy.

Unfortunately, the Governments of Canada and Quebec were only concerned about those provisions of the Agreement that allowed them to move forward with their hydroelectric projects. They neglected to act on many of the other provisions and the Crees’ vision of the future promised by this Agreement was not materializing. This was the state of affairs for some 15 years after the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement was signed.

In the late 1980s, the Government of Quebec initiated the second phase of its massive hydroelectric project. By signing the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, the Government assumed that the Crees had already provided their consent for all phases of the project so long as the project was approved through an environmental and social impact assessment. Legally speaking, this may have been the case. But since the Governments were not fulfilling their promises within the Agreement, the Crees felt fully justified in opposing the second phase of this project, particularly since they were excluded from any of the economic benefits of the project. The Inuit had also come to the same conclusion and they equally opposed the second phase of the project.

The Cree and Inuit opposition took the form of an international campaign squarely aimed at the American markets where Quebec’s hydroelectricity would be sold. After an intense 5-year lobbying campaign, the Crees and the Inuit managed to convince several American states—such as New York, New Hampshire and Vermont—to withdraw billions of dollars in purchasing contracts with Quebec. The loss of these contracts sounded the death knell for this phase of Quebec’s hydro project.

By the end of the millennium, the Government of Quebec was once again seeking to export more hydroelectricity to the United States.  But this time Quebec drew on the experience of having faced Cree and Inuit opposition on an international stage. The government proposed a new partnership agreement with the Crees that would address many of its broken promises of the past.

In 2002, the Crees and the Government of Quebec signed the Paix des braves Agreement, which serves as an implementation agreement for the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. This marked a new beginning in the relationship between the Crees and the Government of Quebec. The Paix des braves Agreement provides the Crees with an annual share of all present and future resource development activities in Eeyou Istchee, plus employment and training guarantees in future resource development in Eeyou Istchee. The Paix des braves Agreement created a true partnership whereby the Crees were no longer bystanders in the development of their lands.

This partnership did not come without a cost. In signing the Paix des braves Agreement, the Crees provided their consent for the partial diversion of the Rupert River for hydroelectric development. However, this consent was exchanged for three new Cree-based protected areas totalling approximately 14,000 square kilometers, and a new progressive forestry regime that reduced the rate of logging in Eeyou Istchee by 50%.  Most importantly, the Paix des braves Agreement provided recognition that all further hydroelectric development in Eeyou Istchee would be subject to Cree consent.

Hopefully, by this point, you can see the progression that the Crees have made towards having greater autonomy over the 400,000 square kilometers of land and water that make up Eeyou Istchee.  To be clear, it has never been the Crees’ intention to prevent all forms of resource development in our territory. On the contrary, our people need the jobs and economic benefits that come from natural resource exploitation—remember, we were active partners in the fur trade three centuries ago.  However, we are proponents of measured, balanced development, in keeping with our long-standing tradition as proud stewards of the land.

For example, in the intervening years between the world wars, Canada’s iconic beaver was almost rendered extinct by three centuries of exploitation and an invasion of war veterans seeking their fortunes in the trapping way of life. This led to famine among the Crees in Eeyou Istchee. To halt the extinction of the beaver and limit this famine, the Government of Quebec created a 7,000 square mile beaver preserve in the heart of Eeyou Istchee, managed by the Crees. That was in 1930. By 1940, under the Crees’ exclusive stewardship, beaver populations had recovered so well that the area was reopened to commercial trapping. This success prompted the Government of Canada to adopt this program, and a further 187,000 square kilometers of beaver preserves were created in Quebec and across Canada.

I draw on the past here to illuminate the future.  Last year, the Crees signed yet another agreement on regional governance with Government of Quebec. This agreement marks the next chapter in the Crees’ vision of self-governance. We have moved from essentially being treated as wards of the state, to being managers of our small villages or “reserves,” to at last becoming full participants in the municipal governance of Eeyou Istchee.  In assuming this governance role, the Crees will play an exclusive and semi-exclusive role in public land use planning and regional development as regional governmental officials rather than passive stakeholders awaiting consultation for someone else’s plans.

Still in its implementation phase, the new regional governance agreement is already paying dividends. The youth of the Cree community of Mistissini, with the support of the Cree Nation, successfully lobbied for a moratorium on uranium mining development in Eeyou Istchee. In response to this Cree request, Quebec extended the moratorium to the entire province and called for public hearings on the uranium question. While these events were playing out, the Crees signed an impact benefit agreement with a company developing the province’s first diamond mine. These recent events, in contrast, demonstrate our influence on deciding which resources will be developed in our territory and which will not be, based on the long-term interests of the Cree people.

With this new chapter in the Crees’ developing self-autonomy and governance, the Grand Council of the Crees is moving from a reactive approach to land conservation and protection—responding to proposed and ongoing developments—to a more proactive approach. As part of my portfolio, we oversee the development of a regional conservation strategy for all of Eeyou Istchee, some 400,000 square kilometers. This strategy will be developed over time in accordance with the Crees’ use and occupancy of the land, the priorities of Quebecers, and what science can tell us about biodiversity in this vast territory.

Right now, our most urgent conservation challenges are in the most southern portions of Eeyou Istchee close to main urban centres.  Despite all the progress I have spoken about here, the southern portion of Eeyou Istchee, especially near the Cree community of Waswanipi, has been radically transformed by industrial development.  A satellite image of this area reveals a spider web-like network of tens of thousands of kilometers of forestry roads as the once impenetrable primal forests have been cleared out. To address this transformation and forever preserve some of this region’s remaining intact forest, the Cree communities of Waswanipi, Nemaska, Oujé-Bougoumou, Mistissini and Waskaganish have come together in support of the Broadback River Watershed Conservation Plan.

The Broadback Watershed Conservation Plan is the first part of the Grand Council’s conservation strategy for Eeyou Istchee. This plan is to preserve and conserve the watershed of the Broadback River by protecting the river itself as a core and establishing a network of carefully planned and managed buffer areas to insulate the core from natural resource development.  The entire plan covers a total of 21,000 square kilometers, with 9,000 square kilometers devoted to permanent protection of the river’s core.

It is worth noting that the Broadback River, at 450 kilometers in length, was one of the key rivers that the Government of Quebec targeted for hydroelectric development in 1970. If our efforts to protect this river are successful, the Crees will have come full circle from where we started when the government unilaterally decided that this river should be dammed and diverted.

This makes for a nice story, but we are not there yet…and this is one of the things that motivated us to become involved with the World Indigenous Network.  We wanted to come here to learn and be inspired by Indigenous Peoples who are in similar positions with similar goals.  For the Crees, the need to protect the Broadback is obvious. As Chief Paul Gull from Waswanipi recently described it:

 “In Waswanipi’s traditional territory, only the areas around Lake Evans and immediately north of the Broadback remain road-less, untouched by forestry development.  Once these areas are gone, there will be no place left in Waswanipi to show our children what the forest was once truly like when our elders thrived there.”

I am sure this is the kind of statement that many of you, your youth, your leaders or your elders have made about lands that your people consider sacred.  It is an unfortunate truth that we all share this reality. With the Broadback Watershed Conservation Plan, we are in direct competition with the forest industry for the last remaining timber stands in this region.  Innocent bystanders to this tug-of-war between protection and logging are the woodland caribou. This is a species that has been listed as endangered in Quebec and Canada. The scientific community indicates that the number one threat to woodland caribou is habitat disturbance and loss through forestry development.

Thus the Government of Quebec has an important decision to make:  perhaps 10 years of further logging to keep its regional lumber mills operating in exchange for the remaining pockets of suitable woodland caribou habitat, not to mention the loss of the Waswanipi Crees’ cultural connection to fragments of forest untouched by roads and logging.  At this juncture, with these choices, it seems clear that the past management of these resources has not been sustainable.
Moving to the future, the Crees believe that it is time to build a new set of parameters around these choices.  The Crees’ vision of stewardship invokes the precautionary principle in favour of the natural world.  First and foremost, Eeyou Istchee is our home and we cannot let keystone species be eliminated for the sake of short-term economic considerations, nor can we allow the last remaining stands of ancient forests to be logged out.

I am proud to say that this is a vision that transcends from our elders on down to the youth. In many ways Cree youth are the most passionate about Cree stewardship values, as we recently witnessed by the journey of the nishiyuu walkers last winter.  These were 5 youth from Whapmagoostui, the northern most Cree community who walked along traditional snowshoe routes and highways for over 1600 kilometers to Ottawa, Canada National Capital. Their message of unity and respect for all Aboriginal Peoples and their lands in Canada was in response to the prevailing inaction towards Aboriginal Peoples in Canada and the anti-environmental policies of the current Canadian Federal Government.  Starting with 5 youth and 2 guides, their journey inspired more 400 hundred people to join along the way.  When this mass of walkers finally arrived at the foot of Canada’s parliament hill, over a thousand supporters greeted them. Their journey had also caught the imagination of over 30,000 followers through social media.

When reflecting on the journey of nishiyuu, I think all Crees can be confident in the course of events that our people have taken to this point.  Our language still predominates among our people and our traditional way of life remains a vibrant part of our culture.  

To conclude, I would say that this is the direction that we are paddling in. This is the direction that most of you are paddling in. And hopefully we can convince not just the Government of Quebec, but all governments to chart a similar course. In Eeyou Istchee, I am optimistic that our long-earned gains toward greater self-governance will enable the Crees’ vision of stewardship and conservation to be recognized in this challenge.