The Grand Council of the Crees

Cree Nation Governance Agreement

Official Signing Ceremony - July 18, 2017

Posted: 2017-07-18


The Agreement on Cree Nation Governance (Governance Agreement) flows from the Agreement concerning a New Relationship between the Government of Canada and the Cree of Eeyou Istchee of 2008, which sets out a process for negotiations leading to a Cree Nation Governance Agreement and a Cree Constitution. These negotiations were completed in the autumn of 2016, and were followed by extensive consultations with the Cree beneficiaries, Cree First Nations and other interested Cree parties in Eeyou Istchee. The Governance Agreement and the Cree Constitution have been formally approved by resolution of each of the Cree First Nations and of the Cree Nation Government. Canada also approved the Governance Agreement and authorized its signature. After the signing, the Agreement will take effect when its implementing federal legislation comes into force.

Speaking Notes Of Grand Chief Dr. Matthew Coon Come For The Grand Council Of The Crees (Eeyou Istchee) / Cree Nation Government Signing Ceremony Agreement On Cree Nation Governance With The Government Of Canada Ottawa July 18, 2017

Minister Bennett, Member of Parliament Romeo Saganash, former Grand Chiefs Ted Moses and Matthew Mukash, Cree Chiefs, Council/Board Members, Elders, Women and Youth, distinguished guests and friends, it gives me much happiness and pride to be with you today for the signature of the Agreement on Cree Nation Governance between the Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee and the Government of Canada.

On behalf of the Cree Nation, I wish to acknowledge the Algonquin Nation, on whose unceded land we meet today for this signing ceremony.

Let me also thank distinguished Cree Elder and former Chief Philip Awashish of Mistissini for your presence here today. As a signatory and negotiator of our treaty, the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, you serve as a guardian of the values and principles that it embodies. You have helped to ensure that the Agreement on Cree Nation Governance remains faithful to the vision of the late Grand Chief Dr. Billy Diamond and other Cree leaders.

What was this vision? It has always been one of Cree self-government and self-determination. It is this vision that continues to guide us today. So how do the Governance Agreement and its companion, the Cree Constitution, advance this vision?

First, they bring governance on our Category IA lands home to where it belongs, with us, the Cree First Nations and Cree Nation Government. They remove this governance from a federal statute, the Cree-Naskapi (of Québec) Act, and transfer it into the Governance Agreement and the Cree Constitution.

Second, the Governance Agreement and the Cree Constitution remove federal oversight of Cree governance on Category IA lands. No longer will we be adopting by-laws, but laws, like any normal government. No longer will we be submitting our laws to the Minister for review and approval. It will be for us, and us alone, to decide on the laws that govern us. As a mature government, this is a responsibility that we are more than ready to assume.

Third, our rules of internal governance have been moved from the CreeNaskapi (of Québec) Act into the Cree Constitution. Our Constitution sets out a basic framework of Cree values and procedures that will continue to evolve to incorporate distinctive Cree forms of governance. This is a key development, for our Constitution is not subject to the consent or approval of Canada or Québec. It is a purely internal Cree document, one we can amend ourselves alone.

Fourth, the Governance Agreement will provide the Cree First Nations with much needed stability and security, for it defines financial arrangements with Canada concerning governance on Category IA lands from now until 2040. With this predictability, the Cree First Nations can, for the first time, plan for the long-term.

This day has been a long time coming. Negotiations started eight years ago, in 2009. There have been plenty of twists and turns along the way – obstacles to overcome, differences to resolve, agreements to forge, bridges to build. This is reconciliation in action. And here we are at last, at the end of one journey, and the beginning of another.

A few months ago, Thomas Coon, a Cree elder from Mistissini, was interviewed about the Governance Agreement and Cree Constitution. Thomas can’t be with us today, but his words, translated from Cree, are worth repeating:

“Now we are following what our people did in the past. They were independent. They thought for themselves when they were out on the land. With the development of the Cree Constitution and self-governance, it’s as if we’re on a trail. It’s a journey. Imagine a hunter crossing a big lake. The hunter wants to reach the other side of the lake. That’s like us trying to gain that self-reliance. We are halfway there. There’s still quite a distance to go to the other side.”

Thomas Coon’s words echo the founding vision of the Cree signatories of our treaty, the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, signed in 1975 with Canada and Quebec. The Cree have always seen our treaty as an emancipation from the Indian Act. But, more than that, we have seen the treaty as a means to regain Cree self-government and autonomy in Eeyou Istchee.

Since the James Bay Agreement, the Cree of Eeyou Istchee have signed around 80 major agreements with Canada, Québec and industry. These include such milestones as the Paix des Braves, concluded by Grand Chief Ted Moses with Quebec in 2002, the New Relationship Agreement, concluded by Grand Chief Matthew Mukash with Canada in 2008 and the Cree-Quebec Governance Agreement, which I had the honour to sign in 2012 with Premier Jean Charest of Quebec.

What story do these agreements tell? On the one hand, they tell of the long Cree struggle to make our vision of self-government and self-determination a reality. We have never surrendered these rights. We have remained faithful to the vision of our founding mothers and fathers. Today, I think that they would be pleased to see what the Cree Nation has accomplished.

These Agreements are also milestones on the path to a new Nation to Nation relationship between the Cree and Canada and Quebec, based on mutual respect as equal partners. This is the only possible basis for true reconciliation. The Governance Agreement that we sign today with Canada marks another important step towards reconciliation.

How have the Cree come so far? The legacy left to us by our elders does much to explain it. They gave us a strong and shared vision to guide us. They taught us the discipline to maintain unity in adversity. They taught us the importance of stability: since the James Bay Agreement more than 40 years ago, we have had only four Grand Chiefs. They taught us the humility to take a pragmatic, incremental approach: we do not demand perfection; we adopt solutions that work in the here and now. We build our governance the same way we build a house, step by step. They taught us integrity: we do what we say, and so build trust with our partners.

And, finally, they taught us the strength and determination born from hardship. The Cree are no strangers to hardship. Our parents and grandparents knew hunger and even famine. Life on the land has its share of beauty, but it is not easy. It demands courage, self-reliance and resilience. Many Cree here today know this first-hand. Like me, many of us were born in the bush. And, like me, many of us were taken as children away from our families to residential school. This was a harsh experience that marked all of us who went through it. But, as we sometimes say, if it didn’t crush you, it made you stronger.

Well, we are here to say that the Cree are not crushed. Far from it. We have moved beyond victimization and are stronger than ever. We are building our Nation with confidence, and the Governance Agreement we are signing today adds to its strength.

In less than a week, there will be a new Grand Chief of the Crees of Eeyou Istchee. After close to 40 years, I have decided with my wife Mary Anne and my children that it is time for me to step back from active public life.

I have been privileged to lead the Cree through some of the greatest challenges of our times. These include the campaigns to stop environmental destruction in Eeyou Istchee from the Great Whale River hydroelectric project and over harvesting of the forest; prevent hazardous uranium development; create new protected environmental areas; establish the Commission of Inquiry in Quebec to prevent discrimination against Indigenous people; and, with today’s Governance Agreement, put in place the last major component of Cree self-government.

So it is fitting that the signature of this Governance Agreement marks the end of my time as Grand Chief. Over the past months, I have travelled to every Cree community to share what this Governance Agreement and the Cree Constitution mean for us. In every community, Cree women and men, young and old, came forward with their questions, concerns and hopes. It has been profoundly moving to share this experience with them. I cannot think of a better way to end my time as Grand Chief.

I’ve quoted Thomas Coon before, so let me end by doing so again. Thomas reminds us that, with this Governance Agreement and the Cree Constitution, we have set the foundations of Cree Nation Governance. But it is up to the next generations to continue building our governance “house”. I don’t say, finish the job – it will always be a work in progress. Those who follow us will take Cree governance and Cree Nation building to the next level.

To all the Cree who have given me your trust and support, and have lent me your courage and strength through so many challenges over so many years, including this last chapter of the Governance Agreement, it has been a privilege to serve you. I thank you with all my heart.