James Bay Crees surrender their great river Rupert to industrial development,
rely on Quebec promises in return
By Boyce Richardson
October 26, 2001 — Every capitalist state of the industrial world exercises immense pressure on its lands and people for the raw materials it needs to fuel its economy. Canada is no exception to this, as the Crees of James Bay already know to their cost.
In 1993 the Quebec government and its energy utility Hydro-Quebec were forced to abandon their Great Whale hydro extension when the courts found they were trying to make an end run around the undertakings they had signed in the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement in 1975, and ordered them to respect these legal obligations. But by the turn of this century the Crees figured that $5 billion a year in production of electricity, forestry and tourism was being taken off the hunting territories that had been virtually untouched by industrialization a quarter of a century before, and the Crees have received nothing of this wealth. Since1993, however, Quebec has been pressuring the Crees to agree to further "development" of their traditional territories. Burned by their previous experience, Quebec has had to offer to cut the Crees into some part of the profits, and last year they invited the Crees to be partners in a plan to divert the Rupert River into the Eastmain, and use the water to generate 1,200 megawatts of electricity. When Hydro-Quebec functionaries turned up to sell this plan to the people of Waskaganish (that used to be called Rupert House) at the mouth of the Rupert, they were put into a canoe and hustled out of town.
Clearly Hydro-Quebec has realized they would have to give something to the Crees in return for their agreement to allow Hydro-Quebec to divert (and ruin) the Rupert, one of the most magnificent wild rivers in Canada, and the veritable heartland of the Cree way of life. That is the meaning of this new deal, announced this week. The Crees have agreed to rely on a new set of promises from a partner that has never before kept its promises, during 25 years, and that has forced the Crees into court dozens of times to have their legal rights implemented.
This new deal represents a capitulation by the Crees to the implacable forces of industrial capitalism. They have finally had to give up trying to defend their great river. They have some urgent reasons to do so, notably that they desperately need to provide education and work for their growing numbers of young people. "But in my heart," said one of the Cree functionaries who has negotiated this new deal, to me this week, "I feel it is about 51 per cent a good deal, and 49 per cent bad. I've fought them for seven years, hand-to-hand combat, every day, week after week, to preserve our river. You can imagine how I feel now."
One message from all this is that any group of 10,000 people --- especially an Aboriginal group whose values are inimical from those of Western society --- cannot hold out forever against the power of Western money, and the greed of Western consumerism.
Spillway at LG2 dam on La Grande River constructed during the original James Bay Project in the 1970s.
Photo: Brian Back
So what have the Crees obtained in return for this capitulation? A good deal of what came from the mouths of Grand Chief Ted Moses and Quebec Premier Bernard Landry during their joint press conference was window-dressing, to obscure the fact that many of the new promises are exactly the same promises that were made in 1975, and never kept. The Crees take over the obligations that Quebec undertook in the JBNQA in 1975, outlined in Section 28. This was the section dealing with economic and community development, with road building and maintenance, water and sewer provisions, investments in Cree businesses, development of outfitting and tourism, arts and crafts, fuel distribution, and forestry and mining. It was to have stimulated a structure for vocational and training programs that would fit the Crees to take an important role in the economic development of their territories. Most of this came to nothing, or at least to very little. Very few Crees were trained and found jobs. Few Cree businesses were established.
The Cree Trappers' Association, which also came under this section, was established and worked effectively, but eventually its funding was cut off and it had to be closed down, at least for some time. From here on, all this will come under the aegis of the Crees themselves.
The new deal provides for the establishment of a Cree Development Corporation, to replace the ineffective James Bay Native Development Corporation. The new corporation will have greater Cree representation than the old one. The Cree argument in favor of this new deal is that it is a step towards self-government: the Crees will now be running their own show, not Quebec.
At the level of forestry, the old JBNQA was a complete failure from the Cree point of view. The Quebec government treated the Cree trappers with shoddy indifference, passing a new forest management regime (known as CAAFs) without in any way consulting the Crees. I remember some years ago being told by Sam Gull, Waswanipi's environment officer, how he had consulted the local trappers and obtained from them details of the lands on their traplines that were essential to the maintenance of the Cree hunting and trapping way of life. When this information was given to the Quebec government, they simply rejected it, saying it would cost the companies too much to implement it.
Under the proposed new regime, the Crees hope, matters will be better. The Cree lands will be covered by a new system to be added to the Quebec forestry regime, in which the trapline will be recognized as a forest management unit (whatever that means; no one this week was able to tell me). Some 25 per cent of each trapline will not be cut, about 1 per cent will be preserved for sacred reasons, and over the remaining 74 per cent "practices will be developed which tend to favour the maintenance of forestry operations and the maintenance of quality wildlife habitats." This means that so-called "mosaic" cutting will be practised over the Cree lands, not clear-cutting. When I asked did this not mean that the trappers were surrendering 75 per cent of their traplines for forestry, I was told the details were yet to be worked out.
This certainly sounds much more promising than the old system, in which Quebec simply allowed the logging companies to clear-cut the heart out of the Cree trapping life.
Quebec has also agreed to provide the Crees with $23 million in the year 2002-2003, $46 million in 2003-2004, $70 million in 2004-2005, and a similar sum for every year thereafter for 50 years, indexed according to industrial production coming off the Cree lands. This will certainly end Quebec's freezing of the funds owed under the JBNQA, and to that extent will be an obvious immediate gain for the Crees. The benefit to the Crees, they say, could rise to a possible $3.5 billion over the next half century.
The Crees have also agreed to drop the many law suits that they had been forced to take against Quebec in their desperate effort to force their partners in the JBNQA to carry out their obligations, and (although Cree spokesmen have denied this) according to Premier Landry's office, "the Crees will undertake to not bring any more lawsuits against Quebec regarding the latter's application of the JBNQA."
In short, the Crees have, in a sense, stripped themselves naked before their long-term adversaries, and are now hoping that they will keep their promises as they have not done in the past.
I wish them well. They believe, in the words of their negotiator Abel Bosum, that they have not handed Quebec a blank cheque to develop the Rupert (it may not be approved by the assessment procedures). But, in the words of Quebec northern expert Louis-Edmond Hamelin, "nothing in this document indicates that each side has understood the culture of the other."Let's hope the dialogue of the deaf, as one might call Cree-Quebec relations thus far, will not continue into the future.
Boyce, an award-winning author and documentary film-maker, has been a long-time observer of the Cree and the pivotal political events of the last 30 years. He wrote Strangers Devour the Land, a chronicle of the Cree and the James Bay Development Project. Two of his films, Cree Hunters of Mistassini and Job's Garden, are cultural and historical treasures, capturing the hunter-gatherer society before it was permanently disrupted and lost after the James Bay Project.
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