November 10, 2001
Cree deal a model or betrayal?
by Alex Roslin
historic Quebec-Cree deal two weeks ago for a $3.8-billion hydro project
has been hailed as a breakthrough in Canada's sour relationship with
First Nations, opening the door to billions of dollars of new
development projects in resource-rich James Bay.
in the nine Cree villages of northern Quebec -- far-flung communities
between 600 and 1,200 kilometres north of Montreal -- the agreement has
generated anger among Crees who were stunned by the unexpected news on
say Quebec blackmailed Cree officials into accepting a new mega-project
in the pristine heartland of their territory. Moreover, they wonder if
the deal will force them to go along quietly if Quebec separates. They
accuse their chiefs, who negotiated in secrecy, of betraying a
long-standing opposition to new hydroelectric projects.
acceptance of the dam complex is an astonishing reversal for Quebec
Crees, who have mounted international protests and court battles for
more than a decade against new hydro projects on the rivers of James
shocked. We feel defeated by our own leaders," says Roger Orr, a
Cree small-business owner in Nemaska, some 1,000 kilometres north of
Montreal. "Everything was done behind closed doors."
16-page agreement, signed by Quebec Premier Bernard Landry and Cree
Grand Chief Ted Moses at the Quebec National Assembly, is now being
taken to the Cree communities for debate and ratification. Mr. Landry
and Mr. Moses hope for approval from the Cree people by Christmas.
deal would put an end to years of disputes over hydro projects and
unfulfilled promises of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement,
Canada's first modern treaty. The 1975 agreement gave the green light to
construction of the world's biggest dam in Northern Quebec, but soon
after Crees started accusing Quebec and Canada of not living up to their
Quebec-Cree deal is being closely watched across the country, as First
Nations wrestle with similar questions about how to improve living
conditions, regain control over resources and achieve self-government.
the terms of the agreement, Quebec builds its $3.8-billion hydro
project. It also gives Crees $3.6-billion over 50 years for economic
development, housing, infrastructure, support for trappers and to fulfil
the terms of the James Bay agreement. In a first, the payments are
partially indexed to revenues from forestry, mining and hydro projects
in Cree land.
would also be able to make recommendations -- albeit non-binding ones --
on how forestry companies log in Cree hunting grounds.
exchange, Crees must drop $8-billion in lawsuits filed against Quebec
and agree to a new 1,280-megawatt hydroelectric project on the Rupert
and Eastmain rivers, which would create some 8,000 jobs for Quebecers.
and Cree officials are calling the deal a shining model for the rest of
the country. "The path of the future for native people is to give
them the opportunity to exploit resources and share in that," says
Guy Chevrette, Quebec Native Affairs Minister.
Wapachee, the chief of the Cree community of Nemaska, is also
enthusiastic. "It will certainly open the eyes of other provinces.
Hopefully, they will follow suit in their dealings with other aboriginal
Wapachee says the deal is promising for Cree youth faced with high
unemployment. "We have to look at the future. We have a lot of
young people with nothing to do."
the deal has already slammed into a wall of opposition. Mr. Moses and
his officials have made an initial tour of the nine communities to
explain the deal and answer questions. The reception has been heated.
Mr. Wapachee's village, most residents were vehemently opposed. Youth
entered a community assembly with a banner saying, "Let our rivers
flow free." A young Cree man asked an embarrassed Mr. Moses to read
from a poster opposing dams that he had once autographed.
was very lopsided. I would say 95% were against it," says Neil
Diamond, a journalist for the Cree magazine, The Nation.
runs high because Nemaska is just 40 kilometres south of one of the
possible sites for the planned 350-square-kilometre reservoir on the
Rupert River. Some 1,500 to 1,700 workers employed to build the dam
complex would be housed at a camp just outside the community.
don't have the right to sell the land," says Roger Orr, co-owner of
The 4-in-1, a restaurant in Nemaska. "To me it's like prostituting
chiefs are trying to sell the agreement as good for youth, but young
Crees seem to be among the strongest critics. The youth council has come
out against the deal and many young people were vocal opponents in the
vast majority [of youth] I've talked to don't like it. They want to get
together and fight against it," Mr. Orr says.
are also worried. Lindy Moar will see the Rupert, which flows through
his family's ancestral hunting grounds, reduced to a trickle. He says
the deal was a hard blow to his father, who spends most of the year
living in the bush. "He felt the same way as after that incident in
New York when the twin towers came down."
is also the question of whether the deal binds Crees' fate too closely
to that of the provincial government. "What happens if Quebec
separates?" asks Mr. Moar. "Are we tied to them in this
partnership? Do we have to go with them?"
have long opposed such deals. There was ferocious opposition to Quebec's
proposed Great Whale hydro project in the early 1990s. It was shelved in
1994 after a savvy international protest campaign. At last year's annual
general assembly meeting, Crees told their chiefs not to negotiate any
new hydro projects.
the change of heart? One Cree official, speaking on condition of
anonymity, says there was no choice. He says Mr. Landry told Mr. Moses
there would be no deal on forestry or funding for housing, sewers and
other community infrastructure if Crees did not accept new dams.
Chevrette acknowledges the Rupert project was the condition of settling
the issues. "We wanted a long-term agreement but on condition that
we can develop the north. We didn't force them. We didn't scalp
Crees call this blackmail. "When people are desperate and hurt,
others want to take advantage of them," says Paul Dixon, the Cree
trappers' representative. He pronounced himself "not
impressed" when he was told of Mr. Chevrette's reference to
scalping in an interview.
Dixon says Cree chiefs had no mandate to agree to the Rupert hydro
project. "It's the same guys we signed the deal with 25 years ago.
They promised the traditional way of life would continue undisturbed.
Today, the whole territory has been slated for development."
also says the deal promises few improvements on forestry, long a
battleground between Crees and Quebec. "We're still squatters and
beggars in our own land."
secrecy that has surrounded negotiations is also a sore point. Cree
officials who worked on the negotiation have been told they would be
fired if they revealed the inner workings of the deal.
the Cree chiefs who head the nine villages that will be affected were
kept largely in the dark until a few days before the deal was announced,
says Matthew Mukash, the Cree deputy grand chief.
says he and the other chiefs were surprised to learn the deal included a
hydro project. "People were confused. The chiefs didn't really know
what to say. They had to make a decision the same day on whether to
accept it. With much reluctance, there was an agreement to put this on
the table for the people to consider it."
Crees worry that the lack of open discussion could affect ratification.
Cree officials have waffled on whether there will be a referendum.
Mukash expresses concern about a clause that would stop Cree officials
who oppose the deal from going to the media or international forums to
express their discontent without first going through an arbitration
procedure: "For 50 years there are certain things we can't
short, the deal will be a hard sell to Crees, he says. "The land is
part of creation. We don't have the right to sell it. [As well] people
are very distrustful of Quebec."
Mr. Chevrette, for his part, remains sanguine about the deal: "It's very profitable to the Crees," he simply says.
Originally published in National Post.
Reprinted with permission of the author.
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