Battle for the Rupert 

 

    NEWS INDEX
 

.

Giving away the river 10/29/01

  .

Commentary: Crees surrender their great river Rupert

  . Commentary: 25 years of force-fed acculturation
  .

Cree deal a model or betrayal? 12/10/01

  .

$3.6 billion deal unraveling 12/10/01

  . Hydro Quebec's hidden agenda 12/15/01
  . Cree leaders may have deal in a week 12/19/01
  .

Grand Chief Moses Quebec's hero 12/19/01

 

  DEFINITIONS
 

AIP  Agreement in Principle signed on the Rupert River, Oct. 23/01

 

CRA  Cree Regional Authority, the administrative government

 

Eeyou Istchee  Cree homeland. Meaning:  People's Land

 

Eeyouch  Cree people

 

GCCEI   Grand Council of the Crees, governing body of Cree Nation whose members are chiefs of the nine communities

 

JBNQA James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (1975), the first agreement

 

NBR   Nottaway-Broadback

-Rupert Project, to be phase III of James Bay Project

November 10, 2001

Cree deal a model or betrayal?

by Alex Roslin

The 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.

But 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 Oct. 23.

They 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.

The 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 Bay.

"We're 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."

The 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.

The 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 obligations.

The 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.

Under 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.

Crees would also be able to make recommendations -- albeit non-binding ones -- on how forestry companies log in Cree hunting grounds.

In 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.

Quebec 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.

George 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 peoples."

Mr. 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."

But 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.

In 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.

"It was very lopsided. I would say 95% were against it," says Neil Diamond, a journalist for the Cree magazine, The Nation.

Concern 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.

"We 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 your mother."

The 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 community assemblies.

"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.

Trappers 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."

There 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?"

Crees 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.

Why 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.

Mr. 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 anybody."

Some 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.

Mr. 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."

He 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."

The 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.

Even 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.

He 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."

Some Crees worry that the lack of open discussion could affect ratification. Cree officials have waffled on whether there will be a referendum.

Mr. 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 do."

In 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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