Battle for the Rupert 




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



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

December 10, 2001

$3.6-billion Cree-Quebec deal unraveling

by Alex Roslin

A historic Quebec-Cree deal announced with much fanfare in October has provoked a bitter debate among Crees, threatening to torpedo one of the biggest settlements with a First Nation in Canadian history.

The $3.6-billion deal, which includes a new 1,280-megawatt hydro-electric project on the Rupert and Eastmain rivers, has divided friends and families in the nine Cree communities of northern Quebec and provoked a backlash against the Cree leadership.

The deal's future is now uncertain after several high-profile Crees broke rank and came out against it.

"The land is part of creation. We don't have the right to sell it," said Matthew Mukash, deputy grand chief of the Crees.

Robert Weistche, chief of Waskaganish, surprised everyone with a letter last week saying: "I have little enthusiasm for going down in history as the Waskaganish chief who signed the death warrant for the Rupert River."

Also last week, residents of Chisasibi, the largest Quebec Cree community, voted to turf out a chief who supports the deal and elect one who opposes it.

The firestorm in James Bay is in marked contrast to the smiling faces at the signing of the agreement in Quebec City on Oct. 23. Cree and Quebec officials hailed the 16-page deal as a breakthrough.

The Crees were to get at least $3.6 billion over 50 years for sorely needed jobs, housing and community infrastructure.

In a first, the payments would be partially indexed to revenues from hydro-electricity, forestry and mining in Cree territory, which covers one-quarter of the province.

In exchange, Quebec would get to build a $3.8-billion hydro-electric project on the Rupert and Eastmain rivers that would create 8,000 jobs. The deal also opens the door to more mining and forestry.

Crees also have to drop $8 billion in lawsuits against Quebec over unfulfilled promises of the 1975 James Bay agreement. The treaty gave the green light to construction of the world's biggest dam.

The new deal would also end an acrimonious battle with Quebec over forestry, allowing the Crees to make recommendations - albeit non-binding ones - on how companies log on their territory.

Bill Namagoose, executive director of the Grand Council of the Crees, said the agreement is a step toward self-government, transferring to Crees all of Quebec's obligations for economic and social development, including funding community centres, Cree businesses, trapping, tourism and culture.

Those gains are what justified the Crees' turnaround on dams, making the Rupert hydro project a difficult but acceptable sacrifice, said Namagoose, who was one of the leaders of the successful fight against the Great Whale dam project in the 1990s.

"The path of the future for native people is to give them the opportunity to exploit resources and share in that," Quebec Native Affairs Minister Guy Chevrette said in an interview.

A final version of the deal is still being negotiated and needs to be approved by the Crees. Officials say they hope it will be signed in January.

But the deal, negotiated in secrecy, stunned some Crees when it was announced. "I was in disbelief. It was the first time I had heard about these talks," said Abraham Rupert, the new chief of Chisasibi.

"Everything was done behind closed doors," said Roger Orr, a Cree small-business owner in Nemiscau, 1,000 kilometres north of Montreal.

"We're shocked. We feel defeated by our own leaders."

A bitter debate has followed.

"This is politics at its darkest moment," said Bertie Wapachee, chairman of the Cree Health Board. "It's hurting friendships, it's hurting families. There are some painful discussions between two generations. You see it everywhere. It's heartbreaking."

Many Crees accuse their chiefs of betraying years of opposition to new dams and brushing aside those who question the agreement.

"Only one side is being heard. If people speak out against it, you aren't a good Cree. That's my biggest fear, that it will be pushed through undemocratically," Wapachee said.

"People are saying they are not being heard. Those people who are opposed are simply brushed aside," said deputy grand chief Mukash, who is calling for an emergency meeting on the deal.

The deal represents a dramatic turnaround for the province's 13,000 Crees. They made a name for themselves in the 1990s with a dogged battle against the Great Whale hydro-electric project, which was eventually shelved.

Some Crees wonder if the new deal will force them to go along quietly if Quebec secedes. There are also big worries about the impacts on the traditional hunting way of life, still practiced by thousands of Crees.

"A lot of people are mad here - trappers, elders, young people," said Nemiscau trapper Freddy Jolly, who will see part of his family's ancestral hunting grounds flooded and another part downriver from a proposed dam dry up.

Why the Cree chiefs' change of heart on dams? One Cree official, who requested anonymity, said Quebec strong-armed the chiefs into accepting the mega-project, making the Rupert hydro-electric project a condition of settling longstanding Cree funding needs.

In an interview, Chevrette acknowledged there would have been no deal on community funding if Crees had not accepted new dams.

"We wanted a long-term agreement, but on condition we can develop the North," he said. "We didn't force them. We didn't scalp anybody."

Paul Dixon, a fur officer at the Cree trappers' office in Waswanipi, called that blackmail. "When people are desperate and hurt, others want to take advantage of them," he said, adding he was "disgusted" when told of Chevrette's reference to scalping.

Chiefs are expected to decide soon how Crees will give their final word on the deal, whether by referendum, community assembly or other mechanism.

The 1975 James Bay Agreement was approved by a combination of individual consent forms and band-council resolutions. The final agreement was ratified by a Cree general assembly.

It's not certain how the new deal will be approved, but Cree officials appear to be shying away from a referendum, arguing it might be too divisive.

"A referendum process may not necessarily be the best approach," said Abel Bosum, the head Cree negotiator with Quebec. "Because of the nature of the agreement - it's very complex - it's difficult for everybody to understand everything. There is a lot of information based on fear and playing on people's emotions."

Bosum argued that Cree chiefs have the authority to sign the final deal by themselves, without a vote.

He acknowledged Crees have questions about the deal, but was optimistic about its chances.

"This is an agreement that every other First Nation across Canada has dreamed of. No longer would Crees go begging to Quebec."

But some Crees say it would be undemocratic not to hold a referendum.

"We do not have a democracy if we do not have a referendum," said Will Nicholls, editor of the Cree magazine the Nation.

"What they are doing is the same thing as (Premier) Bernard Landry saying, 'You knew I was a separatist when you elected me,' and declaring independence without a referendum."

So far, it looks like the deal might be in trouble if put to a popular vote. The vast majority of Crees who have written letters to the Nation or phoned Cree radio call-in shows have come out against it. Moses met skeptical crowds and intense questioning during an initial tour of the Cree communities to explain the deal in October and November.

Dixon summed up the Crees' concerns: "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.

"We're still squatters and beggars in our own land."

Originally published in Montreal Gazette.

Reprinted with permission of the author.

Battle for the Rupert

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