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James Bay watershed Crees battled for rights

Don Wall
James Bay watershed Crees battled for rights

Hydro-Quebec says "constructive controversy" was a prime motivating factor during much of its 46-year relationship with the Cree people who live in the James Bay watershed that was so profoundly transformed by the James Bay hydroelectric project beginning in 1971.

Quebec scholars such as Ignatius La Rusic and Ron Niezen have written of the awakening of a new Cree nationhood upon the April 1971 announcement of the James Bay plan. Chief Billy Diamond heard the news from his wife via short wave radio upon his return from a day of goose hunting, La Rusic writes. Philip Awashish, taking a sabbatical from engineering studies at McGill and living in Chibougamau, recalls reading about the project in a day-old edition of the Montreal Gazette. Diamond and Awashish knew each other from residential and got in touch to discuss the development. Within two months, representatives of the six unaligned Cree communities had gathered in Mistissani — a first ever such meeting — to make plans.

La Rusic was on hand at that meeting and sets the scene in a 2011 article published in the Cree Nation Archives:

"I recall the gladness of people who were meeting their own people for the first time. Strangers, yet neighbours and even relatives, long heard of but until today un-met. I also remember quite clearly the dread of the group that was meeting…The sketchy reports and diagrams in the newspapers of what was called the NBR Project, or the James Bay Project, showed flooding that was biblical in magnitude. Water levels in Mistissini and Waswanipi lakes would rise 18 to 21 feet and the flooding would drown hundreds of square kilometres of their hunting territories."

"We met for five days and we decided to oppose the project, of course," recalls Awashish, now a widower and grandfather of 10 who lives in Mistissani and continues to advise the Cree grand council after a career of activism. He worked alongside such notable grand chiefs as Billy Diamond, Ted Moses and Mathew Coon Come.

"And we also made the important decision that the Cree chiefs, we would meet in the future more often together as one people and one voice and that was the beginning of the Grand Council of the Cree."

‘There was a lot at stake for this small community…It was a David and Goliath story,’

Ron Niezen

Quebec scholar

It was an era with no real environmental assessment prior to projects and no formal mechanism in place to negotiate with local indigenous residents. The Cree struck a political action campaign, took the Quebec government to court and won important concessions in the 1973 Malouf decision. The Bourassa government was forced to negotiate in earnest.

Thus started a 42-year process of enshrinement of rights starting with the 1975 JMNQA, which represents the first important treaty signed between indigenous Canadians and governments in decades, and including amendments to the Constitution Act in 1983 that succeeded in getting indigenous treaty rights recognized in Canada’s constitution, and the 2002 signing of the Paix des Braves agreement in which the James Bay Crees were recognized as a nation and stakeholding partners in future development.

If the JBNQA did not bring lasting resolution to contentious rights and land claims issues — the Crees, or Eeyou Istchee as they call themselves, successfully fought off Hydro-Quebec’s Great Whale project in 1986-94 with the assistance of a broad coalition of civil society advocates — the comprehensive Paix des Braves deal represented the end of formal Cree opposition to Hydro-Quebec projects. Today, with established tiered territorial rights to hunting, fishing and trapping lands, institutionalized local government through the Grand Council of the Crees, power, airport, housing and road infrastructure, income supplements and other economic benefits related to construction projects that added up to $800 million in 2008 alone, the Crees and Hydro-Quebec are no longer adversaries.

Through strategic communications advisor Lynn St-Laurent, the power utility told the Daily Commercial News, "What the Cree and Hydro-Quebec have accomplished since the early 2000s is remarkable in many ways. They progressed from a conflictual situation in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, where their relationship was plagued with mistrust and litigation, to a partnership.

"Furthermore, on the organizational level, Hydro-Quebec and the Cree’s shared history illustrates the notion of constructive controversy that allows the parties to learn."

Awashish, a signatory to the JBNQA, acknowledges the evolution of the relationship.

"They (Hydro-Quebec) have come around to recognize to a large extent their responsibility," he said.

But that is not the end of the story. It’s easy to find documentation of rampant environmental and social ills over the years online — mercury contamination in fish, the disruption of local microclimates due to standing reservoirs and from the aforementioned McGill anthropology professor Ron Niezen, documented addictions, "suicides clusters," spiritual malaise, aborted schooling and family violence.

Awashish admitted strong negative impacts on health in the communities, with one example being more diabetes from eating processed food instead of the bush food the Cree used to consume, but said, "We have to live with what happened, the impact and changes. We are no longer isolated communities. Our way of life had changed, a lot are still out on the land but a lot are now involved in the economy."

Niezen pointed out that Paix des Braves referendum results showed deep divisions within the Cree people, even as it promised them at least $3.5 billion in economic benefits over 50 years.

"The community was divided," said Niezen.

"And that division hasn’t gone away even with wealth pouring in. There still is an important element of Cree society that doesn’t want to compromise on large-scale development projects and the things it brings them, even though it brings employment opportunities."

Every year Niezen attends the annual meeting of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York City but these days the Crees just send a lawyer to represent their interests, he says. With so much settled politically back home after decades of activism, there seems to be no need or desire for the Cree to fight for change, Niezen said.

"That is a profound change," he said.

"Some of them might be nostalgic for those days too. There was a lot at stake for this small community. You could really understand and sympathize with what they were fighting for. It was a David and Goliath story really."

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