$3.6-billion Cree-Quebec deal unraveling
Monday, December 10, 2001
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
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
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
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
"We're shocked. We feel defeated by our own
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
"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
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
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
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
"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
But some Crees say it would be undemocratic not to hold a
"We do not have a democracy if we do not have a
referendum," said Will Nicholls, editor of the Cree magazine the
"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
"We're still squatters and beggars in our own land."
© Copyright 2001 Montreal Gazette