Many may say it’s been a long time coming but Crees are pretty much looking at the final implementation of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA). Signed in 1975 the JBNQA was considered the first modern treaty. However, it was never fully implemented and this led to numerous court cases in an attempt to get the Quebec and Canadian governments to live up to the provisions in the JBNQA.
In 2002 the Paix des Braves was signed seeing unimplemented sections of the JBNQA that were the responsibility of the Quebec government transferred to the Crees along with yearly funding to carry out the obligations. On February 26, the federal government followed suit and signed a New Relationship Agreement with the Crees.
At the signing Grand Chief Matthew Mukash summed up the feeling of the audience when he said, “This is an historic occasion because the signing of this agreement completes the vision of our Elders contained in the 1975 James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. It is also an historic agreement because it provides for our youth and generations yet to come by recognizing Cree Nation government and by setting out a path for its future.”
The Honourable Chuck Strahl, Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, was on hand for the signing and said, “Today’s gathering enables us to sign the Agreement Concerning a New Relationship between the Government of Canada and the Cree of Eeyou Istchee. That is the practical purpose of this event. But this ceremony is much more than the opportunity to inscribe a few signatures on a page. This celebration enables us to savour the fruits of a long and complex negotiation process; to appreciate what can be achieved through patient negotiation, collaboration and compromise rather than through litigation.”
The Cree have achieved much through this process. They will now take over the responsibilities of section 18 of the JBNQA. This includes the administration of justice and the funding of the Cree Trappers Association (CTA), the Cree Native Arts and Crafts Association (CNACA), and the Cree Outfitting and Tourism Association (COTA). It also concerns the administration of manpower and training, including training centres, the construction or provision of community centres, essential sanitation services and fire protection, the provision of an Economic Development Agent in each Cree community and community affairs services.
As well the Agreement resolves past claims and wrongs in regards to the relocations of Nemaska and Waswanipi. It also reimburses the past construction and maintenance of the Nemaska road. The Agreement fully resolves any problems relating to difficulties concerning housing or related infrastructure in any Cree community that was the responsibility of the Canadian government. This includes past constructions, upgrades, improvements, repairs and replacements of Band facilities (band offices, warehouses, garages and related equipment) in any Cree community. Any new facilities and equipment will now be administered and funded by the Agreement monies through the Cree Regional Authority (CRA).
The new administrative powers mean that the decision of what to do with Washaw Sibi Eeyou will now be an internal decision made by the Cree Nation rather than Ottawa.
Ouje-Bougoumou will be included in a complementary agreement that will look at the establishment of the Ouje-Bougoumou band with Category IA lands.
Other complementary agreements with the federal government include an amendment to the JBNQA environmental and social impact assessment process to provide for a regional administrator and to replace provisions of Section 19 to create a regional police force. The last has been a hotly contested portion by some of the Municipalite de la Baie James (MBJ) mayors who fear having Cree police administering justice to non-Natives in Eeyou Istchee.
In 18 years Ottawa and the Cree will sit down and negotiate another agreement focusing on continuing the present Agreement. If the Cree and the federal government cannot agree on the terms then Ottawa will resume all responsibilities the Crees have accepted for the term of this Agreement.
Smally Petawabano, an Elder and former chief of Mistissini, when asked by the Nation, said, “This Agreement is a good thing.” He admitted things were different in the old days when he threw an Indian Affairs agent out of the Band office. “That was one of the things that used to happen. The Indian Affairs guys would come in thinking they’re the big bosses. They’d criticize our policy. They’d say since we provide the money for you then you should adopt our by-laws instead of yours. I just got mad and threw him out,” said Petawabano. He said that he could see a difference adding, “It’s better today.”
Minister Strahl would probably be the first to agree with Petawabano that it’s better today. During his speech Strahl said, “I can assure everyone here today that our government is making every effort to accelerate the resolution of land-claims and self-government agreements across Canada. Why? Because leaders have been asking for it for decades – and it is the right thing to do.”
The times have changed for the Cree and it does seem to be one where common goals are closer than we think.
Strahl said, “I share your spirit of generosity, optimism and hope – not out of wishful thinking, but because I know the effect that agreements such as land claims and self-government can have on First Nation communities. I have seen firsthand how these agreements help members of First Nation communities attain what most other Canadians have long taken for granted – safe homes, quality health services, good schools, meaningful jobs and bright futures.”
Mukash showed he was on the same page in his speech when he said, “This Agreement, and indeed the James Bay Agreement, has importance for First Nation Peoples all across Canada. The James Bay Agreement set out a new form of cooperative federalism that included the Crees and northern Quebec Inuit communities. The problem for Aboriginal Peoples in Canada is this: ‘How can they, how can we, become more involved in the governance, economic and social development and cultural life of Canada?’ In everyday terms, how can we make a meaningful and prosperous way of life for ourselves here in Canada?”
He added, “With this present Agreement we will implement for 20 years parts of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement that the federal government had difficulties in implementing in the past. In other words, we will decide on a new and innovative way forward. In doing so, the Cree Nation takes on certain responsibilities of the government of Canada to our own citizens. We gain the chance to decide our own priorities in these matters and we have the chance to develop and to demonstrate our ability to govern efficiently.”