In 1971 when the James Bay Hydro project was announced by Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa, 6,000 Crees were hunting and trapping around the rivers running into James Bay, as they had been doing since time immemorial. Only a handful among them, the younger ones, had been to any kind of school; a couple had attended university, but none had graduated, and their lives were, in fact, so bounded still by the annual cycles of the seasons, that the people from the six villages had never even held a meeting to discuss their common concerns.
Their real leaders, if that term can be used, were a group of elders, unilingual Cree-speakers, deeply steeped in the mysteries of bush life, expert in their knowledge of animal and ecological behaviour, and above all imbued with the sense that human beings are participants in nature, not masters of it.
It would not be too much to say that most Canadians were scarcely aware that these people existed, for ever since Europeans arrived among them, their remarkable qualities had been denigrated, and their rights denied in the lands they had always occupied. The Cree lands were an immense wilderness, almost as big as Western Europe. One village of a few hundred people alone, Mlstissini, used hunting territories of 100,000 square miles, as large as Britain.
For the most part, the Crees were in good shape. By trapping animals they had managed to adapt their subsistence existence in the forest to the encroaching western society. By an accident of history they had managed to preserve their language. But in the southern reaches of their lands, they were declining. Two villages had been closed, their people scattered along the few roads built by the newcomers. The familiar colonialist effects of unemployment, drunkenness, prostitution, had begun to make their appearance as whites moved into their lands and took them over for other, more productive uses.
Most of the older men and women, the guardians of Cree culture, could not communicate outside of their own language, and their values were totally different from those who came among them. Now they were confronted with a multibillion dollar industrial project, which, in the name of progress, aimed to treat their beloved land as a toy, to be gouged, scoured, manipulated and violated. When they heard about what was proposed, these people were at first incredulous, then deeply outraged.
If this new scheme was to be confronted, the job had to be undertaken by the handful of youngsters who could speak English and had a nodding acquaintance with southern society. The opposition began under the leadership of two young men in their twenties, Phillip Awashish and Billy Diamond, both the slightly acculturated sons of remarkable hunters. Before they had finished, these young men had led the Crees to court, where they won a famous (though temporary) victory against the Quebec government, culminating in the signing of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement in 1975, which finally recognized that the Crees do have rights as residents of this country called Canada.
In the 25 years since then, the Crees have lived an almost unimaginable experience. In this short time they have been forced by the arrival among them of thousands of workers, roads, airports, huge industrial enterprises and the baggage these things trail with them, to undergo an acculturation that has normally occupied other societies for hundreds of years. They have been force-fed into Western values, whether they liked it or not.
Clinging to the values they learned from their extraordinary parents, the young leaders of the Crees have made a remarkable adaptation to their new realities. The values they learned in the bush have been their bedrock, and have stood them well. They have used money paid to them under the Agreement to refashion their villages, improve their living conditions, look after their health and education. Not everything has worked perfectly. For various reasons, their education has proven to lag behind that of the schools in the south, where most of their students need upgrading before they can join in the higher education to which they aspire. Nevertheless, bit by bit, they are getting there, producing more lawyers, teachers, doctors, nurses and others to fill the functions being forced on them.
One result of this acculturation process has been that their Cree society, in which money counted for little, if anything, has become monetarized. The handsome new houses have had to be paid for. To find the money, the Crees have needed jobs. So far these jobs have mostly been provided by the developing infrastructures inside their villages. As their population has outgrown the capacity of the damaged land to provide a living, they have begun to face a somewhat desperate future with possibly alarming consequences.
One thing the Crees can not have expected was to find that the governments with which they signed their 1975 accords should have proven to be so duplicitous, so reluctant to honor their agreements. Never mind, they dealt with that by returning time after time to the courts to hold them to the letter of what they signed. And In most cases, the Crees have won.
Still, in spite of everything, in spite of their brave last-ditch stand in defence of their rights, inexorably the Crees have been overwhelmed by the encroaching industrial machine. In their fight against this, the Crees have become famous across the continent for their defence of Nature, for their message that the land matters to everyone, for their warnings that — as elders such as Isaiah Awashish and Job Bearskin and Samson Nehaccappo, and Abraham Weapinacappo warned them 25 years ago — “the money is really nothing. The land is the most important thing of all” or “the white man will always have the money, and will always want to have the land” or “I would rather think about the land and the children. What will they have when that land Is destroyed? The money means nothing.”
These old leaders may never have been to school, but they had a far-sighted wisdom that is still precious to the Crees — and to the rest of us. The irony of all this is that as the young Cree leaders — Matthew Coon Come, Ted Moses, Matthew Mukash — have crisscrossed the continent with their messages and warnings to our society to moderate our appetites, to rekindle our respect and love of Nature, to cherish such a thing as a wild river, to reconsider our philosophical arrogance that human beings are the dominant species over all others — as they have brought us these messages we so desperately need as our technology hurtles us into ever more dreadful scenarios, so we are doing our utmost to kill off the essence of the Cree life from which they have drawn their wisdom.
Today, a few days after the Crees have reluctantly surrendered in their fight to preserve the wildness of the magnificent Rupert river, (speaking hopefully of the $3.5 billion they may possibly get in exchange), we can honor their remarkable achievements of the last 25 years. A people who 25 years ago had scarcely emerged from the bush have stepped on to the world stage to take a leading role in defence of indigenous rights in Geneva and New York; a people who had hardly been to school 25 years ago, are graduating from our universities in greater numbers every year; a people who had not even had a political meeting 25 years ago, are running increasingly complex systems of government; a people to whom money was almost a foreign thing 25 years ago, are handling the millions of dollars needed to make their new systems run.
Their successful adaptation has been a tribute to the wisdom they inherited from their parents. One can only hope that their expressed confidence that this new deal with Quebec represents a turning point in their recent history, putting the bad times behind them, turns out to be justified.