It has been 35 years since the Crees signed the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. Why it only seems like yesterday to many. This Agreement was hailed as the first modern treaty. Indeed it is the model many Aboriginal groups around the world use as a base for their negotiations.
Yes, I agree that this Agreement was imposed upon us. Though the Crees won the first court case under Judge Malouf, the Quebec Court of Appeal overturned that decision six days later without any new evidence. At that time the Cree lawyers said it was time to negotiate as the dams would be in place by the time we made it to the Supreme Court of Canada.
Even though there was no real choice Crees, along with their lawyers and consultants, were hardasses when it came to the actual negotiations. In it were things no other First Nations had ever achieved before, like control of education, justice, policing, health and social services, economic development, roads, and the list goes on.
Some other First Nations called the Crees sell-outs back then because of the extinguishment clause and others. Even in the Cree camp there was grumbling as some felt we should have fought until the bitter end.
SODAB, an economic engine for the Crees, helped many a fledgling business in the nine communities start or expand until it was gutted by those who never paid back loans. Surprisingly, it was the small businesses that paid back the most, leading to more grumbling.
Subsequent agreements and add-on agreements would be both hailed and nailed by insiders and outsiders, Cree and non-Cree alike. Other residents and non-residents of Eeyou Istchee gathered around the negotiation tables demanding their “rightful” share of the smallgese (opposite of largess).
Soon a new group of grumblers arose; the Jamesians, many of whom never really set foot in Eeyou Istchee. Without much fanfare they received around $20 million for their pain and loss concerning the James Bay hydroelectric projects. These poor displaced peoples gathered around the edge of Eeyou Istchee (except for the formally illegal Radisson) seemed to be warming themselves at the Cree campfires. Eventually their grumbling lead to the creation of the Municipality of James Bay. This, of course, lead to an increase in the grumbling by Crees.
Shortly after the Crees signed the Paix des braves and there was much grumbling within and without the Cree camps. Two more rivers went into the Hydro-Québec plans for James Bay and Crees got business deals and jobs. After that was the new relationship agreement with the Feds seeing $1.4 billion made it into the Cree coffers in return for us taking over certain federal responsibilities. The grumbling this time was quite heavy outside the Cree camps as non-Crees thought we were getting too much.
All in all, though, the JBNQA will always be an important cornerstone of our modern Cree society. It has molded and shaped our society, adding layer after layer of rights and bureaucracies. When you think of the Crees who had to deal with fighting the La Grande Complex, you have to remember there were no college or university graduates among them unlike today. And in looking at it that way they did an amazing job. Sure things could be better. Hindsight is a wonderful tool when used properly to ensure old problems don’t become new problems, but after 35 years it’s time to stop grumbling and get to work.