I tried to summon the devil last July 16. The word was out that the Harper government was set to unveil a monumental agreement with the Cree of Eeyou Istchee. And I felt I had to at least try to verify if Hell had in fact frozen over.
I guess I’m like most other First Nations peoples: we have this image of the Conservatives as gun-loving cowboys who don’t much like us “Injuns.”
We all saw how they shot down the Kelowna Accord, practically the first act of “Canada’s New Government” when it took office in February 2006. We all saw the Prime Minister’s Office refuse to apologize on Canada’s behalf to residential school victims. We couldn’t help but notice how uber-assimilationist Tom Flanagan (author of First Nations? Second Thoughts) was selected as Harper’s resident expert on easing the White Man’s Burden. I could go on but you get the general idea.
I listened to all the fine remarks and speeches. There’s no denying that $1.4 billion over 20 years is like sweet manna from the heavens for some of our cash-strapped communities.
More importantly, Crees will finally see closure to 30 years of constant struggle to have the federal government respect its own signature on the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA). It will now be almost fully implemented. The outstanding matter is that we don’t get our own correctional facility but that’s another story and a small one at that.
The real shocker arrived when it became clear that Cree Grand Chief Matthew Mukash had delivered on the biggest plank of his campaign platform. He managed to use these negotiations to achieve a Cree Nation Governance agreement, the reality of which might be as close as five years away. I nearly passed out at this point in the news conference. I thought I had entered the twilight zone.
Just to find out how far the governance angle was going, I asked when Crees could expect to be able to hold their own separation referendum. Thank the Creator I was on the other side of the room and avoided getting my eye poked out as reporters, journalists and other interested parties whipped out pens, tape recorders and various other paraphernalia of the media trade.
We found out there was no desire to separate but rather to continue our present nation-to-nation relationship and to work on strengthening it. Yes, we are now recognized as a distinct people but we have a lot of work to do if we are going to have even a regional government.
The next day in a Council/Board meeting I was hailed as “the Cree separatist.” I guess there is only one of us now. I wonder what happened to the other brave souls who used to listen to the words of René Lévesque translated into Cree.
But all that aside, I am honestly flabbergasted and pleasantly surprised to see the Conservatives negotiating and backing an agreement such as this. It is clear, easy to read and doesn’t contain any of those small-print “behind” clauses that negate all the wonderful stuff in bold 16-point type. A behind clause is where you sign it, read it and then receive a quick hard boot to the behind. The Harper government has turned not to be the bogeyman most First Nations initially thought they were.
To be fair, this process was initiated when the Liberal government was still in power. The Liberals, after all, appointed Raymond Chretien (Jean’s nephew) as their negotiator, a solid signal the feds were ready to deal. But to universal shock and awe, the Tories did not send R. Chretien packing, but allowed him to complete his mandate.
So I feel I have to congratulate the Grand Council, the chiefs, Council/Board members, the negotiating team and the federal government on their hard work and ability to work together.
I also feel that our Elders provided the groundwork that went into making something like this possible and I freely endorse the Agreement Concerning a New Relationship Between the Government of Canada and the Cree of Eeyou Istchee.