One of the most important issues of today’s generation is whether our descendants will enjoy at least the same level of well-being as we do. Will there be enough trapline left for our grandchildren to hunt, trap and fish? How do we develop as a nation, yet keep our culture and identity alive in the centuries to come? Is such a balance feasible? Reconciling our present needs with those of generations to come is not an easy task.

These questions preoccupy many Cree, especially regarding Cree culture and traditional pursuits. The Cree Nation of Wemindji is taking an initiative that they hope will result in a balanced life both now and in the future.

The Paakumshumwaau Protected Area (PA) project, now in its fourth year of development, is a cooperative endeavor between the community of Wemindji and the McGill School of Environment and Concordia University. It envisions the creation of a “culturally-appropriate locally-managed” Protected Area south of Wemindji that encompasses the watershed of the Paakumshumwaau or Old Factory River, one of the largest rivers not yet developed for hydro-electric power, as well as coastal and offshore areas.

The project was initiated as a response of the community to increased pressures from resource-extraction industries and encroaching of non-native hunters and visitors. Most important for the Wemindji community, the proposed PA will include the Old Factory Island where members used to live prior to the 1958 relocation. As with most Cree communities in Eeyou Istchee, the Wemindji Eenouch maintain very strong bonds with their prior home, celebrating their origins through yearly gatherings.

Apart from being a significant ecological region, the PA area holds important cultural and historical significance for the community: burial sites, portages, campsites, and the Old Factory River are part and package of the Wemindji Eenouch identity and daily life.

The PA is unique as it tries to incorporate both land and marine ecosystems. As such, jurisdiction falls under both the federal and provincial governments, with both local and regional interests thrown into the mix. For such a diverse and complicated project the process will be long and legal designation may not be completed in the next decade.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans has provided information on relevant federal legislation and policy, notably on the development of a marine protected area along the Wemindji coastline, according to Alan Penn, Scientific advisor with the CRA Department of Environment. This information has also been taken into consideration in the ongoing negotiations between the GCC/CRA and the federal government respecting the settlement of Cree offshore claims.

“If the Government of Quebec decides to accept this proposal and to implement it, there will most likely be other opportunities for collaboration between Wemindji and the GCC/CRA,” said Penn.

As Eeyou Istchee is becoming the “new frontier” for mineral development – and Wemindji has already laid 89 claims in its territory – this becomes an additional important component that still needs to be addressed. Already there are various active and pending mining claims within the PA and if designated it will encompass 30 to 40 per cent of the Wemindji territory, mineral exploration excluded. Thus the community will now have to decide how to balance their economic development objectives with its conservation goals.

Chief Rodney Mark has been involved with the project since 2000, when the community started exploring ways of conserving this historical trade route.

“I feel very passionate about this,” Monk said. “We wanted to take a balanced approach to protect the land in terms of family and community history. We are trying to tie in the idea of eco-tourism and a cultural centre. We have found artifacts that are 5,000 years old. As far as mining is concerned, we have secured a moratorium on new claims within the PA area and will be consulting with the outside developers regarding the existing ones.”

Given the weak Cree legal jurisdiction over Category III lands (JBNQA) and increased pressure from the Municipality of James Bay (Bill 40), it is hoped that once the Protected Area receives formal recognition, Wemindji Eenouch will gain a higher degree of decision-making powers within this important cultural and ecological area.

Professor Colin Scott, the project director with the McGill School of Environment, is more optimistic. “Throughout their traditional territory, whether we are considering Category I, II, or III lands, the Cree Nation of Wemindji is well-positioned to take a proactive and leading role in the development of protected areas,” said Scott.

“The fact that Wemindji is constructively negotiating mining development in other areas and cannot be dismissed as ‘antimining’ or ‘anti-development’ has probably helped the community to have its aspirations for protected area development taken seriously by the Quebec Government. This summer the Quebec Government imposed a moratorium on the registration of any new mining claims in the proposed biodiversity reserve, which is a positive step toward official designation.”