Negotiations with Ottawa on fulfilling the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement have stalled over taxation status for the Cree. The Grand Council of the Cree is refusing the federal government’s demand to eliminate the Crees’ tax exemption before honouring the landmark deal signed in 1975.
“The Grand Chief (Ted Moses) informed the government that capping funds, and the elimination of Cree tax exemption should be taken off the table,” said Grand Council spokesman Brian Craik. “[The proposal] has since been shelved, but negotiations have not yet restarted.”
Michel Blondin, spokesman for Indian Affairs Minister Robert Nault said that “Cree tax exemption was put on the table for preliminary discussions, and if the Cree had a problem with it being on the table, then they were well within their rights to have it removed from the negotiations.”
The Grand Council of the Cree (GCC) have been in negotiation with the federal government in trying to get Canada to implement certain long overdue aspects of the JBNQA. Funding is needed for housing, and social and economic development.
Craik says the Crees need about 1,500 houses to satisfy demand. There is also the question of a regional police force which was supposed to be created under the JBNQA, and funded by Quebec and Canada.
“The government makes a lot of money off of the development of James Bay, they need to put more money back into the Cree development of James Bay,” Craik said.
The Grand Council wants Ottawa to recognize that there is a Cree government, and spell out some powers in negotiations, said Craik. “We’d try and work out a kind of Cree governance act with them. The idea was to leave the powers of the bands largely in place, as they are under the Cree-Naskapi act.”
Craik says the Cree are ahead of other First Nations in Canada in leading these talks. “The Crees are leading the pack when dealing with the feds, hoping that by doing this, other Aboriginal Nations will be able to benefit as well,” he said.
One of the benefits that the Cree have over other Native Nations is the way that the funding for schooling is disbursed. Instead of being capped to a certain amount annually, the funding is given out on an as-needed basis. So if 100 students need money for school, they won’t be caught in a numbers game and the funding will always be available to them.
As far as the voice of the people being heard in an agreement like this, Craik stated; “a referendum on the deal (if it’s signed) would be a possibility, although at this time we haven’t decided what type of approval process is needed for it.”
The key aspect that was part of the negotiations was Cree control of community development, as well as social and economic development for a set period of time.
The time period had not been finalized, but Craik suggested that it could be for a 20 or 30-year time frame, which would be renewable, and renegotiable according to inflation thereafter.
Figures were not discussed, but the number believed to be suitable for this type of situation is around $70 million annually, which is the same figure agreed to under the Paix des Braves. In return, the Crees would drop any pending litigation against the Federal Government. Negotiations have been ongoing for this type of agreement since 1998.
Robert Mainville, a lawyer for the Cree says that the government is “trying to limit their obligations. You never know how the economy goes. We’re supposed to sit down with the feds, and the ministry of education in Quebec to determine how much (would be suitable).”
Guy St-Julien, MP for Abitibi-James Bay-Nunavik, says that taking away Cree tax-exempt status is not something he supports. “To taxation (of the Crees) I say; not today, not tomorrow, never.”
“When you look at my situation, I have an office in Quebec, one in Ottawa, and one in Montreal, what’s that? There is too much money being spent foolishly. As far as I’m concerned they should shut down Indian affairs and give the money back to the communities. How many people working at Indian affairs have been to the native communities up north? I say put the money where it’s needed; into the community.”