Imagine for a moment that the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement went like this: U.S. President Bill Clinton and Mexican President Salinas de Gortari are sitting at the table ready to sign the historic deal. Then they get a message. Brian Mulroney won’t be coming. Tell all the reporters and the international diplomats to go home. Canada won’t be signing right now. Why? Because Brian Mulroney hasn’t read the agreement.

Sound ridiculous? Well, that’s exactly what happened to Quebec’s Inuit when they flew down to Montreal on February 2 to sign a historic deal on the Great Whale River Project. Hydro-Quebec called the press conference. Fifty four Inuit leaders flew in for the event, but at the last minute, Quebec Natural Resources Minister Christos Sirros backed out.

“The minister has not been briefed and he would like to take more time to study the agreement before going ahead,” said Marie-Josee Gagnier, an aide to Sirros.

Gagnier was unable to explain why Sirros wasn’t briefed on a deal that has been studied by his department for the past three years.

Makivik members were completely taken off guard. “We have no idea what is going on,” said one insider who did not wish to be identified. “Charlie Watt (president of Makivik) was livid. This was his baby.”

The Great Whale deal was the product of three difficult years of negotiations between Hydro-Quebec, the Quebec government and the Inuit administrative body, Makivik Corp.

The main deal with Hydro-Quebec is an agreement-in-principle which lays out the compensation to the Inuit if the proposed Great Whale project goes ahead. Details of the compensation package are still secret, but the deal involves a formula under which the Inuit would receive a share of revenues from the Great Whale complex.

Three side agreements with the Quebec government would cover water supply and fire prevention improvements in Kuujjuarapik, land re-allocations for Kuujjuarapik and Umiujak, and a new training centre in Inuit territory to prepare the Inuit for construction jobs on the Great Whale Project.

Signing of the deal has now been postponed indefinitely, according to a joint Hydro-Quebec and Makivik press release.

“It’s great news as long as Sirros continues not to sign,” said Brian Craik, federal-relations director of the Grand Council of the Crees. Craik speculated there may be a power play going on between Sirros and Hydro-Quebec. “It looks like Sirros does not want to be railroaded by Hydro-Quebec into the old mode of 1975.”

For Hydro-Quebec, a deal with the Inuit is seen as a crucial counter-weight to the Cree’s fierce and high-profile opposition to the project. The Inuit’s signature on a deal would give the project some much-needed legitimacy.

But for the Crees, Makivik’s position has left many feeling they are being sold out by their Inuit brothers and sisters to the north. Anthony Ittoshat, mayor of Kuujjuarapik, said the Crees have been misinformed about the Inuit position. “We’ve been portrayed as sell-outs who don’t care about the land,” said Ittoshat. “This is really unacceptable to us. We’re only looking out for our own interests, not to offend anybody.”

Ittoshat said his people are just trying to be realistic. “Regardless of what the Cree do, or the Inuit do, or what the Cree and Inuit do together, the Quebec government has all the power to decide. They can overrule the enviromental-review pannels, regardless of their recommendations. They can do whatever they want. It is a very dangerous situation.”

Ittoshat said Quebec’s 7,000 Inuit do not want the Great Whale project to go ahead, but if it does go ahead, as Ittoshat believes it will, they want some economic spinoffs. “The bottom line is we need some financial things in order to boost our economies. We just don’t see any other answers. We have suicides, alcohol, drug abuse. We have no choice but to work together in today’s environment to face today’s problems.”

Ittoshat disagrees that the environmental impacts will be catastrophic for the region. “Get real. Impacts will be there, but not like some people are saying. There’s always a way of adapting to nature and nature always adapts.”

He said after the project is built, Inuit people will still be able to live partially from the land. “Looking at Chisasibi, you don’t have people complaining that there’s no animals, it’s going to be the same thing as La Grande—a good percentage of our daily consumption will still come from the land.”

However, Ittoshat added he’s relieved the agreement didn’t go through as is, and admitted he made a mistake in negotiating the deal and wants changes. “We don’t want to see the project right in our backyard and have Hydro-Quebec force us to accept a minimum agreement.”