“I think these people of colour who have travelled many miles to come here have been misled. Because they wish to use your colour to add credence to the position of pro-development”—Daryll Wright
Native peoples from around the world, developers and government officials met in Montreal April 13 to 15 to discuss water-related development and its impacts on indigenous peoples.
The list of speakers was impressive—Christos Sirros, Quebec’s Native Affairs Minister, Andre Laporte, Vice-President of Indian and Inuit Affairs for Hydro-Quebec, Simeonie Nalukturuk, President of Makivik, Kenneth B. Young of the Manitoba Assembly of First Nations, Richard Le Hir of the Manufacturers’ Association of Quebec, Clarence Skye from the United Sioux Nation, Zehra Aydin from the United Nations, among many others.
Noteably absent was the Grand Council of the Crees. Cree sources said this was because the relationship between the Crees and David Cliche, the organizer of the conference, had deteriorated.
Cliche, who is also the Parti Quebecois’s official liaison with First Nations in Quebec, recently referred to some Crees as “jet-setters” at a Massachusetts conference. Cliche was also seen as playing both sides of the fence. In the United States, Cliche defends the hydro-dams and Quebec’s interests, but in Quebec he assumes a neutral position. He also accepted a contract from Hydro-Quebec to act as a liaison with U.S. environmentalists, and wasn’t upfront about this contract with Crees. This was another factor in their decision.
Although the Cree leadership wasn’t present, one Cree was. Romeo Saganash facilitated the first discussion panel. His style was interesting. At one point Christos Sirros said the land in the North belongs to no one and its resources belong to no one. Romeo responded by saying, “If that’s so, why do you act like it belongs to you?” That was day one.
Day two brought a shock to many indigenous people when Makivik Corporation announced it had signed a deal with Hydro-Quebec for compensation on the Great Whale Project.
Whapmagoostui Chief Matthew Mukash attended the Makivik supper that night and told The Nation he didn’t think the agreement would affect relations between Whapmagoostui and Kuujju-arapik. “I don’t think so. I think there is going to be more bitterness among the Inuit themselves because they are divided on the issue. As far as we’re concerned the project is dead. Simple as that.”
On day three, some of the nice speeches disappeared when Daryll Wright, executive director of the U.S.-based Mui Sose Intertribal Water Rights Coalition, spoke into the mike: “I have asked twice at this conference that a prayer be said and, although it was said they would have one, that was denied. I do not know of any indigenous group in the world that does not hold mother earth and her lifeblood in reverence. Twice I have requested that the elders be allowed to say a prayer, not only on my behalf but on behalf of all of you who have travelled far to come here. To ask that you return safely to your homes. Twice he was let down.
“If this is truly an indigenous conference, then that request should have been honoured at all costs. I spent my whole life fighting the United States federal government and corporations. I will continue to take that fight wherever I need to. Whether the heads of those corporations are brown, black or white. The struggle to keep my way of life will continue because that is my obligation as a member of my nation, as a traditional man. I was also on the agenda but because of my position I was once again cut from the agenda. I feel an emptiness in my heart because I have many things to say and when I came here my thoughts were centered around meeting people of colour from all over the world.
“The underlying theme of this conference is the promotion of development at the cost of the ways of life of indigenous peoples that they impact. The reason I asked George of the Cheslatta Nation to offer a prayer is that he carries on his shoulders a fight against another project in British Columbia. In 1952, he was forced to move from his place and many promises were made to those people. None of those promises were kept. In 1994, they are being forced again to be displaced with many more promises being made.
“Prior to removal, there were 132 members in that band. Only 78 remain. I think it is very important that he be allowed a prayer but also that the Cheslatta t’en Carrier Nation be allowed the opportunity to have their say at this conference. Because regardless of whether you call cooperation a confrontation, regardless of whether you claim the people are better off, there are many studies that show is a very false statement.
“You must understand and learn because history repeats itself, as in the case of the Cheslatta people, and I think these people of colour who have travelled many miles to come here have been misled. Because they wish to use your colour to add credence to the position of pro-development at the cost of our lives and the destruction of our homelands. And with this, my last statement, I would like to pass the mike to George to come up and offer a prayer and I will not be denied this time.”
Later, a native from South America came up and said he had understood that his Cree bothers would be participating in the conference, and felt he had come under false pretexts.
David Cliche, the main organizer of the conference, felt it was a success.