The decision to oppose the proposed Great Whale River project was taken almost five years ago by the highest decision-making body of the Cree Nation: the General Assembly. Given that the Cree leadership now seems to wonder whether or not that position still holds, is another general meeting on the issue in order?
The December meeting of the Grand Council of the Cree nation has always been an occasion for council members to pronounce themselves on matters of importance to their people. It is an opportunity to question, re-assess, contemplate, wish, agree or disagree and, yes, even blame. The last meeting of the council was no different, except that for the first time perhaps, discussions were quite direct and clear. No small talk! In such a context, it is easy to imagine one Cree chief pointing with an accusing finger toward Matthew Mukash of Whapmagoostui, and exclaiming: “You know you’re the deal-breaker, don’t you?”
The question was provocative indeed, but it is nevertheless asked once again.
The fact that certain Crees would prefer negotiating over the proposed Great Whale River project, rather than powwowing against Hydro-Quebec, is certainly no news to anyone. And it doesn’t really matter that within the council, opinions vary or are even opposite. We all lived James Hay I, but each of us experienced it with different eyes and lives. So the question posed deserves a comprehensive response, not from our high-minded leadership alone, but from the ultimate holders of the power to decide: the Cree people.
No one could reasonably argue that our lives have not been transformed by the adventure of the century. What is debatable, however, is whether or not the transformation was for the better of worse. Which brings us to the two conflicting visions of our destiny in the present debate. On the one side is the view that the James Bay hydroelectric development is our past – colonialism in all its forms being no longer acceptable. On the other side is the belief that such development remains our future – the sort of necessary evil we can’t do without to advance our cause.
While the James Bay projects have not yet completely destroyed our world, they have destroyed our idea of the world. We now live in contemporary times facing contemporary challenges, which obviously call for contemporary answers. There is no doubt that the responses given to what we faced in the early 70s were visionary, to say the least. We owe respect to the Cree leaders who have so honourably met the fundamental challenge of those days. Their remarkable insight has given us the choice, as Crees, between the traditional way of life or modernity (or a bit of both).
However, like any great idea, it was destined to be challenged one day. The issue is no longer confined to the classic struggle between the Grand Council of the Crees and Hydro-Quebec. Buying social peace will no longer do. It concerns the fate of a land and a people; it concerns our destiny. There is a call for new and bold solutions, and a revolutionary level of courage and imagination equal to the critical times our people face.
The crucial message we can gather from the present situation is that we can’t count on just our chiefs. The whole nation must get involved in making our world a better place to live. The present challenge summons Crees at every level to engage in the momentous task ahead. If the adventure we experienced in the early 70s wasn’t really ours, the next one must be our own. There is a chance and an opportunity for achievement once again, to lay the foundation of our society for the future.
Those who recall March 1989 have found the highly serious and emotional discussions of that General Assembly extremely positive. We came out of the meeting, after three arduous days of discussion and debate, knowing what we wanted and what not. What’s distressing today is that our leaders are starting to think about the unthinkable.
Another assembly on the issue would at least have the merit to inspire, enrich and validate the efforts and beliefs of those political leaders who have read the people well, so that we can harness the energies of all toward our goals. Only then will those “Ivory Tower Crees” join the rest.
Once, we mistook the tyrant for the liberator of our people. Whether we should allow a second chance is up to us to decide. Let us have that essential ingredient of democracy: a debate.