The first day of November hung heavy and grey as the car skidded along the icy Route du Nord. We arrived in Nemaska in time for the feedback session of the Grand Council’s Agreement-in-Principle consultation. Nemaska, the most centrally located Cree community was the middle stop of a tour that had already rolled through Waskaganish, Ouje-Bougoumou, Mistissini and Waswanipi. This was an opportunity to see the political process at work.
The meeting hall was filled to capacity as the afternoon session began just after 3:00 p.m. Those who couldn’t find seats stood in the wings, anxious to get a reading on the future of their community and the Cree Nation. Seated at the Grand Council’s head table were: Robert Weistche, Chief of Waskaganish; Sam Bosum, Chief of Ouje-Bougoumou; Bill Namagoose, Executive Director; Ted Moses, Grand Chief; George Wapachee, Chief of Nemaska; Abel Bosum, Head Negotiator; Robert Mainville, lawyer; and John Paul Murdoch. Facing them was a Nemaska audience consumed with apprehension.
The residents began stepping up to the microphone to address the Grand Council, the first to speak was tallyman Freddy Jolly, who introduced himself and his trapline number, R-21. Mr. Jolly, who was visibly concerned, would address the Council members a number of times that night to emphasize the need to protect the rivers and the land. He also expressed disapproval over the secrecy that shrouded the tabling of the Agreement-in-principle.
Once the ice was broken, the trickle of speakers turned into a flood. If the residents were shy about public speaking, it didn’t show. The line behind the microphone was five-deep at times. There was a sense of urgency that filled the room. The more people that spoke, the more that others wanted to add their voices. As the meeting progressed, things became more heated. The community pressed the Grand Chief and his team for answers, their biggest concern being the environment.
At one point, one of the youth approached the head table to present Ted Moses with a laminated poster and quotation, attributed as a Cree Indian prophecy, that he had signed in the past. The Grand Chief read the quotation aloud: Only after the last tree has been cut down, only after the last river has been poisoned, only after the last fish has been caught, only then will you find that money cannot be eaten.
Another demonstration of disapproval occurred when some youth paraded into the room displaying a spray-painted sign that read “Let Our Rivers Flow Freely.” This was a community looking hard at its past, present and future. The room was filled with all segments of Nemaska society: elders and youth, mothers and fathers, students and teachers, trappers and policemen. All there were trying to grasp the information being presented. They were there to be counted, to voice their concerns, to have an affect on the shape their world would take, to make themselves heard by the leadership.
After one of the non-Native teachers added her voice to the proceedings, Grand Chief Moses informed her that this was a Cree matter to be decided solely by the Cree. The crowd turned its anger upon the Cree leader, chastising him for what was interpreted as racism and a show of disrespect for the teacher. The crowd’s anger over the remark illustrated just how sensitive the community is to the Agreement-in-principle. They demanded an apology. The Grand Chief did offer that he hadn’t meant any disrespect and apologized if his remarks had been taken as offensive, maintaining they weren’t intended to be so.
Roger Orr talked about the loss of spirit with the sale of the land. “My mind is confused, but my spirit knows what my answer is,” said Orr. Lindy Moar stood up to speak about finding uses for the land other than mining and forestry. Using Algonquin Park as an example, he pointed to the possibilites for eco-tourism as a source for Cree revenue. He suggested that Crees could create their own job opportunites without the help of Hydro-Quebec or the forestry companies. Many talked about the need for self-sufficiency, viewing the Agreement as yet another example of a government handout.
On behalf of the Grand Council, lawyer Robert Mainville pointed out that, while the outstanding Cree court cases are very strong, there is never a guarantee of getting desired settlements out of the courts. He informed the audience that legal cases are always a risk and that the Agreement provides certainties that cannot be assumed in a court ruling. Abel Bosum addressed the crowd, referring to the Agreement as a tool to be used for the benefit of the Cree. Bosum said that the Grand Council is basing the Agreement on two main principles, the preservation of traditions and cultural identity and the need for the Cree world to keep up with modernisation.
While the adults discussed the weighty issues at hand, the very children whose lives would be most affected by the Agreement wandered in and out of the room, bored and blissfully unaware of the world of politics. One particularly energetic wee lad, in a bright red sweater, kept buzzing past the head table emitting engine noises – the envy of us all. Only a child could get away with it.
The session carried on into the night and finally finished around 11:00 p.m. The majority of the speakers were against the deal. Loss of the Rupert River and development of the land were major sources of concern to the community members. The issue of whether they could trust the government to follow through on its promises was another major stumbling block for the people of Nemaska.
Whether or not the Council members liked what they were hearing, they did listen. While they might not have been able to provide the kinds of answers the community was looking for, the residents of Nemaska were able to join in the political process, to address themselves to their leaders and their fellow Crees. However the decision may go, as tough as it might be, one thing is certain . . . Nemaska is involved, concerned, and very much awake.