Thanks to something Canada’s top court would not do, top Cree leaders are declaring victory in a long-running dispute with Ottawa.

On Oct 25, the Supreme Court refused to hear the federal government’s request to appeal a Sept, 2001 Quebec Superior Court decision on the implementation of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. Cree politicians hail the decision as recognition they must be treated as equals with Quebec City and Ottawa when it comes to implementing the historic, influential treaty.

“This decision is important in that it puts an end to numerous years of legal battles by the Crees against Canada in order to be recognized as full participants with Canada and Quebec in decisions effecting Cree rights,” said Grand Chief Ted Moses. “Particularly Cree language and culture rights;” The head of the Cree School Board (CSB) said the decision will help other aboriginal groups across Canada.

“This decision will provide a judicial precedent and protection for aboriginal cultural and linguistic rights,” said Mabel Herodier, chair of the CSB.

The dispute started in May, 1996, when Quebec and Canada made an agreement over how much money should be paid out to the Cree for schools under the JBNQA. The Cree were not at the table.

Cree leaders complained the deal made them second-class citizens under the JBNQA and did not give them a voice in protecting their linguistic and cultural heritage. In 2001, confirming the earlier decision by Justice Jean-Pierre Croteau, the Quebec Court of Appeals struck down the agreement, saying the non-native government had to give a “large and liberal interpretation” to the JBNQA.

“This decision is important in that it confirms the Crees as full participants with Canada and Québec in decisions affecting their education rights which include their cultural and linguistic rights, among others,” said Herodier after the ruling.

It’s not the first time that Justice Croteau had sided with the Cree. In a ruling handed down in late December, 1999, he ruled the Quebec government had “openly and continually violated” Cree rights under the JBNQA. He gave Quebec six months to change their ways. Quebec responded by alleging Justice Croteau was not adequately impartial and that his first ruling was a product of improper bias. Justice Croteau was removed from the case by his boss, Quebec Superior Court Chief Justice Lyse Lemieux; she put Justice Danielle Grenier, a former Quebec government lawyer, in his place.

That touched off a brief but nasty conflict with Quebec. James O’Reilly, the longtime lawyer for the Cree, called Lemieux’s decision “an elementary error in law.” Some Cree leaders said they would pull out of the JBNQA. Grand Chief Ted Moses told a press conference “If we weren’t in this conference room, we would have burned the [James Bay] Agreement in front of you.” Cree opposition to the forestry ruling led to the recent Paix des Braves agreement with Quebec. Moses and Herodier are both hailing this recent ruling as a similar step towards a just implementation of the JBNQA with the federal government.

What remains to be seen is how the Supreme Court ruling will affect the nuts and bolts of education funding in the Cree nation.