The referendum results are in for the new $1.4 billion agreement with the federal government and a whopping 90.2 per cent of those who voted said yes to accepting the cash and working towards Cree self-government.
The agreement obligates Canada to deliver $1.4 billion over 20 years as compensation for failing to live up to their end of the bargain under the 1975 James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement.
The deal was the subject of far less controversy than the 2002 Paix des Braves with Quebec because it does not give up a body of water.
Two of the key issues during negotiations for the new agreement were the need for a Cree constitution that would enable the Grand Council to act as a true governing body and political representative of the Crees. As well, the “Assumed Federal JBNQA Responsibilities” will hand over responsibility of key issues such as housing and maintenance to the Crees.
Despite the overwhelming consensus in favour of the agreement, the referendum saw a fairly healthy turnout of almost 60 per cent of the 10,801 eligible voters. Of the 6,421 voting, 5,790 voted yes compared to only 583 who rejected the deal.
The following is an excerpt from the agreement:
Cree Nation Governance
The purpose of the Chapter on Governance is twofold: (a) to equip the CRA with by-law making powers similar to those of the Cree bands under the CNQA (Cree-Naskapi (of Quebec) Act), through proposed amendments to the CNQA; and (b) set out a process for negotiations leading to a Governance Agreement, Governance Legislation and possible amendments to the JBNQA and the CNQA concerning a Cree Nation Government.
If the negotiations are successful, this would expand Cree Nation governance beyond the CNQA powers by establishing the structures and powers of a Cree Nation Government and the relationship ofsuch Government with Cree bands and federal and provincial governments.
The agreement also contains a provision that ensures Quebec, the Inuit and Naskapi would be a party to certain aspects of negotiations that involved their interests.
It also said:
Assumption of Certain Federal JBNQA Responsibilities:
The Agreement provides that the CRA, and subsequently the Cree Nation Government, will assume for the 20-year term of the Agreement the responsibilities of Canada in regard to certain provisions of the JBNQA referred to as the Assumed Federal JBNQA Responsibilities, and will have full and complete discretion to implement these Assumed Federal JBNQA Responsibilities for that term.
The Assumed Federal JBNQA Responsibilities comprise the federal share of capital costs, operations and maintenance (including insurance) and programs and services, as applicable.
Now that the deal has been ratified by the Cree people, Ottawa must still pass it into law through the House of Commons. Once that is complete, the Coon Come lawsuits (including suits #1, #2 and parts of lawsuit #3) will be definitively dropped.
Grand Chief Matthew Mukash said that the agreement is good for the Cree Nation and it is time to move forward.
“We’ve been trying to get this deal for the last 32 years and it’s finally come to a conclusion,” Mukash said. “It was due for a long, long time and that’s why I’m very happy that the Cree Nation has decided to accept it.
Mukash said the Crees now have to take responsibility to manage their own affairs with good governance practices.
“It will be a good opportunity for the Cree Nation in the next 20 years to prove that we can manage our own affairs no matter what sector it is, whether it’s economic, industrial or policing or just governance in general,” he said.
Mukash credited past leaders with paving the way for the current Cree government to ink the final agreement.
“We have come a long way,” he said. “Shortly after the signing of the agreement in 1975, the leaders already had experience with both levels of government in which they did not want to live up to their obligations under the JBNQA. The Cree Nation decided to pursue the governments by way of a court case in 1989. It’s good to see that finally the governments have responded to the strategy we took over the last 20 years to get them to live up to their obligations.”
Still, others were not convinced that this was the right way to go.
“It’s just another way for the government to get to our Cree rights and lands to totally own them,” said Ouje-Bougoumou community member John Bosum. “And then we’re stuck paying taxes as well. I always thought that money can’t buy happiness and the more you have the more miserable you become.”
Waswanipi’s Irene Neeposh thinks that the agreement is a start, but there is a lot of hard work ahead.
“I think it is something that was long overdue in respect to the JBNQA,” she said. “But timing is everything, and our people weren’t ready at the time to assume the subject responsibilities. We are now ready to assume these responsibilities. It will require a lot of work, but we can do this. We must make sure we come together as a Nation and see that this is an opportunity of a lifetime.”
Bertie Wapachee adamantly opposed the Paix des Braves. He is still hoping to save the Rupert River and is working towards that goal with organizations like the Fondation Rivières and Rupert Révérence.
“With this deal, I can’t say whether it’s good or bad, I haven’t decided yet, but I supported it because I felt it would help our people for years to come and that it doesn’t require us to let something so beautiful go in return,” he said.
One interesting part of the agreement includes the creation of Ouje-Bougoumou Category IA lands in the form of a complementary agreement shortly after the ink dries. This move will officially end the ambiguous status of Ouje-Bougoumou as a less-than-fully recognized Cree community.
The document also stipulated a need to discuss other complementary agreements such as the ability to alter specific JBNQA content between those parties affected, without having to get consent from the non-affected parties.
The line, “Changes to incorporate in the JBNQA final territorial descriptions of category I lands,” is ambiguous but could mean the expansion of the current limiting boundaries of the nine communities. With a rapidly growing population, these existing community limits will not likely be sufficient when the agreement ends 20 years after it is signed.
Grand Chief Mukash was asked about a possible looming federal election and Ottawa’s track record of not respecting signed treaties.
“There’s going to be $ 1.14 billion paid to the Crees in March 2008 if there’s no election,” he said. “When you have the money in your account the government cannot come back and take it away. You are more or less paid in advance for the next 20 years, so it’s really up to the Cree people on how they want to manage the funds. And to make a plan to carry out the responsibilities that are being transferred to the Cree Nation.”
Mukash also said that the current dispute over who controls certain sections of land in the James Bay Municipality will be part of the negotiations after the agreement is signed. The JBM mayors currently have quite a bit of clout over Cree land and it irritates the Grand Council because they do not have a member sitting on the MBJ board to consult over decisions affecting Cree territory.
When the Red Chute project was announced in March 2007, it was the first time that the Grand Council heard about the project. They feel they are being blindsided by Bill 40, which was passed in 2001 in Quebec’s National Assembly to give the JBM mayors extensive rights and power over category 2 and 3 lands.
Mukash said the Crees are looking towards a time where they will have the final say over how bright their future will be.
“We have done very well over the last 32 years in terms of governing ourselves,” he said. “We’ve been able to make sure that our treaty rights were not eroded in some way that we eventually disappear.”