The Nation: I understand you used to work in Northern Quebec.

Jacques Robitaille: Yes, I used to work in Amos for eight years. I was director of the region they call Harricana for six years. At the time, it included the territories of Matagami and Lebel-sur-Quévillon. So I know this neighbourhood a little bit.

What did you do?

I was responsible for the management of the forests in this region. I am a forestry engineer, graduated in 1971.

When a logging company executive sees a forest, he sees dollar signs. What do you see?

I see much more a place where people live, an eco-system, something which we have to work with together. All the things we have done in the past few years have this in mind.

In the past 20 years, the forestry industry has clearcut 5,000 square kilometres in the Cree Territory, which is the same area as was flooded by the La Grande project. This was done with only a few thousand dollars of compensation to the Crees and without their consent. Is this situation something the government of Quebec can be proud of?

First of all, when you say 5,000 sq. km, if we take the entire territory covered by the James Bay Agreement, it’s 1 million sq. km. The forestry industry cuts about 400 sq. km per year and the entire part of the territory with commercial forests is 50,000 sq. km. Compared to the entire territory, the area affected is relatively small. In the James Bay Agreement, the use of the forests by the forestry industry was always recognized.

But the level of forestry that was foreseen in the Agreement when it was signed in 1975 is not the same level that later transpired.

Well, I could not say… But everything was done according to what was in the Agreement. It is also regulated by the Forest Act of Quebec. For example, it’s necessary for companies to have management plans which conform to the laws. Everything was done in accordance with these regulations, as far as I know.

The James Bay Agreement also says that the government must protect the traditional way of life of the Crees based on the land. The Agreement says that any development project which affects more than 25 sq. miles must be subjected to an environmental impact study. But this is never done with forestry.

But you have to understand that forestry exploitation is not covered by impact studies under the Agreement. Since there are already rules that govern forestry activities, it was never said that there need to be impact studies of these activities in the Agreement.

What it says is that any development that affects more than 25 sq. miles must be subject to an environmental impact study. It doesn’t specify forestry or any other type of development.

There are management plans which are submitted to the James Bay Advisory Committee on the Environment. The James Bay Advisory Committee has never demanded an environmental impact study.

I have here a study that was done by the Grand Council of the Crees. It has many photos that are a little disturbing. They show violations of the forestry regulations, including culverts where there should be a bridge, poorly built logging roads and culverts, machinery abandoned at the side of the road, garbage dumps that are badly built and maintained. The Crees have made many complaints concerning such violations. Do you think the government is doing enough to ensure that the law is respected?

Me, I think yes. It is obvious that it’s a little like if I say on the highways of Quebec the speed limit is 90 km/h. I am convinced there are people who do more than 90. But the general rule is there.

We know there are people who, unfortunately, violate these rules. The ministry applies its rules as strictly as possible.

And, personally, we think we are in control of the situation. I find it unfortunate if you take some isolated cases like this, then you show it and say, look what’s happening. Probably there are still some companies that are going to have to be disciplined. On this, we have always thought that aboriginal people and citizens of other communities in Quebec should be partners with us to help us ensure that the laws are respected. Any complaint that may be made will receive the attention it requires and we will apply the regulations.

We cannot guarantee a 100-per-cent result, but in general we can say that the results are very acceptable. I will repeat what I said last week at a conference on the environment and development: We don’t pretend that everything is perfect, that we are the best in the world. But the commitment we made in Quebec is that we will implement changes that reflect our knowledge and which are manageable by everybody.

There is an example of the kind of forestry practices that are provoking concern. South and east of the community of Ouje-Bougoumou, there is a clearcut that measures 15 km on one side and 3 to 8 km on the other side. Do you think this is compatible with the way of life of the Crees?

What I can tell you is that something like this will not be possible in the future with the new regulations we have just put in place. The rules are much more strict as to the size of clearcuts. It is necessary to leave a border of trees separating clearcut areas.

And we are using a new idea called “territorial units of reference.” Inside a “territorial unit of reference,” there must be at least 30 per cent forest cover of 7 metres and over. The objective is to try to follow a little bit the territory of the traplines and to develop a canopy of old, young and intermediate forests. This is a new regulation that has been in effect since April 1 of this year.

It is your opinion that 30 per cent of the forests are enough to assure the survival of the traditional way of life of the Crees?

You have to understand it’s 30 per cent with cover of 7 metres and over. That’s not to say that the rest will be a desert. This is also on top of many other measures which add to each other. The permitted size of clearcuts has been reduced from 250 hectares to 150 hectares. We spent a lot of time developing these measures and they were developed because of the concerns of aboriginal people about the protection of traplines.

Maybe we could speak about the penalties which the government imposes on companies that violate forestry regulations. In Quebec, if a company cuts down a tree illegally, the penalty is $100 per tree. In British Columbia, it’s $5,000. The maximum penalty in B.C. is $1 million with the possibility of two years in prison. Here, it’s $10,000. Many people say that there aren’t enough inspectors to assure respect of the law. Does the government have the will to ensure respect of the law?

The government does have the will to ensure respect, but I never like comparisons, especially with British Columbia. Personally, I don’t find it very flattering. British Columbia has had their forestry law only since last year, while we’ve had our law since 1986. A tree in B.C. is worth many thousands of dollars. A three or four-inch-thick black spruce from here is not worth thousands of dollars. It has to be put into perspective. This type of comparison is completely unacceptable.

In Quebec, before 1986, forestry was governed by administrative rules. Now, there are judicial rules and we are taking people to court. There are published judgements and penalties are imposed.

I tried to get a list of the penalties imposed on each company from your ministry, but I was told that this list is not public. Why is it not public?

A judgement is always public. So if there is a judgement you should be able to get it. What I can tell you is that in 1994, we had 430 cases. Of these, there were three acquittals. It’s true there are still 211 cases that are not closed, but there were $353,000 in penalties imposed on the industry in 1994. Since 1990, we took 1,961 cases before the courts and there were nearly $1.4 million in penalties. But there are still 614 cases that are not resolved.

Earlier this year, a European Parliament Member held a press conference to say that Quebec is the Brazil of the North and that its forestry policies violate the rights of Native people. Does this perception concern the government?

It concerns us because these are people who have no idea what’s happening here, who propagate ideas like this often fed with very fragmentary and very confused information. If we take the territory of James Bay, we have an Agreement that dates to 1975. There is a consultative mechanism with the James Bay Advisory Committee. All management plans affecting this territory are available to the recognized communities. All annual plans are the subject of discussions between the industry and the communities.

If we take the community of Waswanipi, they have entered into a project with one of the companies. I know that the same company, Domtar, has an agreement that works very well with one of the communities (Winneway—ed.)

What we see is there is the political discourse, which to me is one thing, but there is also the reality on the ground where what is happening with the local trappers and communities—I’m not sure it is as bad as certain people would have us believe for the ends of giving themselves a bit of political capital or publicity.

Me, when I look at all the changes in the forestry regime in Quebec, we compare well with other provinces and countries. But if we are going to make comparisons, we can compare our forests with the European forests, where they are all plantations.

I’ve heard you say in an interview that the most important thing is dialogue. Can you elaborate?

I think in the last few years people have learned to understand each other a little better. It’s sure that in the 1970s, the role of forestry and other activities which took place in the forest was less important. People could do what they wanted, each in their little corner, without their activities being in conflict.

Now, we have entered a situation where people’s interests clash, and it’s necessary for people to talk to each other and come up with ways to live together. When there are debates that are more political, it’s a little like a dialogue of the deaf. Whenever we take the debate to those who live off the resource and live in the forests, I think we can arrive at something that is very acceptable and which is consistent with sustainable development.

It’s sure that as soon as people started having this dialogue, the way forestry work was done changed, and this is the approach that we prefer. If people are able to find common ground, I think there are benefits for one side and the other. Forestry development that is done well can help certain types of wildlife and plant life. We know that old-growth forest might be good for the marten, but absolutely not good for the moose.

What a Cree might say to you is that in the past, people tried many times to start a dialogue with certain companies. When they gave information about special hunting and fishing sites, burial sites, it was not used. Loggers even started going to these areas to hunt and fish themselves. At the moment, there are two new logging roads—one built by Domtar, the other proposed by Chantiers Chibougamau—which are opposed by the people of Waswanipi and Mistissini, but there is no dialogue from the side of the forestry companies. Is it not the role of the government to force the companies to listen to the Crees when those companies don’t want to listen?

It’s sure that in the past, there was a lack of dialogue. Certain companies were faster to respond, others were slower. The government has acted to force this dialogue. This was why we obliged the companies to submit a management plan and there is no question of accepting a management plan if there was no consultation or dialogue. The annual plan is discussed with the local communities in every case.

I don’t think this has ever been done. I’m not sure if a company has ever consulted with a Cree community.

It is done with the James Bay Advisory Committee. There are discussions with all the Cree communities in every case.

You are aware that Canada signed the Protocol of the Rio de Janeiro Conference on the Environment in 1992. The declaration says that governments must assure that indigenous peoples must be protected from development projects that could disturb their traditional way of life. It also says indigenous people must be included in the formation of all national policies that affect resources on their lands, and they must benefit economically from the exploitation of those resources. Does the Quebec government support this declaration?

Not only does it support this declaration—the government of Quebec passed a decree supporting this declaration—but last spring, the government included in the preamble of the Forest Act of Quebec the six criteria of sustainable development that were adopted by the United Nations. And we made a commitment to base our future actions on these criteria, which include a socioeconomic section that covers the whole question of local communities. This was done during the last amendment to the law in April.

Did you consult Native peoples when you made these changes?

The aboriginal nations participated at the Canadian level in the definition of these six criteria which are recognized as the criteria of sustainable development.

But when you changed the Forest Act, did you consult Native peoples?

What we did was include the criteria of sustainable development. We didn’t change anything that could harm Native people. We committed ourselves to go further toward sustainable development.

On the other changes, there were numerous discussions over the last years with Natives—the size of clearcuts, regeneration of the forests. All this came out of the discussions we’ve had in the past with Native people and is part of our strategy to protect the forests, which was itself the object of a vast public consultation, to which Natives were invited also.

But did they participate?

In some cases, there were some communities that participated.

Did the Crees?

Well, it was a few years ago that it happened. But one of the things that came out of it—and we’re the only government that has done this to my knowledge—is that chemical products are to be phased out in forestry operations by the year 2000.

Was the James Bay Advisory Committee consulted about the changes to the Forest Act?

Listen, I know that… My God, it was one of the biggest consultations ever held by the BAPE (Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement—ed.) We’re talking about something that happened in 1989.

Another section of the Rio de Janeiro Declaration says each government must set aside a certain part of its territory to be protected from development. The Rio Conference and other international norms state that 10 to 12 per cent of each country’s territory should be protected. British Columbia protects 9.2 per cent, in the U.S. it’s 6 to 8 per cent, but in Quebec it’s a lot less. Officially, it’s 0.5 per cent, although the amount will soon be increased to 4.2 per cent. Is this enough?

This is a shameless manipulation of the figures. The 12 per cent, I don’t know if you know where this comes from. This is something arbitrary. The Europeans checked what the amount was in their countries. It was 12 per cent and they said, now the norm is 12 per cent. You tell me we’re going to put aside 12 per cent to be protected from all development in Canada—that’s like a whole province. I’m not sure that makes any sense, it has to be seen in perspective.

If you take the black spruce, which covers thousands and thousands of square kilometres, should we protect 12 per cent of the black spruce? Or is 1 per cent enough? This debate has not yet taken place. There are immense portions of the territory of Quebec which are not used and which will never be used. Should we also put this into the equation? If it isn’t used, should we consider that it is under protection?

So there is a whole debate that isn’t over and I think we should first evaluate all the ecosystems that should be protected. Maybe we should protect 20 per cent of certain ecosystems. Others, maybe 5 per cent is enough. But there is a commitment by the government of Quebec to attain a level of protected spaces comparable to that in other countries. What B.C. forgets to say when they use that figure is it includes territories that are inaccessible because of mountains.

In James Bay right now, there isn’t any territory that is protected from development. Do you think this is acceptable?

When the Europeans say you have to protect 12 per cent—you have probably been to Europe, you have seen the pressure that exists there because of the density of the population—I think we are not in the same situation when we take a territory like James Bay. I think to protect 12 per cent of James Bay would be relatively easy to do, and I think to take a number like 12 per cent is not intelligent.

Are there any plans to protect any part of James Bay?

Yes, there are plans. After the Rio summit, an inter-ministerial committee was set up in the government of Quebec to put into practice the commitments made at Rio. I will give you just one example. The government just published its strategy on bio-diversity in Quebec’s forests at the beginning of the summer. No other province has made such a commitment. There were a series of measures taken following the Rio summit. We are as advanced as any other government on this issue.

And when you throw around a number like 12 per cent, which for me is a totally arbitrary number that doesn’t mean anything, what we need to do is assure that everything that needs to be protected is protected.

The government has already given companies the right to cut in the whole southern part of James Bay through the timber-license agreements. If you are planning to protect this area, do you plan to take some of this back?

First of all, if you talk about the territory that was given to the forestry industry, there was no territory given to the forestry industry. The industry has the right to harvest as long as they respect certain norms and rules. In these rules, we strive to maintain the forest cover, or at least the same type of forest cover.

I know there are certain issues that are controversial. I find it unfortunate that sometimes people use examples that are very isolated. If you take the whole territory of James Bay, we know it covers 1 million square kilometres, and there are 40,000 sq. km of this territory that are covered by the timber-license agreements. One per cent of this area—400 sq. km—is cut every year. We always have to put this into perspective. We are aware that in the local communities this could have impacts, and what we’re aiming for is that the impacts will be nearly non-existent.

At the same time, we think that an old forest that is deteriorating anyway is not necessarily a good thing if this is what we have in the whole territory.

Okay, thank you.

My pleasure.