Looking back on another prosperous year of economic development in the Cree Nation, Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come recently took the time to discuss with the Nation what the government he leads has done for Crees.
While Premier Charest’s ambitious Plan Nord put Eeyou Istchee on the global map as a hub for natural resource development, the Crees were simultaneously able to negotiate a Framework Agreement that will eventually see control of Category II and III lands returned to the Crees.
Though the Nation-to-Nation Final Agreement between the Crees and Québec on Governance on the Territory (the “Final Agreement”) is still months away from completion, Coon Come seems very proud of the negotiation progress thus far as this process will remedy so much of the damage that was done by Bill 40 back in 2001. That’s when the Quebec government unilaterally amended the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement to give significant control over much of the territory to the Municipalité de la Baie James.
Coon Come talks about the creation of the Cree Development Corporation to help manage the many new economic opportunities for Crees under the Plan Nord, as well as the Cree Mining Policy that is helping ensure Cree rights are respected in the new mining boom.
And the Grand Chief comments on other achievements, from the long-overdue formal recognition of Ouje-Bougoumou as a full-fledged Cree community, to changes within Cree governance, the growth of the Cree trust fund and the creation of new justice facilities.
Looked at on an individual basis, these successes may show that the Crees of Eeyou Istchee are doing very well. The Crees under Coon Come are a force to be reckoned with.
The Nation: This was a significant year for the Crees, what was the most significant accomplishment of the GCC/CRA in 2011?
Matthew Coon Come: The issue that we have made as one of our key priorities, and one which will have the most far-reaching and long-lasting impacts on our communities and the Cree Nation as a whole, must be our governance negotiations with Quebec.
When I came into office I made a commitment that I would work to undo the effects of Bill 40, which transferred significant powers to the non-Native municipalities in the region over Category II and III lands. There was a clear attempt in that legislation to relegate the influence of our communities, and our Cree Nation Government, to Category I lands – mere postage stamps in relation to the size of our traditional territory. This was not right, and I said so.
I said so to Premier Charest, and to his credit, he understood what I was saying. When I first discussed this matter with him he invited us to present him with a solution to the governance issues in the North, which was, as he put it, “outside the box.”
So that is what we did. We put forward a proposal that will see all the significant powers related to the planning and management of lands and resources within our Category II lands exercised by Crees. With respect to Category III lands, we proposed a regional “Northern Government” together with our non-aboriginal neighbouring municipalities, which would also have significant powers over the planning and management of lands and resources. The body that would form this “Northern Government” would initially be constituted on a parity basis between the Cree Nation and the representatives of the municipalities of Chibougamau, Chapais, Matagami and Lebel-sur-Quevillon. After an initial 10-year period, this representation would be reviewed based on demographic realities and democratic principles.
In May 2011, I signed a Framework Agreement with Mr. Charest based on these ideas, and we are now negotiating a Final Agreement, which we expect will be concluded in May 2012. I have commended Mr. Charest on his visionary leadership in moving forward with this groundbreaking initiative. If we are successful, not only will we be righting a wrong when Quebec passed Bill 40, but we will go a very long way in demonstrating in very tangible terms what it means for Quebec to be inclusive of aboriginal peoples in the fabric of its society. When this is concluded I am certain that we will have a model, which will be important not only for Quebec, but also for Canada and the world.
I have full confidence in my negotiating team led by Abel Bosum and Bill Namagoose to guide these negotiations to a successful conclusion.
What was the most disappointing part, issue, action or event of the past year?
To be honest with you, I do not dwell upon disappointing events or issues. Leadership is about having a vision and steering the Nation in a direction that is in keeping with this vision. So far, there has been nothing major which has forced us to deviate from the vision I had when I assumed the office of Grand Chief. We are making major strides in the area of governance; we are positioning the Cree Nation and our communities to take full advantage of the Plan Nord so that we can provide the economic opportunities that we will need for the future generations.
In support of these initiatives we have taken steps to implement a much-needed economic development vehicle for the Nation – the Cree Development Corporation –, which we are anticipating, will play a very key role in facilitating our involvement in the economic development of the territory. We have, through our Cree Mining Policy, ensured that mining companies respect Cree rights in the territory through the negotiation of several pre-development agreements and one major Impact Benefit Agreement.
We have just seen final passage of the Eeyou Marine Agreement by the Government of Canada, which acknowledges our rights with respect to the offshore islands. We have also ensured the implementation of several important measures to improve the quality of life in our communities, including the opening of Justice buildings in Chisasibi, Mistissini and Oujé-Bougoumou, as well as the establishment of the Eeyou Istchee Police Force. And finally, after many years of negotiations, we have signed Complementary Agreement No. 22, which incorporates Oujé-Bougoumou into the JBNQA as a full and equal Cree First Nation.
So, we have stayed the course, we have held firm to our vision, and we are continuing to move forward. I do, however, sometimes feel disappointed at having to come out of my hunting territory to attend emergency meetings.
How have the negotiations for the New Framework Agreement progressed since we last spoke about them seven months ago?
The Framework Agreement, which we signed, last May called for the completion of a Final Agreement by May of 2012. Our Cree team has been meeting regularly with the Quebec side to address all the issues that need to be resolved so that the agreed-upon deadline can be met. Everything is on track. Several sub-tables have been established including a Legal Sub-Table, a Finance Sub-Table and a Regional Government Sub-Table. Mr. Charest has appointed Mr. Daniel Gagnier as the chief Quebec negotiator on this file, and Quebec has appointed an individual, Mr. Florent Gagné, to work with the mayors of the non-Native municipalities to obtain their input into, and to clarify, a number of issues related to the future regional government.
A schedule of intensive negotiating sessions has been established for both the sub-tables and the main table to complete the work they need to do. I am told that Mr. Gagnier has stated at the main table that Mr. Charest has indicated to him that, “Failure is not an option.” I agree with him. The stakes are too high for all sides.
What kind of an impact do you think it has had in Eeyou Istchee?
As our discussions related to the negotiations of a new governance regime in the territory have progressed I have kept both the Grand Council/CRA Board of Directors and the Cree Nation as a whole informed and updated. Both the intent and the specific contents of what we have been negotiating have been very well received.
For me, these negotiations represent the next step in the development of our Cree Nation. When I share my vision with our Cree people and when I explain that this issue represents a critical milestone in our assuming greater control over our traditional territory and laying the basis for our being able to ensure benefits for our communities from the development of the resources in our territory, people nod. When Cree people nod, they both understand and express agreement. I am very pleased and encouraged by the reaction thus far. I feel that we are all on the same wavelength on this issue and we all recognize that this is the next essential step in the building of the Cree Nation. I will continue to keep the Cree Nation informed as this very important issue progresses over the coming winter and spring.
How did you feel about Oujé-Bougoumou finally becoming an independent Cree community?
The Oujé-Bougoumou people have gone through very difficult trials and tribulations and have worked incredibly hard to finally become incorporated into the JBNQA as a full and equal Cree First Nation. I consider it my personal honour and privilege to have been able to be part of the achievement they recently celebrated. The community is now on firm legal footing and the entire Cree Nation is strengthened as a result of their efforts. I feel blessed to have been a part of their journey.
Their incorporation into the JBNQA represents the culmination of a long effort to redress an injustice and to finally make right the circumstances that the community of Oujé-Bougoumou should never have experienced. We all worked together – the Crees, Quebec and Canada – to do the right thing.
Oujé-Bougoumou’s own creativity and innovativeness, which it showed in the planning and construction of its village, will also be an example to us of what can be accomplished when we take off the blinders and allow ourselves to be open to new ways of thinking and new ways of solving problems.
On behalf of the Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee, I congratulate Oujé-Bougoumou for its perseverance and its determination to arrive at this most historic occasion, and for its steadfast adherence to the dreams and visions of their Elders.
What kinds of changes have been made in the last year within the GCC/CRA to make it more efficient and more accessible to Crees?
Ever since the signing of our New Relationship Agreement with Canada, the Cree Regional Authority has assumed responsibility for a wide range of services and programs that had previously been the responsibility of Canada. In order to exercise these new responsibilities we have needed to expand the CRA. A considerable number of new positions have been created to respond effectively to the needs of the Cree communities. This trend will continue until we are confident that we can fulfil our obligations under the New Relationship Agreement and that we will be able to demonstrate that we have been able to exercise these new powers in a responsible way. The way we measure this is in the success we show in addressing the needs of the communities. At the end of the period of time during which the New Relationship Agreement is in effect, we will need to renegotiate that agreement. We will need to demonstrate that we have effectively provided the necessary programs and services to the communities. It is in the long-term interest of the Cree Nation to ensure that we have been successful in doing this, and this is what we are in fact doing.
In recent years there has been trouble with the Cree Trust losing value as a result of the economic downturn in the US and the stock market. Was 2011 a better year for the Cree financial outlook?
In 2008-2009, as you know, there was an economic and financial crisis which was global in scope. No investment fund around the world, whether it was a pension fund, a trust fund or a heritage fund, escaped the negative impacts of that crisis on the value of their portfolios. The Cree Trust fund was no different. The value of our funds experienced some erosion. Over the subsequent years, although the performance of funds has been more volatile, the financial markets have generally experienced a steady recovery. This has been true of the Cree Trust funds as well. The major portion of our losses incurred in 2008-2009 has been recovered.
It is important to highlight, however, that the global economy is currently experiencing new challenges and difficulties as a number of European countries grapple with very serious financial issues. The future is not at all clear as to how widespread the impacts of the difficulties of certain European countries will spread. There is the possibility that they could spread to North America as well. If that is the case, our Cree Trust fund could experience new challenges. Our Cree Trust fund is not immune from what is happening throughout the world and we will be affected by the general state of the global economy.
What I can assure the people of Eeyou Istchee is that we continue to seek out the best possible financial advice available, and we will take whatever measures we can to protect the value of our Cree Trust funds so that it will be able to address the objectives we have established for it.
Tell us of the economic development opportunities that the GCC has been involved in over the past year (mining, energy, etc)?
As you know, it was relatively recently that the Cree Nation adopted the Cree Mining Policy. This policy lays out both the guiding principles and the specific procedures that any mining company wishing to carry out exploration work or wishing to bring a mining operation into production must follow. The Cree Mining Policy provides for what we refer to as a “Pre-Development Agreement,” which addresses situations when a company wishes to undertake extensive exploration activities. Included in these PDAs, as we call them, are requirements for local employment, contracting, addressing environmental concerns, addressing the concerns of our hunters and trappers, and addressing issues related to important cultural sites within our territory. To date, we have entered into several negotiations to conclude PDAs.
Our Cree Mining Policy also calls for negotiations of Impact Benefits Agreements for those companies wanting to bring a mine into production. These agreements go into considerably more detail with respect to a wide range of benefits for the Cree communities potentially affected by such mining activities. The agreement with Goldcorp with respect to the Eleonore Project is an example of such an agreement.
In combination, these agreements hold out very substantial opportunities for increased employment, contracting, and other benefits for our Cree people as the pace of mining activities within Eeyou Istchee increases. Projects such as the Eleonore Project within the Wemindji traditional territory, Stornoway within the Mistissini territory and BlackRock Metals within the Oujé-Bougoumou territory are just some of the examples of the activities that will be taking place within Eeyou Istchee and from which we will be able to ensure benefits for our communities.
We are also actively working to realize the opportunities for the Cree Nation to become involved in the production of energy by taking advantage of the potential for wind, small hydro and biomass energy within our territory. We are working with the Cree First Nations in identifying the economic and employment opportunities associated with these projects.
As the Plan Nord continues to be elaborated, and as the role of the Cree Nation with respect to the Plan Nord becomes clearly defined, the opportunities for our communities will increase significantly.
Looking forward, what are the major goals for you as Grand Chief for 2012?
As I mentioned earlier, we set out a course of action based on a distinct vision for the development of the Cree Nation. We are in nation-building mode right now. We will do all we can to stay on that course and to achieve important gains that will contribute to the enhancement of the scope of powers, jurisdictions and authority of the Cree Nation within our traditional territory.
I am confident that we will arrive at a Final Agreement on Governance in the coming months that will strengthen our authority with respect to Category II lands, and which, together with our non-Native neighbouring municipalities, will extend our influence over Category III lands.
We will continue to ensure that substantial benefits from the Plan Nord will come to our Cree communities so that we can address the economic, employment and social needs of our people. We will also continue to identify the key areas that will ensure that our people are prepared to accept the challenge of becoming the major economic, political and social force within Eeyou Istchee. This will require an emphasis on education, training and human resource development in anticipation of the kinds of employment that will become available. Our involvement in establishing the Cree Job Partnership Strategy is an example of the kinds of initiatives we will be putting into place to accomplish this objective. There is much work to be done and we will continue to do what is necessary to fully take advantage of the historic opportunities before us.
Is there anything you would like to add?
As this interview is taking place in December 2011, I would like to take the opportunity to extend my best wishes to the entire population of Eeyou Istchee and James Bay for a very happy holiday and a joyous New Year. May we all take the time to rejuvenate our energies, find deep contentment in being with our families, and commit ourselves to finding ways to contribute to the building of the Cree Nation as well as building the partnerships with our neighbours in the region and elsewhere that will result in a better future for all of us. Meegwetch.