Grand Chief celebrates new governance agreement for James Bay

Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come did not hold back in his description of Bill 42. Speaking in Quebec City on May 29, he described the bill as “legislation of fundamental importance” that will “bring the Cree and the Jamésiens together in a real governance partnership and will benefit the Cree, the Jamésiens and all Quebecers for generations to come.”

This new legislation, “An Act Establishing The Eeyou Istchee James Bay Regional Government And Introducing Certain Legislative Amendments Concerning The Cree Nation Government,” will implement the Agreement on Governance in the Eeyou Istchee James Bay Territory (“the Governance Agreement”) concluded in July 2012 between the Crees of Eeyou Istchee and the Quebec government. It gives Crees an important role to play in the regional government – which Coon Come described as “the first formal partnership in governance between an Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal population.”

Tracing the history of relations between the Crees of Eeyou Istchee and Quebec back to the struggle against Hydro-Québec’s James Bay project in the early 1970s, which led to the creation of the James Bay Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA) in 1975, Coon Come noted that promises of shared government over the region were never fulfilled, keeping northern citizens from exercising their right to participate in the administration of public services.

Because the promises of a share of regional government administration have not been kept, the Cree people “have been excluded from the governance of Eeyou Istchee.” The Grand Chief argued that this was especially unfair at a time when the Cree Nation is striving for economic growth, as “without the right governance structures, there can be no lasting economic development.”

It was the 2002 Paix des Braves that reshaped Cree-Quebec relations. “From one of confrontation and conflict, the relationship has matured into one of cooperation and partnership,” said Coon Come.

Now, the Governance Agreement provides two major opportunities for Cree people to hold greater administrative power over Category II and III lands as identified by the JBNQA. In Category III lands, the Bill calls for the creation of the Eeyou Istchee James Bay Regional Government (as of January 1, 2014), which will “exercise powers under Quebec laws of municipal management, economic development and land and resource planning. It will replace the current Municipalité de Baie-James with a modernized, representative governance institution.”

This new institution will consist of equal numbers of representatives from the Cree Nation and from the surrounding Jamésian communities. The regional government will also act as a de facto regional land and natural resource commission for the area of the Cree territory as well as over the four “enclosed municipalities” of Chapais, Chibougamau, Lebel-sur-Quévillon and Matagami.

Over Category II lands, the Governance Agreement grants Crees “powers under Quebec laws with respect to matters such as municipal government, economic development and land and resource planning and management,” a change that the Grand Chief emphasizes will lead to “greater Cree autonomy on Category II lands.”

One form that this improved autonomy will take will be in municipal government, where the Cree Nation may assert its control over Category II lands in any issue where Quebec law would normally defer to a local municipality or regional county municipality. But at the same time, the Cree Nation government must create a strategic vision statement and land-use planning and development plan that are “consistent with the policy directions, principles and objectives determined by the Cree Nation government in consultation with the Cree communities and with the approval of the Government of Quebec.” For these reasons, the changes reflect a joint venture of control shared by the Cree Nation and Quebec, with each able to exercise a measure of control over the territory.

Coon Come cautioned, however, against believing that these changes indicated a desire for control by the Cree Nation.

“One concern sometimes heard is that the objective of the Cree in the Agreement on Governance is to ‘take control’ of the North,” said Coon Come. “A variation is that the Cree are seeking somehow to partition the North. But if the Agreement on Governance and Bill 42 show anything, it is that the Cree are seeking to ‘buy into’ Quebec, not to ‘buy out.’ The Cree are seeking, as Aboriginal citizens of Quebec, to participate more fully in the governance of Eeyou Istchee-James Bay.”

Coon Come said that Bill 42 will “allow us to achieve, together, things that we can scarcely begin to imagine today.”