From a summit of Quebec chiefs in Quebec City to seeing President Obama in North Dakota to a meeting with BC leaders and finally to speaking to lawyers in Iqaluit, all in the space of a week-and-a-half, Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come has been discussing the journey the people of Eeyou Istchee have experienced over the past 40 years.
After seeing so many interesting photos appear on Coon Come’s Facebook account, the Nation was curious about the story behind these images.
The Nation: Over the last few weeks you have been all over the place. Was this a planned tour for you to be out representing the Cree Nation?
Grand Chief Coon Come: As Grand Chief, one of my roles is to represent our Cree Nation government. We receive many invitations to participate in meetings ranging from civil society groups, First Nations, conferences and various associations. Most of these requests involve national and international audiences. Usually they ask us to talk about the Cree experience on a wide range of issues from political, social, cultural and socio-economic perspectives. Depending on the topics, many times we suggest to these groups that they send an invitation to one of our Cree entities. The reality is that we receive so many invitations we cannot attend them all.
June was a very busy month. In fact, this past June has been an historic month from the perspective of Aboriginal rights. In a very short span of time during the latter part of June we had the federal government approve the Northern Gateway pipeline project and we also witnessed the hugely important Supreme Court decision in the Williams case dealing with Aboriginal title. I agreed to speak on issues such as governance, Aboriginal rights and resource development. This took me to meeting with the Quebec chiefs in Quebec City, to receiving an invitation from President Obama at Standing Rock Indian Reservation, North Dakota, to addressing the Heilsuk and Haida nations in B.C. and to the Canadian Bar Association in Iqaluit, Nunavut. And lastly, I addressed the Energy Council of Canada in Calgary. I’d say this was quite a week-and-a-half.
Many Native and non-Native organizations want to learn from the Cree experience. Although we are very busy implementing our agreements, negotiating with both levels of government on several fronts, dealing with resources developers and fighting to protect our land and way of life, I believe we should still take the time to share our struggles and successes with our Aboriginal brothers and sisters. In this way, we will all be stronger.
TN: What happened at the Quebec City meeting of chiefs?
GC: The Assembly of the First Nations of Quebec and Labrador (AFNQL) meets at least four or five times a year. These meetings are attended by all of the Chiefs of Quebec along with the participation of the regional women’s association, the regional youth group and a representative from the Friendship Centres of Quebec.
I usually attend these meetings to keep abreast of regional and national issues. With so many policies and legislation introduced by both levels of government it is imperative that we Crees participate and contribute to the deliberations, especially where Cree interests may be affected.
This recent meeting dealt with, amongst other matters, the resignation of National Chief Atleo and the need to call elections for National Chief. Other issues discussed were related to the Plan Nord and to the Education Act.
At this meeting I took the opportunity to seek the participation of Quebec chiefs in the upcoming BAPE (Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement) hearings and explained the Cree position on uranium projects located in Eeyou Istchee. I impressed upon them that the only way that the risks of uranium mining activities can be properly assessed is through an independent, broad and a rigorous review. I told them that we believe that if this environmental review process is conducted properly and the issues and risks are thoroughly discussed and considered, Quebecers as a whole will join with the Cree Nation and reject uranium development activities in the entire province.
The reaction from the Quebec chiefs was very positive. Several of them expressed similar concerns and agreed to participate in the BAPE hearings. This was certainly a worthwhile meeting to have attended.
TN: What were you doing at the event in North Dakota that U.S. President Obama attended? Did you get the chance to meet him? Was this business or personal?
GC: During my time as Chief, Grand Chief and National Chief I have made many acquaintances among Aboriginal communities and organizations throughout Canada, the US and internationally. As I mentioned earlier, I am often invited to speak and to participate in a wide range of events. This is one of the responsibilities that comes with the office of Grand Chief – to represent the Cree Nation, to share our experiences and to help others where we can. This is also how we learn about some issues that may affect the Cree Nation. This is how this particular event came about. It was strictly business. Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to meet President Obama personally.
TN: You were then on the west coast to address the Heiltsuk and Haida nations, how did that go? Why were you meeting with them? What messages did you share with their youth? Did your presence have anything to do with the opposition of Northern Gateway?
GC: When I met these BC nations, it was immediately obvious that the Northern Gateway pipeline was a major concern because of the impact this project may have on the land, on the environment and on the fisheries. People had serious issues with the possible spill of the tankers and the impact it will have on the fisheries industry. The First Nations in attendance wanted to hear the strategies we undertook to stop the Great Whale project. I gladly shared our experience, the alliances we made, the court cases we launched and the presentations we made at the national and international level.
I shared with them the background to our major agreements – the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, the Paix des Braves, the Governance Agreement – and how they, together, have translated the recognition of our Aboriginal and treaty rights into tangible benefits for our communities and our people. I shared with them how our successes over nearly 40 years were based on the centrality of our rights in all our struggles and all our negotiations.
I told them that we are demonstrating, in northern Quebec, that the acknowledgement of Aboriginal rights is not in contradiction to development. On the contrary, we believe that to understand and to embrace Aboriginal rights is the necessary condition for the rational and sustainable development of the resources within the territories of Aboriginal peoples, and that this can be done in a spirit of cooperation and harmony.
I mentioned that since the signing of the JBNQA in 1975, the successive leadership of the Cree Nation has been committed to moving our people and our institutions progressively towards a greater expression of nationhood. Our recent history over the past 40 years has been all about nation-building. We have been incrementally and progressively putting into place all the necessary tools for our nation, our communities and our people to thrive in health and security. We have been laying the foundations for the long-term sustainability of our young Indigenous nation.
I said that the cumulative effect of the various agreements and initiatives which we have put into place over the course of 40 years have taken us in a direction away from colonialism and toward self-reliance and progressive nation-building.
In light of the recent decision by the federal government to approve the Northern Gateway project, I think my remarks to our BC friends were appreciated and well received.
TN: Not long after this, the Grand Council of the Crees (GCC) put out a joint press release regarding Northern Gateway. What will the GCC be doing to lend its support to this movement?
GC: The GCC, along with a number of Aboriginal organizations and some NGOs, issued a very strong press release condemning the process surrounding the Northern Gateway project. We stated that the project failed to respect the basic human rights of Indigenous peoples whose lands would be affected by the project. The environmental impact assessment of the pipeline project did not consider Indigenous peoples’ rights as this issue was excluded from the Joint Review Panel’s mandate. The federal government assured the panel that it would consult with the Aboriginal groups on their rights before giving the project final approval. But it failed to do so, and it has called on the project proponent to carry out consultations even though it is the constitutional duty of the Crown to do that. This was very disappointing.
We will be monitoring the situation very carefully, in close cooperation with our brothers and sisters in BC, to see how the federal government exercises its responsibility to consult and accommodate. There will be many eyes now on the government, especially in light of the recent Supreme Court decision in the Williams case which acknowledged Aboriginal title. We will work together with other groups across the country to ensure that the rights of the B.C. Aboriginal people are respected. We need to do this to ensure that our own treaty and Aboriginal rights are never diminished in the future. We are at a potentially historic turning point in the history of Aboriginal peoples of Canada, and we need to be very vigilant and wise to make sure that we all, together, make the most out of this potential.
TN: You then went to Nunavut for an event with the Canadian Bar Association. What was this about? Were you a speaker or a participant?
CC: This was an important gathering of lawyers from across the country to focus on a better understanding of Aboriginal rights in the context of resource development. I was invited to be a keynote speaker and I also participated on a panel.
In my keynote address, I described the path the Cree Nation has followed over the past 40 years since we signed the JBNQA, and how this path has taken us from a point in history when the concept of Aboriginal rights had very little meaning, to a situation today where the Cree Nation has forged a nation-to-nation relationship with both the federal and provincial governments. And, we have worked hard during that time to put in place all the necessary building blocks to engage in true Indigenous nation-building.
I gave them a brief history of the Cree Nation since the early 1970s and the circumstances that led to the JBNQA, how we refused to accept the premise that we had no rights, and a brief synopsis of the agreement. I told them about the difficulties we had in getting governments to properly implement the agreement, our opposition to the Great Whale project because it was proposed without our consent and without our involvement, and because of its environmental and social impacts. We maintained the view that our connection with our traditional lands is fundamental to our identity as a people and to our culture. Projects which did not include our participation or receive our explicit and prior consent would be actively opposed.
I also explained our position on the possible secession of Quebec from Canada in the mid-1990s and what it meant for our traditional territory. The Quebec government of the day believed that, if it seceded from Canada, our traditional lands would remain in Quebec. Once again, we were not consulted, and we mounted a major challenge to Quebec’s secession claim. We would not be passed back-and-forth like a piece of furniture between various provincial or federal jurisdictions without our consent.
I explained how, eventually, both Quebec and Canada came to understand, once again, that we were serious about our rights and that we would challenge any initiative that did not respect and acknowledge our rights. I described the circumstances when, in 2002, we signed the historic Paix des Braves with Quebec, and in 2007, when we signed the New Relationship Agreement with Canada. These nation-to-nation agreements enabled us to re-establish and re-build our relationships with each government on a new footing.
I also told the conference how the Governance Agreement came to be negotiated after Quebec passed legislation giving planning powers over land and natural resources to the Municipality of Baie-James (MBJ), and after announcing the Plan Nord.
I explained how, as a result of our major agreements, we have gradually and incrementally arrived at a point where we are on the brink of becoming the major economic and political force in Eeyou Istchee.
Once again, the participants appreciated the contribution of the Crees to these debates and for advancing the Aboriginal rights agenda.
TN: You then made it to Ottawa for National Aboriginal Day. How did you celebrate there?
GC: National Aboriginal Day is a day of recognizing and celebrating the cultures and the contributions of First Nations, Inuit and Métis people of Canada.
I celebrated National Aboriginal Day in Ottawa by attending a powwow and enjoying some fried bread.
TN: Is there anything else you would like to say?
GC: Let’s talk about the first Supreme Court of Canada decision on Aboriginal Title.
The Supreme Court decision in Tsilhq’ot Nation is particularly important in BC where there are many First Nations communities with unresolved land claims. The decision affirms that the rights of Aboriginal peoples to their lands must be considered by the government and that our rights in the lands must be protected for current and future generations. This decision will have enormous implications for the Northern Gateway project. The decision affirms that the acknowledgment of title gives Aboriginal peoples the right to control development in their territory.
This decision will help groups across Canada assert their rights to have a real say in development projects in their territories and it will give them an opportunity to meaningfully participate in economic development projects if they want to.
This is precisely what we Crees have spent 40 years fighting for. This decision affirms that governments and development companies seeking to use our lands must obtain our consent.
We can take some pride in knowing that the result of our own struggles over the last 40 years have made a contribution to the national discussion on Aboriginal rights, and our history had some influence on the recent Supreme Court ruling. What we have been able to demonstrate is that the acknowledgment of Aboriginal rights, the acceptance of Cree consent, and the respect for the notion of “social acceptability” do not need to be scary propositions. Those things can be done, they can be incorporated into the way in which resource development takes place, and they can result in win-win arrangements for everyone.