Robert Kanatewat knows the laws governing the Crees better than most.
As Commissioner of the Cree-Naskapi Commission, his job is to monitor
whether Canada and Quebec have honoured the commitments they made in the Cree-Naskapi Act. He also keeps
an eye on the promises made in the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. And things haven’t been going too smoothly.
The Cree-Naskapi Commission has just released its bi-annual report, and the picture is grim. The report lists a long string of broken government promises, lies and foot-dragging on resolving longstanding disputes.
For Kanatewat, this is nothing new. The commission has been making pretty much the same complaints since it started issuing reports in 1986. “There’s nothing new about the whole affair. It’s getting repetitious,” says Kanatewat. “The government still doesn’t want to do anything. They’re not trying to correct the situation.”
In the report, Kanatewat blasts both Canada and Quebec for neglecting their responsibilities under the James Bay Agreement. “Many articles of the Agreement were to be settled later. Now, after 18 years, they remain unsettled. The failure to settle these issues has caused serious problems for the Cree communities.” Not to mention costly legal disputes. The report says the Crees and Naskapi are currently involved in 26 separate court cases related to the James Bay Agreement.
Kanatewat, who is also the president of Air Wemindji and Chisasibi’s representative to the board of CreeCo., even has some advice for the Crees. Learn about your rights under the Cree-Naskapi Act, he tells Crees, and put more pressure on Canada and Quebec to live up to their end of the bargain.
The Cree-Naskapi Commission believes it’s time for a “comprehensive review” of the Cree-Naskapi Act. It proposes a number of amendments to the act and is trying to facilitate dialogue among Crees and Naskapi through a new booklet that explains the law in simple, non-legal language. The booklet, entitled A Plain Language Summary of the Cree-Naskapi (of Quebec) Act, is written in Cree, Naskapi, English and French [check at your Band Council or call the CRA].
Last November, the commission held public hearings in Val d’Or into complaints about the implementation of the Cree-Naskapi Act. Here were some of the recommendations.
• One of the most important recommendation comes directly from Judge Rejean Paul, the Chair of the Cree-Naskapi Commission. He says Crees have an “inherent right” to royalties from development projects in their territory. “It is inconceivable, in a period of self-government and with an inherent right to such royalties guaranteed in constitutional texts, that the Crees not receive their just and rightful dues or ‘royalties’ from the rich natural resources extracted from their territories and exported south,” Paul writes.
• Paul also calls on Ottawa to shut down the costly and cumbersome bureaucracy that runs programs on behalf of the Crees. The funds should be transferred directly to the Crees, he said. “It is time for the Crees to administer their own programs” says Paul. “I am confident that they are fully competent and that they are in a much better position to make rapid and efficient decisions regarding the well-being and development of their communities.”
• The levels of funding for services and the band councils also came in for major criticism. The report describes the government’s funding formula as “outdated” and “inadequate,” and says the level of funds “does not meet minimum requirements.” Funding for the Cree-Naskapi Commission itself is also woefully low.
• Band Councils are concerned about the vagueness of the tax rules in the Cree-Naskapi Act. The Mistissini First Nation reported that Quebec has charged the Band, Band-owned companies and community members for income, capital and provincial sales taxes.
• Determining membership of the Cree communities is another concern. Many Bands would like the Cree-Naskapi Act to be amended to allow the Crees to determine membership themselves, instead of having to outsiders.
• As in past reports, the commission expresses concern about the housing crisis in the Cree and Naskapi communities. “Because insufficient and inadequate housing fosters social and econommic problems, we consider it urgent that all parties convene and deal with the situation.”
• Both Canada and Quebec haven’t provided adequate funds to the Cree School Board as called for by the James Bay Agreement. “This funding problem is not new,” the commission adds. “In past presentations to the Cree-Naskapi Commission, the Cree School Board has stated that it was seriously underfunded by both Canada and Quebec.”
• The report also stresses the need fora formal, defined role for Elders in the communities. This is a need that the commission brought up in previous reports to no avail.
• The report also says that when development projects may affect sacred areas, the communities should be consulted. This hasn’t happened in the past.
• Hunting and trapping are another area of concern. Because almost all of the hunting and trapping grounds are on Category II and III land, communities can’t pass by-laws governing them. That means Bands can’t protect hunters’ and trappers’ interests on those lands.
• The Cree-Naskapi Act does not allow Crees or the Naskapi to reform the justice system so crime can be dealt with in a more native way. The commission says the law should be changed to allow native forms of justice. The report also says funding for Cree and Naskapi police under the Cree-Naskapi Act is “severely inadequate.”