Interview with Grand Chief Matthew Mukash and the press scrum with Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl.

The Nation: You signed the deal and as Cuba Gooding Jr. said ‘Show me the money.’ It should be in on March 10?

Grand Chief Matthew Mukash: We’re hoping by March 10.

What about safeguards? How is the money going to be controlled and spent?

First of all I would like to say the signing of this agreement was a historic day on February 26. It was a day for celebration and a new beginning. That was a big day for the Cree Nation. What was that question again?

I was asking about safeguards. The last agreement seemed like a cash grab with some of the things promised never materializing? We’re told this one wouldn’t be of that nature. How is this going to happen?

Well, yes, we’ve put in place a by-law on the Cree Nation Trust. It will have seven members and they will ensure the money is spent in accordance to the terms and conditions of the agreement. So there will be means to control the spending and there will be guidelines to help guide the deliberations of the Cree Nation Trust.

If we don’t do that, in 20 years when the funding is spent then the federal government will have a reason not to fund those things we are now taking responsibility for.

Do you feel this signals a new direction for the Cree Nation?

Definitely – especially in the next five years. In the next two, we’ll be coming up with an agreement in principle on governance. Then we’ll have three years to come up with a final agreement on governance. So there will be a lot of time to consult with people on envisioning what we want and think of concerning Cree governance. Mind you, the federal government will try to come up with a Cree government that has

limited powers. We have three years where it will be a tripod-type process where Quebec’s jurisdiction will be touched upon. So we have a process we can rely on to give us an opportunity to get the best type of governance.

Quebec wasn’t part of this Agreement or process to date, do you anticipate any problems?

Quebec will be involved because we will be discussing matters outside of category I lands. We have to discuss the problems we are experiencing with MBJ.

What we want is a structure in place where everyone’s happy in regards to the governance of the territory. We know it’s going to be difficult to arrive there but we have to educate not only the governments but also the people as to what the vision the Cree Nation is and what we want for its future.

Given the current problems with MBJ, do you think these conflicts will increase or will there be some sort of resolution?

We are following the resolution process put in place under the new relationship agreement with Quebec that was signed in 2002. We have already sent a notice of constitutional question to Quebec because we feel the treaty rights of the Cree are being trampled upon by MBJ. In regards to Bill 40, which was adopted to amend the creation of MBJ, it was done without consultation with the Cree. We have arguments in place we wish to bring forward to Quebec through the liaison committee.

I know there is no solution now so the next step is mediation and if it doesn’t work we go to court.

Wasn’t the whole idea behind the agreements to stop going to court?

There are certain issues that we agreed that we wouldn’t be going to court over, such as Quebec’s responsibilities to the Crees under the JBNQA. But where we feel our rights are violated under any agreement whether it’s the JBNQA or the Paix des Braves we can still go to court on these matters. It’s the same under the federal agreement. If the treaty rights are not respected then we have the rights to legal action.

What would you say is the most important aspect of the Agreement with the federal government that you just signed?

The most important aspect is not there yet but the provision for it is there. I’m referring to the creation of Cree governance by means of the constitution. The Agreement itself merely provides a way to implement the federal responsibilities under the JBNQA.

The additional powers that are granted to the Cree government to carry these responsibilities out are a good thing for our people and our nation.

There are other parts of this agreement that are very much in favour of the Crees.

Was anything given up?

No, we didn’t have to give up another river. That’s a good thing. The only thing you could say we gave up was the court cases that were pending such as the Coon Come case.

But there are some court cases that are still pending so they will still be going onward.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I’m really happy this Agreement has been concluded. We have been in negotiation with the federal government for about 33 years and we have come a long way. Leaders have come and gone in that time. Some of them are no longer with us but their wisdom has brought us to this point. I’m happy to see those Elders here today who advised our leaders in the early 1970s when the negotiations began. Some are still around as well as leaders such as Philip Awashish, Smally Petawabaro, Robert Kanatewat and others. These people were instrumental in helping to put together the strategy to stand up for our rights. I was also happy to see the former three Grand Chiefs present at the signing. They also signed the Agreement as witnesses.

We forgot one who was there briefly as the chairman of the Cree Regional Authority, Abel Kitchen.

But what I really want to say is that I am really happy for the Cree Nation. We still have a long way to go conclude the governance negotiations. I’m looking forward to the consultations and negotiations. I want to hear more of the wisdom from the people.

What about the other side of the fence. Was there anyone on the federal side you felt was outstanding?

The federal negotiator Raymond Chretien was very instrumental in getting this agreement signed. He is a very educated man who was ambassador to a few countries for many years. So he had an idea of the problems that have faced Indigenous peoples around the world. The federal government could not have chosen a better person for that type of work. He did a great job.

Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl

The Nation: Now that you’ve signed an agreement, what do you think it means to the Crees?

Chuck Strahl: I don’t want to put words in the mouths of the Cree leadership or the people but what’s clear to me over the past couple of days we spent here is that this is the culmination of a couple of generations of work. People were keen to show me photographs from 1971 and of the work done by their leaders – some of them with us and some passed on. I think this is a really fine moment for the Crees, who can look at this as a recognition of what they mean as a nation and giving them more and more control over their destiny. It’s a great moment and it’s a delight to be part of it.

Do you see this as a model for other First Nations?

I think it could be but we are always careful to say there is no one tenet. Each First Nation has its own style and what it wants to achieve. What it does show is that when people of good will sit down and negotiate, and the Grand Chief and I have talked about that, you build on a sound relationship. When we get that relationship right and we talk to each other as equals we are trying to achieve those common goals and what is good for the people then a good deal can come out

of it. This is a very good deal and it sets the stage for many years to come. It addresses some of the wrongs of the past. When you do that in a signing ceremony such as this and move forward together it sets a good tone. So any agreements we sign elsewhere can match that, in tone at least, we’ll have achieved great things.

So there was a deal signed 30 years ago and this Agreement is to implement part of it but when will the money be arriving to implement it?

Well, I had my cheque in my other jacket. It will happen quickly now. There are some technical things as it has to go back into the system. It’s just a matter of days. It will go very quickly. It has the two-fold benefit of not only addressing the wrongs of the past but more importantly it sets an optimistic tone for the future. It’s a pleasure to be a part of that signing ceremony and we’ll be able to do this very quickly now.

Why do you believe in signing this Agreement with the Crees of northern Quebec?

I believe it’s an honour to sign on behalf of Canada. I think for two reasons as it addresses some of the poor implementation of the past. We understand and recognize that although there were good intentions in the past but it was not always implemented properly. So this Agreement addresses some of the weaknesses in the implementation and more importantly it addresses opportunities, optimism and resources for the future. So between the two it’s a good thing, recognizing the stakes and addressing them and setting in place things for the future, including a framework for moving forward on governance issues which we hope to negotiate quickly as well. It’s a very optimistic document we’ve signed today, not just for the money but because of the relationship we’ve formed between Canada and the Cree Nation.