The Nation: What was it like in the beginning?
Moses: Well, Premier Robert Bourassa announced the La Grande Project. The Crees reacted and the court case (Malouf) began. I was one of the members of the delegation in Montreal. My role at that time was to translate for the Elders and the trappers—many who are now gone. I also translated for the lawyers and the consultants. Eventually the negotiations on the La Grande complex began in 1974 after the Crees won the Malouf decision. The Superior Court of Quebec overturned it.
At that time the mandate (for discussions on the James Bay Project) was with the Indians of Quebec Association. They had a different objective. Their objective was to resolve or negotiate the whole question of Aboriginal rights. They wanted it settled for all the Indians in Quebec. We felt, us young Cree leaders at the time that was not the mandate our people gave to the Indians of Quebec Association. What we asked them to do was to defend Cree rights in the context of the threat of new hydro-electric projects in the north. The project was happening in Eeyou Istchee.
After some discussion among ourselves, we kicked around the idea of having our own organization. We borrowed the concept from other parts of Canada, where they had an organization, a Grand Council that brings together all the Chiefs. It then, in effect, would speak for the Crees of northern Quebec. Later, that idea developed into the composition and objectives, which were put onto paper. This proposal was explained to the chiefs along with the situation with the Indians of Quebec Association. This was in the spring of 1974. Along with Billy and Albert Diamond, we put it before the other chiefs in the province. The executive of the Association didn’t like it because it meant breaking away from the Indians of Quebec Association. We told them that we weren’t breaking away. This is an organization we were creating that would be specific to the situation of the Crees.
This was an organization that could complement the Association. It was not an attempt to break away, but circumstances went that way. It was none of our doing.
Then in the summer of ’74 we had a meeting of all the Cree chiefs and we discussed this at Eastmain. The Grand Council was born in August and we decided to incorporate it at that time. Because of the controversy with Quebec we decided to incorporate it under federal law.
In those days, to incorporate was almost taboo. A lot of people argued against the incorporation. It wasn’t necessarily people from the Cree camp. People felt that an incorporation meant that you accepted to be taxable and to be part of a non-Native structure. They wrongly thought that now you would start thinking like a White man. That’s how the Grand Council was formed. I think that was one of the best and first big political moves that the Crees made, to form their own organization. The organization still exists today. When we informed Quebec through the Quebec negotiator (John Ciacca) he was very ecstatic about the Cree decision. He would have preferred it under Quebec law, but it was still a legally constituted organization with the powers of an individual to sue and be sued. We were now in a position to be accountable because of this, and we could deal directly with Quebec. The tone and the direction of the discussions changed from then on and became more focused on the Crees in the James Bay Territory and the hydro-electric project, as opposed to the overall question of Aboriginal rights in all of Quebec.
Looking back at those years what would you say were some of the biggest changes for the Crees?
The Crees had been isolated and pretty much had led a nomadic way of life. It was almost another world. Very few people went out to experience another life and education. I think that things were changing. It was hard for people to believe that man could build such long stretches of roads or that man could change the direction of whole rivers. That man could hold back such large volumes of water and be able to determine how much electricity they could pull out and transport by wire. Those concepts were difficult to accept. But, they knew the time had come when we could no longer be alone. They knew that the people down south would eventually go in the direction of the north when they would need electrical power and when they would need resources for mining and forestry. The Elders saw it as a question of time. That’s when we realized the event was already on its way.
How about the next 25 years?
What do you see happening next?
The next 25 years? I’ve seen where the Crees have had to struggle, their rights not being recognized and the Crees not being recognized as a group, never mind as a People. Now I see we’ve come to the point where our rights are legally constituted in the Canadian Constitution. They are recognized in the laws of the National Assembly of Quebec. This was a fight with regards to hydro-electric development and to ensure that Cree rights were protected. In dealings with governments it is necessary to deal from a rights-based agenda. This agenda starts from your winter lodge or teepee out on the trap line and is carried to the community, out to Quebec, to Canada and eventually out to the international arena where the Crees have played a leading role in putting forth certain principles related to the recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples in an international context, in international law. Those are big achievements that the Crees have done.
We’ve moved out of the era of exclusion, denial and marginalization. We are now at a point where we are recognized as having a right to participate in development and where we are also beneficiaries of development. The participation is not just token but really meaningful… joint participation in the management and planning of the natural resources of the Territory.
It was a bit in that direction in 1975. In 1975 we had 6,500 Crees. The Crees were predominantly trappers. There were just a few that had schooling. Now we have doubled that population and a larger percentage of young people are going to school. A lot of people are far more educated than before.
In the past there was a lot of animosity from governments towards the Crees because Aboriginal peoples had never before participated in the development or management of the social, economic and political aspects of their own lives. There was always someone from the outside who controlled what went on in our communities. It was the Noble Savage thing, where the government had the attitude that Indians weren’t educated and able to handle their own affairs. So someone else had to do it; so we were still at that time, in the 1970s, trying to break away from that.
When we decided to have our own school board it was a time when Indian control over Indian education was just beginning. I’m not claiming that we prompted that idea, but we were also already thinking of already controlling our own education, largely because of the experiences in our lives with residential schools. We had been sent out. We saw an opportunity for change. It was the same thing with health. There were no structures under the federal government. In Quebec they had structures and they were prepared to agree with the creation of the Cree School Board and Cree Board of Health and Social Services, if we created them under Quebec law. We opted for that. It began there. We’re moving now in the direction where there is real meaningful participation in the development. Not just as onetime beneficiaries, but as beneficiaries over a long period of time. It’ll be 50 years and we can renegotiate after that time, if the will is there among the Crees. It is a question of attitudes and the political wills that prevail.
I think more and more Crees have experienced, have gone through the process of protecting their rights. In doing this they’ve also managed to protect their language. It’s not that we have lost it, as has unfortunately happened to others, and have to bring it back. It’s there.
Our culture is very much intact. Our people still continue to go out on the land. A lot of us continue to fish, hunt and trap. However, we need to ensure that this continues because we are in danger of losing the real hunters and trappers. We need to pass on that knowledge, that information, to the new generations of Crees. We have put ourselves in a position where we import things from the outside to use in our way of life. So I see the Crees as being in a much better position to develop and also adjust culturally. We are also doing this economically and politically.
We know the possibilities before us and it’s up to us to decide what we do with them to make more things possible in the future. I think that we can become more self-governing, so that participation in development will have a much greater meaning for us. These are things that evolve over time. They don’t just happen because you want them to happen, you must make them happen.
I think Cree rights will be much strengthened and I would hope that the relationship between the Crees and the governments, certainly with Quebec, will continue to move along very well. I wish I could say that with regards to the federal government.
We also will have relationships with other Aboriginal Peoples. A nation has to have relations with other peoples. It’s all part of the principles of nation building. You can’t build a nation over night, even though our aspirations may be greater.
I see the Crees becoming a much more powerful and greater nation in the future. The north is very important to people in the south. The people in the south now realize they need the Crees to consent if development in the north is to continue. The Crees have to be part of the planning, the decision-making and the carrying out of development in the Territory. The days of “move over Indian, I’m coming to develop your territory to take out the benefits of development”… those days are gone so far as the Crees are concerned.