The fate of offshore islands near the Wemindji portion of the James Bay coast will finally be voted on this coming March.

Though the Crees and the Inuit came to an agreement with the federal government on jurisdiction over the territory last year, the deal has yet to be ratified in a vote by the membership of the Grand Council of the Crees.

Chief Referendum Officer Lawrence Jimiken said that the referendum should have happened last year, but due to the election for a new Grand Chief, the Grand Council decided to delay the vote. As well, Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come needed time to review the agreement after taking power last summer.

Both the Crees and the Inuit have long tried to negotiate a deal with the federal government to protect the archipelago stretching from South Twin Island in the north to Weston Island and Old Factory Island in the south. The efforts to protect the islands and their surrounding waters date from 1974, when the James Bay agreement-in-principle was signed. While these discussions have been ongoing for over 30 years, the talks have broken down several times. The Inuit managed sign a treaty in June of 2008.

These islands were not part of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. Both the Cree and the Inuit have used the lands as traditional hunting grounds, which gave both peoples inherent rights to the territory. But the creation of Nunavik put ownership of the islands into question.

The proposed treaty would see the lands and waterways shared jointly between the Cree and the Inuit. Should the Cree ratify this treaty for the offshore islands, the land will become a protected area.

The proposed agreement was finalized June 29, 2009, when negotiators initialled it on behalf of the Grand Council of the Crees, the federal government and the Inuit.

From March 15-25, the Crees will have their opportunity to vote on the question, “Do you approve the proposed Agreement between the Crees of Eeyou Istchee and Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada concerning the Eeyou Marine Region?”

According to Jimmikin, information sessions on the issue are slated to begin shortly throughout the Cree communities and in urban areas where Crees reside.

Mail-in ballots will be available at the information sessions for anyone who wishes to vote right away.

Polling stations will be set up for the first week of voting, beginning on March 15, in every community. There will also be roving polls going door-to-door. During the second week of voting, Cree beneficiaries will only have access to the roving polls or to mail-in ballots.

The extraordinary efforts are due to the need for a double majority on a land question. Fifty per cent plus one of those voting must approve the agreement, and to pass it must also have the support of a majority of the Cree beneficiaries that are entitled to vote. According to the returning officer’s revised list there are 11,574 eligible voters so the agreement requires a minimum of 5,788 yes votes in order to pass.