Islands that were left out of the James Bay Agreement are finally in the process of being claimed by the Crees through the federal government as the Crees follow suit with the Inuit who have just been formally granted rights of two offshore islands.
Brian Craik, director of Federal Relations for the Grand Council of the Crees, said, “When the James Bay Agreement was negotiated, the Crees and the federal government realised that the Crees had claims on the offshore islands. So, the federal government sent a letter to the Crees and to the Inuit saying that they recognized that the Cree and the Inuit had these claims on the offshore and that were not touched by the James Bay Agreement. And so, they negotiated an agreement similar to the James Bay Agreement to respect Cree rights and clarify the administration of the islands. Negotiations happened in the 1970s but there was no result. In the end, the two sides could not agree.”
According to Craik, “Since that time, Nunavut was set up and the Nunavut agreement was signed. But before the Quebec Inuit signed it, the Makivik Inuit wanted to negotiate an agreement with Canada. It was with respect to their rights and their part of the offshore in northern Quebec because the similar rights were being negotiated for Nunavut Inuit so there had to be some kind of a recognition of who owned what.”
The Inuit managed to negotiate an agreement and it took them over a decade to get the approval for the land. “It was promulgated by Parliament last year, and just passed by the Senate,” said Craik.
With this in mind, the Crees also began to negotiate. “The Crees initially were looking for negotiations that covered similar types of regimes and everything under the offshore that were existent under the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement which is basically consistent with what the minister had written back in 1974. But Canada had already passed a law, which recognized that all of the islands in the offshore were part of the territory of Nunavut,” said Craik.
Since the Cree islands had always been recognised as part of the Northwest Territories, when Nunavut was created, the islands became part of Nunavik in the eyes of Canadian lawmakers.
“For the Crees, nothing had ever changed, they just continued to occupy the territory as they always had. They hunted, fished and trapped on the offshore and they did not recognise anybody’s jurisdictions but their own and to some degree the Inuit because the Inuit occupied certain areas jointly with the Crees. In particular the area in between Long Island and north of Whapmagoostui,” said Craik.
The Crees and the Inuit at this point decided to hold discussions on how to negotiate the rights for the offshore and how to recognize each other’s rights and they came to a decision. “The Crees would recognize that the Inuit have the right to hunt in certain areas north of the mouth of the La Grande River all the way to Long Island. And the Inuit agreed that the Crees would have rights to hunt along the coast and north of Richmond Sound,” said Craik.
The decision was basically for joint ownership and in that the Crees and the Inuit decided not to divide up the islands. Should one group wish to build anything, such as a marina or a dock, all it needs to do is seek permission from the other party. “There is no tension on either party’s side about building anything on the islands, it’s just that they decided to own the islands jointly,” said Craik.
Recently the Senate passed the Inuit agreement and so that means that it’s been accepted into treaty and it recognizes Inuit and Canadian rights of those offshore islands in northern Quebec down to Long Island. But, according to Craik, “because the Inuit and the Crees also have an agreement on the joint islands down to Long Island. And because the Inuit agreement includes the Cree/Inuit agreement in it, the Cree rights to the land jointly held with the Inuit, those islands down to Long Island are also recognized because they are also recognized as being treaty rights by Canada.”
The Grand Council has been in negotiations with Canada recently in regards to regimes for land, planning, natural resources, impact assessment and wildlife.
“The islands will be owned by all Crees, they will not be owned by any one community,” said Craik. “It will be the communities who will have hunters and trappers committees to oversee how hunting will be conducted on those islands adjacent to their communities.”
In terms of natural resources, Craik said that some mineral deposits have been found around the Wemindji area, but not much else has been detected other than fish. And there have been no reports of any oil.
Once the agreement between Canada and the Crees is almost finalized, it will be subject to consultation with the Cree community though on what scale is yet to be determined.
“After the consultation there will be a referendum held on the agreement to see if people want it signed or not. The earliest we would like to see it happen is this fall and it’s much more likely for some time next year,” said Craik.