After years in the making, Quebec premier Jean Charest finally unveiled the Plan Nord for provincial development north of the 49th parallel on May 9 to many cheers as well as a few jeers from some of the First Nations that will be affected by the plan.

Despite the concerns some Aboriginal and Innu communities have expressed about the mega development plan, Quebec’s Minister responsible for Native Affairs Geoff Kelley said there is a tremendous amount to celebrate and still room at the table for everyone to negotiate. As far as the deal goes, the Cree and the Inuit now have a great deal going to bring hope to the north.

“The Plan Nord is about trying to do things differently. We know there is a great interest in developing the north and we can do things project by project or we can try to develop it together,” said Kelley explaining just exactly how revolutionary the Plan is.

“I liken this to a big kitchen table and sitting around the table will be representatives of the First Nations and the Inuit, environmental groups, the municipalities, industry and government, and together we can try to find ways to develop a vision of how we want the north to be opened up and how we can be respectful of its beautiful nature. It’s also about how we can be respectful of the rights of the people who have lived there for a very long time, the First Nations and the Inuit,” he added.

This massive deal addresses a wide variety of development that includes the mineral, energy, forestry, wildlife and tourism sectors. In terms of community development, the Plan will also see investment go into education, manpower, housing, health and social services as well as culture. And, with the new deal, the wheels have already been put into motion to address long-standing issues with governance, as in the case of the Cree.

In total the Quebec government will be investing $80 billion in public and private funds to develop the territory north of the 49th parallel over the next 25 years. While several major projects have already been announced, according to Kelley, many more will be unveiled in the coming months.

Just how will this new deal for development work? Kelley pointed to Wemindji’s deal with Goldcorp for the Éléonore gold project as an example of how projects will roll out. Not only will the Cree community see significant economic returns from this project, but they were able to negotiate, sitting down with the Grand Council of the Crees and Goldcorp, for specific economic benefits whether they are contracts or employment.

In terms of improving life in Eeyou Istchee, Kelley said part of the Plan would be to conduct a study regarding the feasibility of connecting Whapmagoostui to the road network.

“There are other things in the Plan in terms of strengthening education and manpower training to make sure that those who want to participate can do so with the job opportunities that are coming,” said Kelley.

Among the other immediate announcements made regarding Cree lands were the expansion of Highway 167 to the Otish Mountains and the creation of Assinica Park.

While expanding the highway will certainly have its benefits for the mining industry since diamond mining in the Otish Mountain region was announced as part of the Plan, Kelley said he is hoping that extending the road will benefit the Cree and other industries.

“The idea is that when we sit down to design the route, it won’t be just a direct road to the diamond mine. We want to see if we can use it in terms of giving access to traditional lands so that it’s easier for Crees to go into the land.

“Also, tourism development is possible for that area so maybe a new road would allow us to do more than just build a route to a diamond mine,” said Kelley.

With the Plan Nord, as projected years ago when the Crees signed the Paix des Braves agreement in 2002, the Assinica Park project has finally been given the green light as part of the Plan’s promise for environmental sustainability.

“Perhaps the first tangible result was the announcement of the Assinica Park project which will be part of our network of national parks and this will be managed by the Cree. It will be exciting for Oujé-Bougoumou to have a park that is almost 3200 square kms. This project will create employment and with the opening of the museum and Cree cultural centre in Oujé this fall, it will continue to reinforce Oujé as a choice destination,” said Kelley.

Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come was pleased to see this recent announcement made since he explained that the New Relationship Agreement and the Paix des Braves envisioned the creation of the Assinica Wildlife Reserve. He said Charest’s announcement is a fulfillment of Paix des Braves that the Crees have welcomed.

“In the Plan Nord we talk about protected areas and this is one of them. I could spend hours talking about the 4%-8%-12% and we have maps of all of that because we participated at that table. But for now this is the Crees of Oujé-Bougoumou who participated, along with the Grand Council, in defining and designating the area called the Assinica Wildlife Reserve as a park so that there could be complete protection from all resource development activities and for it to remain a wildlife reserve,” said Coon Come.

Part of the premise for this park is not only for the preservation of this precious Cree land under Oujé’s management but there was another side to it. Coon Come explained that the Cree hunters, who have managed these five traplines for generations, felt they were at a point where they could pass on their knowledge of this land and invite people to learn about it as a tourist attraction so that they can tell their stories about how they love this land. Sharing Cree culture through the land and educating the outside world about the Crees was at the heart of the original project when the Crees applied for it many years ago.

For Coon Come, while Assinica is certainly a victory, the new agreement in principle that the Crees have developed regarding the territory of Eeyou Istchee through the Plan Nord is what really needs to be shouted from the rooftops.

Over the last year the Crees have been negotiating with Quebec to change the management of Category I, II and III lands so that they can finally begin to regain the rights and control over the territory that has been lost in the last 35 years of negotiations.

Going back to a year ago, Coon Come said that this began when Natural Resource Minister Nathalie Normandeau was invited to give the Crees an initial presentation on what the north would look like under the new deal. The idea was to get Normandeau to present this plan not just to the Cree leadership, but all Cree entities.

“Following that, it gave us a sense of direction by which we felt that we should participate in the Plan Nord. Of course, we had certain concerns, like the increased access of non-Cree to the territory, the impacts on traditional activities, the impacts on the environment, on culture, identity, language and, of course, increased competition by non-Aboriginal business-entrepreneurship. There was also a concern about potential impacts on Cree rights and interests.

“We had certain expectations of Plan Nord. Certainly we wanted to ensure that we be given access to new funding if new funding was available because that is provided for in the JBNQA and other agreements. We certainly wanted to continue to build and create new partnerships between the Cree and non-Aboriginal businesses and also with the Jamesians for an orderly development in the Cree territory,” explained Coon Come.

A Cree working group was formed to address Cree concerns with the Plan and they participated on 11 different sector tables and sub-tables regarding different aspects of the deal. Those tables included discussions on access to the territory, transportation, community development, health and housing, education, culture and identity, wildlife, bio-fuel, tourism, energy, mines and forestry. Coon Come participated at the First Nations table as well as the “partners” table.

As a result, the GCC/CRA developed their own vision of the Plan in a 100-page document entitled “Cree Vision of Plan Nord” that was submitted to Quebec to describe not only the Cree vision but where it came from.

Coon Come summarized it by saying that the document defines who the Crees are on the territory as well as Cree perspectives, but more importantly it outlined the framework for development deals already laid out in previous agreements, such as the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement.

What was most important however was that Coon Come said that in terms of development, the first problem the Crees spotted with the Plan was that in Normandeau’s original presentation it described how the current governance structures would be followed.

“This was problem number one and I have consistently maintained this position. For the Cree, the Plan Nord must deal with the new governance regime in the territory. The present governance structures, for example the MBJ (Municipality of Baie James), are totally unacceptable. There was also the Cree SCREA and the other entities that were created without Cree participation or consent. So, if the present governance structures were applied and used for Plan Nord, the Crees would be excluded from direct participation in the development of the territory,” said Coon Come.

Consequently this led to the Crees sitting down with all of the provincial bodies involved because there was no way that the Crees were signing a deal that did not give them the right to negotiate. Over the course of a year, Coon Come met numerous times with Normandeau, Charest, Kelley and Kelley’s predecessor, Pierre Corbeil.

In the end, a new framework that would forever change the history of Eeyou Istchee was agreed upon because Coon Come said there was no way the Cree would sign on to the Plan without a new deal for governance.

Here is Coon Comes synopses of what the new framework will look like:

“First, in respect to Category I-A lands, we wanted to harmonize the local governance by the Cree band. Category I is subject to federal legislation and Category I-B lands were subject to provincial legislation. So we wanted to harmonize this so that all I-B lands will now become I-A lands. This was crucial.

“Regarding Category II lands, we wanted to exercise our own Cree nation governance by establishing Cree government institutions in which we will have certain functions and certain bylaws regarding management of Category II lands. This means we will replace the MRC (regional county municipality) functions and the land and resources management as well as economic development and this means that we will also replace the CRE (Commission of Elected Office). These are entities that were created unilaterally without Cree consent.

“So Category II lands will now be under Cree control though they will still remain Quebec public lands but we will have the full jurisdiction over Category II lands under Quebec law. So Cree Nation governance will be established over Category II lands.

“As for Category III lands, there will be a creation of a new public government. It will be non-ethnic governments that will exercise control over resource management functions on all Category III lands. And so the Crees and the Jamesians will work together over this governing body. It will be based on democratic principles and demographic realities. Right now there is no Cree participation within the MBJ. It was created by Bill 40 and it gave super municipal bylaw powers that excluded the participation of the Crees and we will now be replacing that.”

Under this new framework agreement, oppressive structures of governance that Coon Come described as a form of “apartheid” will finally change with the abolition of the MBJ. The policy of Cree exclusion will finally end.

It’s not as though the Cree will dominate the territory, however Coon Come said everyone will work together – all of the Cree communities along with Chapais, Matagami, Chibougamau, La Belle sur Queveillon and the smaller municipalities.

“We worked hard. For this to be accepted we had to meet with the mayors of Chapais, Matagami, Chibougamau and La Belle sur Queveillon. We had to talk about boundaries, we had to meet with our Inuit friends, with the Montangais, the Algonquins, and we had tables for them so that we could agree to the boundaries.

“You will see on the May 27 announcement that the boundaries are actually the original family territorial traplines,” said Coon Come.

In terms of the Plan, Coon Come said he believed he has succeeded since the Crees are now finally taking back the land in incremental steps.

At the same time, he admits that this process certainly wasn’t easy.

“When I said that it was a form of apartheid, Premier Charest said those were harsh words and I responded that yes they are. What I was saying was true and this is why we are able to suspend all of these bylaw powers that were given to the MBJ.

“We did a lot of work and built relationships. We had several meetings with the municipalities. We were not negotiating with them; we were just meeting with them to tell them that this was what we were going to do,” said Coon Come.

And so the tables are finally turning for the Crees of Eeyou Istchee.

While the Crees have emerged from this agreement victorious, according to Ghislain Picard, the Chief of the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador (AFNQL), not every Aboriginal group has emerged from the Plan signing as well as the Cree have.

Along with the Cree, Nunavik got its own deal for the creation of 300 new homes and a special program for another 200 dwellings for those eligible for home ownership. Plus there were nickel-mining deals, investments into education and workforce development. However, some Algonquin and Innu groups are feeling bitter about the Plan.

Picard explained that while the AFNQL fully supports the Cree and the Inuit in the deals they have made, it is felt both groups had an easier time at the negotiation table because of the framework already in place by the agreements made in the 1970s.

“It would be difficult to say that we are really in full-out opposition of the Plan Nord, all we are saying is that perhaps the approach is not as balanced or as inclusive as it should be in terms of all Aboriginal communities,” said Picard.

When the original Plan signing happened on May 9, lawyer Armand Mackenzie, who represents the Innu, explained that without a treaty his people have a series of outstanding land-claim issues that are not being addressed in the Plan because the Innu don’t have the framework to negotiate when it came to natural resource development, environment and safeguarding their interests.

The Innu of Uashat Mak Mani-Utenam have still not reached an agreement regarding the La Romaine project, that was highlighted throughout the Plan, even though in a recent referendum the people rejected a deal regarding the construction of transmissions lines on their traditional territories.

While the two other communities affected by the La Romaine project have already signed on, Kelley said for now Quebec wanted to let the “dust settle” in the community and would address the issue at a later date.

“In no way does the Plan compromise the rights of the Innu to be consulted and to be accommodated. The Plan Nord gives them a chance to sit at the table and discuss how we develop things,” said Kelley.

According to Picard, when it comes to resolving Innu land claims, the issue is taboo with the Quebec government.

“They have always provided that excuse of, well you know, we are sitting down at the table with these Nations, specifically the Innu Nation. We are negotiating but these negotiations have been going on for the last 35 years. In this time they have never once referred back to the fact that they are negotiating on the basis that there are rights and titles to the land, there is no statement from Quebec going as far as that,” said Picard.

The Algonquin Nation of Kitigan Zibi also came out recently with statements condemning the Plan because, according to Tribal Council Vice Grand Chief Marlene Jerome, “the 1975 James Bay Agreement included a large part of the Algonquin territory north of the 49th parallel without consulting and accommodating the Algonquin.” In turn, development of this land without developing a deal with the Algonquin would literally mean “a theft of our territory.”

Kelley dismissed the matter, saying that there is a long-standing “difference of opinion” between the Cree and Algonquin in terms of overlapping land claims and territories along the 49th parallel and the Plan doesn’t affect that matter.

“The obligations on Quebec that come from the Supreme Court in terms of consultation and accommodation exist when it gets into a longer range and this is something that I hope that one day gets into resource or revenue sharing as those are things that often come out of treaties,” said Kelley.

Picard however doubted Kelley’s sincerity.

“I refer back to the fact that the Plan Nord is about all of those projects north of the 49th parallel but what Quebec is not taking into account is the fact that there may be communities situated south of that line that still have interests north of it. This is valid for some Algonquin and Attikamek communities,” said Picard.

What the AFNQL wants for all of Quebec’s First Nations is for the province to meet the conditions of having Aboriginal input and participation.

“We have said that when the rules are clear that is fine and we are certainly supportive of those communities that want to go ahead (with the Plan). But at the same time where there are other communities impacted by some of these major undertakings there needs to be transparency on the part of the Quebec government and it seems as though we don’t have that at this point,” said Picard.

There is hope however for these communities as, according to Kelley, there is still a great deal of room for negotiation and time to sit at the tables for these Aboriginal groups to work out deals.

What happens with them however is going to depend on the willingness of the parties to negotiate and at what cost.