At a community meeting in Wemindji on Aug. 5, Chief Walter Hughboy made a proposal that surprised some, and worried others. He unveiled a plan to build five or six new mini hydro dams in the Maguatua River basin, and sell the excess power to Hydro-Quebec.
He went on to criticize the Grand Council of the Crees for neglecting to create jobs in the Cree communities. Wemindji, he suggested, has to create wealth and jobs for itself because the Grand Council isn’t doing enough. Unemployment in the communities is soaring, and a new generation of young Crees needs jobs, he said.
In an interview with The Nation, Chief Hughboy explained some of his views on the Grand Council and on the future of the Crees. He didn’t exactly say that Wemindji might pull out of the Grand Council. But he made it clear things have to change, or Wemindji will be forced to look at its options.
by Alex Roslin
“The options available are the mandate given the Grand Council on the fire-fighting equipment, all the other stuff, is terminated. We, as the Band Council, will take over all of this.”
The Nation: At the last Band meeting in Wemindji, we understand you hinted that Wemindji might consider pulling out of the Grand Council of the Crees. We were wondering if that’s something you meant seriously, or was it something you were saying out of frustration?
Chief Walter Hughboy: We’re negotiating on policing. We’re negotiating on trying to get the government to respond on the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement.
The problem is Quebec made an offer at the General Assembly back in Nov. 1993—an offer of pa rtnership for development of the North that was first offered by [then-Premier Robert] Bourassa back in Aug. 1988. There was never an official response by the Crees to that offer.
The offer was on policing or on development?
Everything. It was self-government, development of hydro, resources, everything on that territory. The Crees have never taken a position on that.
We looked at that, and we said there’s no jobs in the communities. There’s nothing at all in the communities. And there’s a lot of stress and tension at the local level.
What we said was we belong to an association called the Grand Council/CRA. The Grand Council has taken a position to oppose Great Whale at all costs. One of the costs is sacrificing our young people who are losing job opportunities.
No matter how you slice the cake, you have to deal with Quebec, you have deal with Canada, you have to deal with Hydro-Quebec, the SDBJ and SEBJ.
What people are looking very seriously at that option of whether to continue to oppose Great Whale, but there are a lot of things happening in that area that we could look at. Like an example is the mini-hydro dams. The mini-hydro dams will give us energy self-sufficiency. If we get the rates we are seeking, it will give us almost financial independence.
Do you think the Grand Council is going to be against those mini-dams?
If you look at what the Grand Council has taken a position on, their position is very clear—oppose Great Whale. Great Whale is the main preoccupation with them. That’s what they spend all their resources on, and all their time and effort.
I don’t see the merits of building Great Whale. There’s no economic merits in it. But Hydro-Quebec has never said they’re going to build Great Whale; they’re going to do a study on it.
Do you think Great Whale isn’t so bad, or do you just think more time should be spent on other things?
I think that’s where the misunderstanding is. We say Great Whale is bad. But when you compare it to the La Grande complex, it’s not as bad. That’s the problem I’m having.
When you look at just alone the Yellow Reservoir, Boyd and Sakami, there are more people trapping there than people who are going to be affected by GB-1, GB- 2, GB-3.
And the other thing about Great Whale is that it’s all rocks. It’s all gorges there. It’s ideal for building those kinds of dams, as opposed to here, where you flatten large tracts ofland. LL-1 alone flattens more land than GB-1, GB-2 and GB-3 put together.
When we say that, people think we are for Great Whale. No, we’re not for Great Whale. People misunderstand that. What we’re saying is Great Whale is there in the James Bay Agreement. What we’re saying is the concentration of the political might, concentration of all the funds and resources of the Crees should not just centre on Great Whale. There’s other things.
Great Whale is not a go. Back in March 1989, it was not a go. Four years later it’s still not a go. We spent five years, all that energy and effort, and Great Whale is still not at the table yet.
So do you think the Grand Council is stalling Wemindji’s economic development?
It’s not just Wemindji, but all the other bands. They’ve got a similar problem in Chisasibi. They’re trying to get rid of their Chief. There’s no jobs in Chisasibi. The future is very bleak. People say when the jobs go at LL-1, what happens next? That’s where the problem is. People want jobs.
The younger generation is coming up. There’s more and more pressure coming from the young people. The hunting, fishing and trapping way of life, sorry to say, we have saturated the resources for hunting and fishing, and for the fur income. I don’t think we can put any more trappers in our traplines any more. So we’ve got to find another place of work for the young people.
And the cost of living is getting higher and higher. People just don’t have the resources to feed their families. It’s like that not only here, but in all the other communities.
So the answer you think is that Wemindji should maybe go it alone, maybe using these dams to gain more independence?
No, we never said that. We said that in order for us to not take the position of the Grand Council/CRA, the band has to seriously look at other ways to deal with the issues that are coming up.
Because once you oppose Great Whale, then all the other issues we deal with are jeopardized. All the issues are linked to a certain extent to Great Whale, and it took us a long time to convince Hydro, SEBJ and especially the Quebec government that these things are not linked. But they do link them. They look at the eventual payback; and that the Crees will eventually come to the table to discuss Great Whale.
The government is not moving on those other issues because of the opposition to Great Whale?
It jeopardizes a lot of things. It jeopardized our negotiations on the police. People say those issues are not linked. But they are linked in the government’s eyes.
So what do you think the future is? Where should Wemindji go from now to deal with that problem?
You have to look at the future for the young people. The hunting and fishing way of life economically is very limited. You have to realize that. So you have to find another source to sustain the comm unity economically, socially and culturally. That’s all we’re saying.
But in terms of your relationship with the Grand Council or CRA, what do you think the future holds for that? Is it possible that Wemindji might pull out?
We never said we’re going to pull out. The discussion came about regarding the fire station and things like that. We desperately need those facilities. The problem we have is that it’s up to the government of Quebec to put those things up under the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement.
The Grand Council since I can remember has been trying to get that thing going. And Quebec and Canada have always found a loophole to get around that responsibility. The spirit of the Agreement is that Quebec and Canada should contribute to the Crees to put up all the fire halls in each community.
But that kind of exercize is a task of the Grand Council/CRA, which is designated to discuss that on behalf of all the bands. But they don’t want to discuss that because Great Whale is the main preoccupation for everybody.
And the government of Quebec has used the dispute with the Crees to circumvent all the provisions in the James Bay Agreement.
Do you think what you should do now is pressure the Grand Council to change its priorities?
Well, the Grand Council will never change its priorities.
So what’s the answer?
The answer is to wait.
Just to wait?
Well, we’re not going to wait forever.
When you stop waiting, what will you do?
I’m not going to tell a reporter what I’m going to do. I’m going to do what I have to do based on the directives I’m going to get from my people.
Can you describe what options are available?
The options available are that the mandate given the Grand Council on the firefighting equipment, all the other stuff, is terminated. We, as the Band Council, will take over all of this.
Not just the fire-fighting equipment?
The fire-fighting equipment, the policing negotiations, things like that. But there’s always downsides. There’s the argument that you’ll weaken the negotiations. You appear to be stronger as a group.
But that’s debatable. That’s the thing you have to assess. You have to think the thing out and do it rationally and logically.
When the Grand Council looks at it from our point of view, I want everybody to say, given the situation, I would have done the same thing; any reasonable man, they would have done the same thing.