I first met Matthew Mukash during the Great Whale campaign in the U.S. He impressed me with the large amounts of facts and figures he had stored and ready for use in almost any situation. The other and most important thing this man impressed me with was his dedication and strength of purpose. He really believed in what he was doing and victory was the only goal he would accept. It seemed that he had finally attained that goal when Parizeau announced that Great Whale was indefinately shelved.
Two years later the ghost of Great Whale would raise its ugly head to haunt this man again. The Nation decided to see what the Chief of the village that blackened Hydro-Quebec’s eye had to say about this possible new threat to Great Whale.
The Nation: You had an election platform that included no developing of the hydro-electric potential of the Great Whale river. Was that an important part of the campaign in this June 23rd election?
Matthew Mukash: Yes, I mentioned that Hydro-Quebec was in some form reviving the Great Whale Project. I told people it was always my stand to fight for the land and the resources that sustained us, and that I was going to continue to oppose this project.
I have received a mandate to oppose this project in the past. In this election, I won by a large majority of the votes and to me, the mandate regarding Great Whale still stands.
What was your initial reaction when you learned of the Hydro-Quebec plans?
I was not nervous at all, actually. I said to myself, “Who is the government in Quebec, anyway?” Wasn’t it the government of Quebec that announced that Great Whale was not going to go ahead in 1994? We sat around and talked about it in the office for about half an hour and then we told the public about it. The people was concerned and instructed us to find more about it. In any case, I personally think any serious talks about the whole thing will take some time. They’ll have to reopen the whole issue of environmental-impact assessment and all. It is certainly not going to be easy.
There are some people who have said that Crees should not even allow studies. That the easiest way to stop a project is when it is in the exploration phase. Do you agree with this?
I certainly do and so do my people here. There’s a proposal to promote the distribution of the video Power in the United States. We are planning on following the route that we took with the Odeyak in 1990 and screening it in those U.S. cities and towns where we were received on that journey. This video is slowly making it to where it is most needed – hearts of the people who are truly concerned with human rights and the environment.
We haven’t had the time to meet as a community since April. The council was busy preparing for the present elections. But there’s a plan to formally reaffirm our control of the traditional territory of the Whapmagoostui Cree by way of a declaration. This official text will be in Cree. Basically, the declaration will be made to ourselves, stating our understanding of the purpose of our existence, why we were placed geographically as we are and our place in relation with the rest of the world. We always said this should have been done when the first Hydro project was announced in the early 70’s, but our lawyers advised us otherwise.
This declaration will set the basis for the future negotiations with governments or any groups or organizations that want anything having to do with resource development or other projects within Whapmagoostui Iiyiyuu traditional territory. We know it will be difficult for governments to recognize this, and they probably never will, but it has to be done. There is a lot of internal work to be done within the Cree Nation, in my view. I personally do not have a problem with government negotiations having to do with past grievances and unfulfilled obligations by governments and Hydro-Quebec under the JBNQA. But I do have a problem with regard to the position of the governments and Hydro-Quebec that we are only entitled to those benefits as long as we accept their interpretation of the extinguishment clause, which states that we supposedly gave up all of our rights to the land and resources, when we signed the Agreement in 1975. You know, to our Elders, rights over the territory and resources are divinely given. You cannot give them up if you tried. I think the Cree Nation needs to sit down and really think hard about the meaning of this and our existence.
There have been a couple of meetings, Billy Diamond with Guy Chevrette and Matthew Coon Come with the new president of Hydro-Quebec. Then there was a meeting between the other chiefs and Bouchard. Have you been kept up to speed on what’s happening?
Yes, I have. I was not able to attend the meetings because of the upcoming elections, but I was at the CRA/GCCEE Council/Board meeting when the meeting between Hydro-Quebec and Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come was discussed. I understood that this was going to be an informal one-to-one meeting between the HQ official and Mr. Coon Come. I had to leave early that afternoon, so I was not in the meeting when the decision that the Grand Chief should meet with the HQ president was made. I was quite surprised at the turnout of the meeting. First the decision that Mr. Coon Come should go ahead with the meeting, and the ensuing press report. I personally had a problem with this.
In what way?
Well, we are always talking about nation-to-nation relationships with heads of state, including the government of Quebec. We, as a nation, should deal more with the government regarding issues that affect our people, particularly regarding unfulfilled obligations on the part of their own agencies or corporations such as Hydro-Quebec. This meeting may have been one-to-one and good-willed, but it made us look like we are secretly dealing with Hydro-Quebec so that it can make a strong proposal to the government of Quebec – which even claimed that it did not know of its plans to divert major rivers in Iiyiyuuschii – with respect to upgrading hydro-electric installations at La Grande. For me, we have to do better than that, and I say this with due respect.
So what do you think of the task force then. I’m talking about the three Crees and three Quebec people who will be travelling around the communities to talk to Crees about looking at further hydro-electric development in Iiyiyuuschii?
Well, I am not aware at this time of such a taskforce, but if such a decision has been made, then I think we are jumping to conclusions here. In 1995, at a Special General Assembly in Chisasibi, the Cree Nation adopted a set of principles for the nation’s restructuring and self-government. The Whapmagoostui First Nation understood that the restructuring process was to lead to a declaration of total control of the Cree traditional territory by the Iiyuuch. That is why we have decided to identify the area of our own traditional territory, inside which we will assume full and total control and jurisdiction.
It was our understanding that there would be community consultations which would lead to a common position with respect to Nation restructuring, self-government issues, relationships with governments and other important issues, including future development in Iiyuuschii. This is why I am surprised and concerned that a decision may have been made regarding establishment of the task force you mentioned. Yes, the Whapmagoostui First Nation shares the view that their needs to be serious negotiations with governments regarding unemployment in the communities, health issues and so on. But we think the Cree Nation has to be very careful with our approach in addressing these issues.
There are certain rumours going around that some Cree businesses or interests would like to see the Great Whale or Rupert diversions go ahead?
Well, we are quite aware of that. We heard this so many times during the campaign against Great Whale. There were always a few business-minded Crees who expressed that there should be some consideration for the unemployment rate among the Cree Nation. I think it is normal for business people to think that way but as leaders we have to go to the people. We have to listen to the people. We have to get directions from the people as leaders.
This is the same mistake that is being made in modern society. That is precisely why we had to fight for our land because there is no control placed on business minded people in the world. There certainly have to be serious internal discussions on the question of unity within the Cree camp, so that we may eventually share a common vision on our future as a people. This is very important, in my view.
In this community anyway we have close to 100 per cent of the people who don’t want Great Whale. They say there are other ways of getting jobs for our people. We have to remember what happened to the Cree jobs during the La Grande Complex. There were a lot of jobs for Crees but later there were hardly any jobs. The are a small number working for them today (less than 20 -Ed). There were all kinds of promises. There will be training and most of the jobs would be held by Crees in regards to the maintenance of the La Grande complex but that’s not there.
What happens is there are explorations of all kinds for the possibility of mining and other types of resource development. We don’t even know about them. I recently heard they had found gold in the La Grande area. They were seriously considering mining it. There are all kinds of claims by all sorts of people from out West, the U.S., etc., that are involved in this. I think we have to be careful over the long term with respect to how we approach getting employment for our people. My view is it is very dangerous to sit down with Hydro-Quebec and the Quebec government and talk about future development.
Because of the government’s attempt to extinguish the human rights of a people to their own land and resources, it is not wise, in my opinion, to give up any more. We must go after the unfulfilled obligations of governments before serious discussion on further development can even be discussed.
I believe there is room for discussions with governments. But the political will must be to discuss future relationships between them and the Iiyiyuuch. It must be done.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Well, I would like to thank my people for putting me back on the job. I want to thank a lot of people who encouraged me, people from the Grand Council and other communities. It is a difficult thing to go through elections, especially on the third term. Especially when you see all this major stuff coming up like Great Whale and the next referendum. I want to thank the Youth and Elders who encouraged me to stay on. Megwech!