The Cree Nation kicked off a new relationship with the federal government at a historical meeting in Ottawa. Present were six federal ministers, two Members of Parliament and the entire Cree leadership.
The meeting gave birth to the Cree-Canada Round Table, also known as “Ochimawinch” or the “Leaders’ Place,” and another such meeting is planned in lyiyuuschii. Cree officials called the meeting a great breakthrough after the years of “bitter and adversarial” relations during the Brian Mulroney government.
“We are here today together doing something that has never been done before in the history of this country,” said Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come at the meeting. “We are meeting—the chiefs of the Cree Nation and the ministers of the government of Canada—as equals at a round table.”
The talks will focus on self-government, implementing the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement and bread-and-butter problems like economic development and housing.
The Grand Chief said Crees have been “innovative and forward-looking, a source of new ideas and initiatives that have found their way-although often only after a struggle and considerable argument-into mainstream government policy.”
As examples he cited the first modern land-claim agreement, the first local Aboriginal government legislation in Canada, the first Aboriginal-controlled school board and health board, the trappers’ income security program, the first Aboriginal housing authority and the inter-national recognition of Ouje- ~l~ij jfjj
Bougoumou for innovation.
Each of these ideas was “subject to considerable resistance on the part of governments. There was argument, hostility, ridicule and disbelief,” said Coon Come. “But belatedly, and I use that word intentionally, our ideas were accepted and put to work with positive effect.”
Cree relations with the Feds took a big stumble in 1984 when Mulroney was elected, said Coon Come. Seven years of talks on finally implementing the JBNQA “went up in flames,” he said.
Dr. Ted Moses, the Cree negotiator with Canada, said the Mulroney government started deliberately starving First Nations of funds. The idea was to force them to sign away their rights in exchange for a onetime cash payoff, Moses said.
Some First Nations succumbed to this pressure and other underhanded tactics and lost all their treaty rights, he said. The Crees resisted, but saw funds dwindle and talks stall on the JBNQA.
After Mulroney was thrown out, things slowly started changing. Moses sees reason for optimism in the Cree-Canada Round Table. “We had a very good meeting. The spirit was very good.”
Coon Come said Crees are living in a position of “almost total dependency” on the government, while billions in resources are extracted from their land. “We want to work with the federal government to achieve an economic and social development miracle in Eeyou Istchee,” he said.
“I know this is the kind of project that you can get your teeth into, your shouldersagainst and your feet on the ground.”