On February 27, the Cree Nation of Mistissini finalized a work agreement with the Quebec government ensuring the First Nation has a part in the extension of Highway 167 that will stretch 250 km north of Chibougamau, through the Otish Mountains.

The planned extension of Highway 167 is an integral part of Premier Jean Charest’s Plan Nord with a major focus on improving employment opportunities for the Aboriginal communities across northern Quebec. The project is expected to take five years to complete and it will provide road access to the various mining sites located in the area.

The Minister responsible for Native Affairs Geoffrey Kelley, Transport Minister Norman MacMillan and Mistissini Chief Richard Shecapio were all on hand for the signing ceremony in Mistissini. Also in attendance was Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come who gave his blessing in regards to the agreement calling it “a bilateral partnership, based on mutual respect between our nations.”

In total there were three contracts awarded to the Cree of Mistissini along with priority employment for the Cree in the mining industry being developed by the Plan Nord. The contracts are together valued at $80 million, the largest ever for Mistissini.

The bulk of the funds will go to constructing a 61-km stretch of the highway. Around $7.7 million will go towards the deforestation necessary for the entire project. The third contract is for the maintenance and clean up, the value of which will be released when the project moves further along.

Speaking at the ceremony, Shecapio said, “Today’s announcement is not for a simple road. This is an announcement for the future of my community, of our young people who thirst for a better future, turned to new technologies but without renouncing our past and our traditions. In this sense, this road allows us to move forward, in every sense of the word.”

The expected benefits from the road extension will not be exclusively for mining and local employment. The opening of the area will provide better access to the land and trapping lines contributing to the preservation and transmission of traditional Cree values and practices. During the planning process for the project, Cree tallymen were consulted for the environmental assessment of the project and were a major part of the decision-making.

Currently, accessing the region is very difficult because of the lack of infrastructure. In the winter, the area can be reached by snowmobiles but in the summer the best way to get there is by float plane or helicopter, both of which are very expensive. This makes it difficult for some to access their ancestral territory without the help of local programs which subsidise the trips.

It will also benefit the area by opening it up to eco-tourism, wind-power generation and forestry creating even more jobs and opportunities in the process.

Many mining rights have been acquired in the Otish Mountains region and these mines can be developed with access to roads, but the situation changes once the mines go into production such as the Renard, Matoush and Lac McLeod projects. The mineral richness of the area in resources,  such as uranium, diamonds, gold, copper and molybdenum, has become the catalyst that is pushing for further northern development.

This development is a product of a new wave in the bilateral relationship between the Cree Nation and the provincial government. Every step of the way has been paved with mutual cooperation between the two parties. Shecapio said that they approached the negotiations to “ensure the maximum benefits for community members and [that] our region has a major impact on the future development in numerous industries.”