A special assembly in Chisasibi November 3-5 discussed wildlife and habitat issues in the James Bay region and heard about the Cree Nation Government’s vision for land use, marine habitat and protected areas in Eeyou Istchee.
Isaac Voyageur, Director of Environment and Remedial Works and Regional Environment Administrator, told the Nation that the assembly centred around three major goals. Land and sea use planning at both a community and regional scale and identifying the responsibilities of different government entities in these areas was the first priority; the second was research design and protocol planning on the same community and regional scale.
Finally, the assembly identified training capacities and potential partnerships with Cégeps and universities that could develop the skills to protect wildlife and habitat in Eeyou Istchee.
“The assembly focused on wildlife and marine habitat,” said Voyageur. “It was wide-ranging and covered a whole lot of issues, mainly raising awareness of the depletion of eelgrass and how that is affecting waterfowl populations in the coastal communities where people have noticed a significant decrease of geese. We brought in a number of experts and scientists to gather the knowledge and research that is out there.”
Voyageur said that while inland and coastal communities brought different issues and environmental concerns to the table there was a sense of camaraderie and an understanding that the priorities of individual areas and communities are equally important.
“The most important thing that comes out of a meeting like this is the realization that there’s a willingness to come together to work for the betterment of the Cree Nation [as a whole],” Voyageur said. “It’s a collaborative effort. Even if [a certain issue] doesn’t impact communities directly they’re all there to support their brothers.”
Along with the concern over eelgrass depletion, another major issue brought forward by those from the inland communities is the disappearance of forest due to development and a perceived lack of focus on conservation in the last decade.
Voyageur says that the CNG has been working to respond to these concerns, noting that the Cree Nation Government established the Eeyou Protected Areas committee for this very purpose. This committee has representation from each Cree community and is working directly with each area of Eeyou Istchee to see that they have the necessary resources.
“We’ve worked with all the communities and they’ve let us know what areas they would like to see protected,” Voyageur explained. “We’ve advised them and offered our expertise, helped with mapping and helped identify key areas [that need protection]. We’re now following up to take action.
“This [action] will hinge on what the communities see as the priority, we’re not here to take over,” Voyageur continued. “We’re here to work with the communities and we’re working under their direction. They spell out what they need and we provide them with the necessary assistance.”
Voyageur mentioned that the Quebec and Canadian governments must ensure that the treaties and agreements in place are respected and enforced. He said that most relationships concerning wildlife and habitat are tied to the Eeyou Marine Region Land Claim Agreement, an offshore agreement modeled on similar treaties in Nunavik and Nunavut that bring the governments together to address different issues.
“The idea is to have all communities working together,” said Voyageur. “From our end at the CNG, we’re committed towards strengthening Cree society and we’ve committed to include protected areas in that work. We need to defend critically endangered habitat like the eelgrass, waterfalls and forest, and of course this requires input from the tallymen, land users and the Cree leadership.”
Plans for the future include the creation of a Land Use Planning unit in Waskaganish, ongoing planning, research and workshops in collaboration with the communities of Eeyou Istchee and the development of an Eeyou Planning Commission (EPC) featuring a local commissioner from each community. The first EPC meeting is scheduled for early 2016.
“It’s about forward thinking,” Voyageur concluded. “We’re looking beyond the next few years at how development will affect us and how we can start to address it now.”