There is no doubt that 2012 will go down as a major year for the Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee with Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come at the helm.
From the signing of the Cree Governance Agreement with the Quebec government to coming together as a unified front against the development of uranium mining, the Crees of Eastern James Bay have made headlines and turned heads as one of the most powerful First Nations in Canada and beyond.
Looking back at 2012’s highs and lows and also what the future will hold, the Nation is once again proud to bring the Eeyouch the State of the Cree Nation address straight from the mouth of Grand Chief Coon Come.
The Nation: Looking back at 2012, what has been your highest moment as leader of the Cree Nation?
Grand Chief Coon Come: The high point of this past year was the signature of our Governance Agreement with Quebec. This agreement represents a major milestone in our progressive effort to empower the Cree Nation with all the tools we need to become an effective and prosperous Aboriginal nation. Our Governance Agreement was built on the foundation of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement and the Paix des Braves and has resulted in further acknowledgement of the fundamental Cree principles of “consent” and “inclusion” regarding our role in the territory.
We will now exercise significant control over the planning and management activities on our Category II lands totaling approximately 70,000 km2, and we will play an important role in a new regional government which will replace the MBJ. With this agreement, we will be taking our rightful place in the governance of Eeyou Istchee and we will be playing a greater role in the way in which the future development of the territory unfolds. With this agreement, we have gone from exclusion to inclusion, from apartheid to democracy.
Over the course of nearly 40 years of hard work and difficult struggles the Cree Nation has achieved its own “quiet revolution” and has successfully made significant, and standard-setting, strides in our own process of decolonization. This was the vision from the beginning.
As this interview is intended to communicate to the people of Eeyou Istchee my views on the State of the Nation, it is appropriate to say that as a result of the Governance Agreement, the Cree Nation is on the threshold of fulfilling a very long-held vision of our become “masters of our own home”. Although there is still much work to be done in a wide range of areas, we have over the course of 40 years of struggle obtained the essential tools which we will need to effectively determine the future of Eeyou Istchee. It will now be up to us to learn to use those tools wisely and to use them well.
TN: What has been the lowest or most difficult moment for you as a leader?
GC: Both as a leader and as an individual the most difficult times are when we experience losses. I am always saddened when we have lost one of our Cree Elders. The loss of an Elder is always a tragedy for the families and for the community because of the closeness that we experience with one another in our communities. But more than that, when we lose an Elder it feels that we are losing much more than a loved one. These days, when we lose an Elder it feels that we are losing an important link with our past, and a certain link with our traditional Cree way of life. Our Elders’ lives were spent almost entirely on the land, and it was the connection to the land that shaped them as individuals, shaped how they related to their families and the role they played in our communities. When an Elder passes it feels like we are losing something that we may never see again.
I also feel deeply saddened when we lose someone, especially a youth, to suicide. As a leader, these kinds of losses are difficult reminders of how much work there is left to do and how urgent many of the issues are at the community level. These losses are reminders that we need to work even harder to have healthy individuals, families, communities and a healthy Cree Nation.
TN: How do you feel that the Crees have fared economically this year, despite the uncertainty brought about with this most recent Quebec election?
GC: In general, the Cree economy has performed quite well in spite of the prevailing uncertainties and fluctuations in the international economy. All of our communities have experienced important economic stimulation resulting from a wide range of capital construction projects as well as an increase in administrative employment from our entities and new positions created as a result of our New Relationship Agreement with Canada.
Some of our communities are also experiencing employment and economic gains resulting from some of the activities related to mining and other resource development on our traditional territory. There will always be fluctuations depending on the economic performance of major producing and consuming countries in the world, but with the growth of countries like China, India, Brazil and others, we can expect a general increase in the demand for natural resources, many of which are found in Quebec, and this will translate into huge economic and employment opportunities for the Cree communities.
My personal view is that the recent election in Quebec has really not changed very much in terms of the Quebec economy. Viable projects are proceeding as before, and those that are not viable are not proceeding. All of this is happening because of economic and financial considerations and not because of the politics around provincial elections.
TN: What was the result of your recent meeting with Quebec’s new premier, Pauline Marois?
GC: On November 19, I had an excellent meeting with Premier Marois. She stated that she looks forward to continuing to work with the Cree Nation on a nation-to-nation basis and that she would work in good faith to implement the Governance Agreement.
I mentioned several specific initiatives that the Cree Nation would like to see, including a special process to address certain health and social service issues which were not dealt with in the 2012 Health Agreement, and also, childcare services and the need for 250 childcare spaces. Marois said childcare was a priority for her. I also raised the issue of a five-year capital-funding agreement for the Cree School Board for which Marois indicated that the Ministry of Education can cover Quebec’s share over five years.
In my presentation to Marois, I gave her a copy of our Cree Vision of Plan Nord document and explained the Cree perspective on northern development, which emphasizes respect for Cree rights, respect for the environment and community benefits. Quebec’s representatives stated that both the premier and the government share the Cree philosophy.
I also discussed the uranium issue with Marois. I stated clearly the Cree position that there needs to be a permanent moratorium on uranium mining in Eeyou Istchee and I asked her to consider a special BAPE process, which is a general Quebec-wide environmental public hearing, on the uranium industry. Marois indicated that the government is considering asking the BAPE to carry out an assessment of the uranium industry for all of Quebec, and not just the Matoush project within the Mistissini traditional territory.
All in all, the meeting was cordial, warm and positive. I invited Premier Marois to visit Eeyou Istchee, and she accepted. We will now work out the details of that visit.
TN: What is your plan for the Cree Nation in terms of economics in 2013?
GC: My economic plan for the next while is really three-pronged. We know that resource development in Eeyou Istchee will continue. Whether it is called “Plan Nord”, “Le Nord Pour Tous” or something else, development of natural resources will continue because of the international demand for raw materials. We will be an important player in that reality provided that projects meet our test of social acceptability. If projects proceed, we will be entering into agreements which will provide benefits to our communities from that development, and there will be important gains in terms of employment, contracting, joint ventures and other economic benefits.
Secondly, we will be expanding the range of employment opportunities associated with the administration of our various entities, both locally and regionally, and there will also be employment opportunities related to our various governance initiatives.
The third, and probably the most important initiative, is to focus on our Cree youth. It will be up to our Cree youth to accept the challenge of obtaining the skills, the trades and the professional development, which will be required to properly realize the potential for employment within Eeyou Istchee, and the potential for truly becoming the “masters of our own destiny”. I will personally embark on an initiative to inspire our youth to rise to the challenge of their generation which is to receive the tools which we have fought long and hard for – acknowledgement of Cree rights, acknowledgement of the requirement of Cree consent, economic development resources, governance powers – all tools which are the means by which the future of Eeyou Istchee will be in the hands of the Cree people.
TN: What else will the Grand Council of the Crees be working on in 2013?
GC: There are many ongoing and important initiatives that we will continue to be working on in the coming year.
One of our first priorities will be to make sure that the Governance Agreement which we signed in July will be implemented effectively and in accordance with the spirit and letter of that agreement. I have appointed Abel Bosum to lead an implementation team to make sure this happens. Quebec, for their part, has also appointed a special representative to coordinate Quebec’s work in implementing this agreement. These steps, in addition to Marois’ commitment to me to work diligently to implement the Governance Agreement, make me very confident about the proper implementation of the agreement.
Since the Federal New Relationship Agreement was signed, negotiations have been taking place between the Cree Nation and Canada on a Governance Agreement which deals with the increased jurisdiction and authority of the Cree Nation government with respect to our Category I lands. These important negotiations will continue.
As I mentioned earlier, youth will be a priority. I will be working closely with the Cree Youth Grand Chief to develop innovative ways of bringing the message to our youth that the future is in their hands and they need to step up to the plate.
The issue of uranium mining in Eeyou Istchee is one which will require our continued vigilance. We will not settle for anything less than a permanent moratorium on uranium mining in our traditional territory and we will actively oppose such projects as well as any government initiatives which attempt to facilitate such projects. We have mounted campaigns in the past against projects which have not met our standards for social acceptability and we have been successful. If necessary, we will do so again.
But we are not now, nor have we ever been, anti-development. There will certainly be projects within Eeyou Istchee which are socially acceptable and we will work closely with the proponents of such projects to discuss how to facilitate these projects and how our communities can benefit from them. In the case of mining, we will continue to be involved in pre-development agreements and impact benefits agreements. We have been actively involved in such agreements in the case of the Eleonore Mine near Wemindji, the BlackRock project near Oujé-Bougoumou and the Stornoway project near Mistissini. There will no doubt be others in the near future.
We also have work to do on the issue of protected areas. We are now working on a regional protected areas and conservation strategy which focuses on the protection of the Cree way of life in Eeyou Istchee. When completed, we will table this with the Quebec government and have discussions with them on our approach and its relationship to their policies and initiatives with respect to protected areas. This will be an ongoing issue for us.
The Cree Nation has also tabled with the Quebec government a proposed action plan to protect the woodland caribou. It has thus far been difficult to obtain a reaction from Quebec on this issue, but we intend to continue raising this matter at the appropriate levels of government until we see tangible measures put in place to protect this endangered species.
Although I raised the issue of Cree childcare services with the premier, we will continue to work on this. The Cree-Quebec Childcare Services Agreement has been extended six times since September 2009. The continued provision of childcare services in the Cree communities requires a new agreement that provides stable and sufficient long-term funding. We will be working to secure a multi-year funding agreement, similar to those for the Cree School Board and the Cree Health Board.
So, we have a lot on our plate and there is much to do – and it is all important.
TN: This being an election year, will you be seeking reelection?
GC: As a result of our efforts over the last three years with respect to several important initiatives, it will be important to maintain consistent momentum and follow-up. We have achieved historic gains in the area of governance and the way in which we carry through on the implementation of our agreement will be crucial to the success of this initiative. I have specifically worked to develop a sound working relationship with Marois to ensure that this happens.
Also, I have a deep personal interest in ensuring that the message to our youth goes out clearly to them. We will need their energies, their engagement and their commitment to contribute to the building of the Cree Nation. This will be a priority for me.
The issue of a permanent moratorium on uranium mining in Eeyou Istchee is a major one which speaks not only to issues of health, environmental protection and security of our people, but it also speaks to the fundamental principle of “social acceptability” of development projects and the principle of Cree consent. If necessary, I feel committed to waging a campaign to protect Cree rights around this issue.
There are other issues we have worked on over the past three years which will require careful monitoring and interventions.
For all these reasons, and having discussed the matter with my family who has supported my decision, I will make myself available to serve once more as Grand Chief of the Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee.
As a final remark, I would like to take this opportunity to extend my best wishes to the people of Eeyou Istchee, to the employees of our various Cree entities, and to our friends and colleagues, for a very Merry Christmas, a very Happy Holiday season, and all the best in the New Year.