Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard seemed poorly briefed and misinformed at a key summit with Crees Nov. 23.
The summit was held as Crees and Quebec face a serious deadlock over forestry and other disputed issues.
But Bouchard didn’t seem to know what was going on. “Bouchard wasn’t informed about what was really going on,” said Waswanipi Chief Paul Gull.
“We were led to believe he had good knowledge oif the file, but that was not the case,” said one of the Cree negotiators. “He wasn’t showing any leadrship in the Cree file.”
At one point, Cree officials were surprised when Bouchard starting talking about a sweeping new offer to the Crees.
“He seemed to think the Crees had already seen the offer,” said one Grand Council official. But they hadn’t.
Embarrassed, the Quebec side showed the Crees the offer for the first time. It included $70 million to settle outstanding claims from the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement.
That’s a long way off from the Cree estimate that the outstanding claims are worth about $2 billion.
“We’re not even talking about the same ballpark,” said the official.
Cree leaders left the meeting pessimistic about arriving at a deal. If the talks fail. Crees will accelerate a forestry lawsuit already before the courts.
At the summit, Bouchard seemed to take a hard line on Cree concerns. But in the end, the two sides agreed to give negotiations two more weeks.
“It doesn’t look too good. There was nothing new on forestry (offered by Quebec),” said Bill Namagoose, executive director of the Grand Council of the Crees.
“It didn’t go very well,” agreed Gull, who attended the meeting along with Grand Chief Ted Moses and Mistissini Chief Kenny Loon.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know if we’re going to have a forestry agreement,” said Gull.
But things started looking up a little last week. The Quebec cabinet met to discuss improving the government’s offer to the Crees on forestry.
There was even talk that the cabinet might back down on a major sticking point in the negotiations – the Cree demand that any forestry deal be enshrined in the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement
Already, the negotiations have gone well beyond the Sept. 30 deadline both parties set for themselves last summer to come up with an agreement on forestry.
Gull also said there was another setback at the summit Bouchard took an axe to Quebec’s offer of $132 million in funds for community projects under the so-called MOU agreement now, Quebec is offering only $50 million.
After the meeting, Quebec officials said they were opposed to enshrining any deal with the Crees on forestry in the James Bay Agreement.
This would give it the force of a treaty and the protection of the constitution, which means a future provincial government can’t tamper with the deal. Without such protection, “it could be terminated at the whim of the government,” said Namagoose.
But Edith Rocher, spokeswoman for the Quebec Native Affairs Secretariat, said the government hasn’t closed the door on the idea.
“The negotiations are continuing intensively. There is no closed door,” she said.
Rocher refused to confirm that the government is going back on how much it will offer under the “MOU,” or memorandum of understanding.
But she did say the government is trying to re-negotiate the amounts promised. “Quebec has limited financial means. We want to look at the programs,” she said.
“It’s still in negotiations.”