The Crees of James Bay have been led by one of the most charismatic Native leaders, Matthew Coon Come, for the past 10 years. On October 8, Matthew was honoured with an honourary Doctor of Laws degree by his alma mater, Trent University of Peterborough, Ont. The occasion called out for us to step back and take a look at some of Matthew’s accomplishments.
Starting in 1987, Matthew became the third Grand Chief of the Grand Council of the Crees, the governing arm of the nine Cree communities that comprise the Cree Nation. The two former Grand Chiefs were Billy Diamond and Ted Moses.
With the support of his people and staff, Matthew succeeded against all odds in bringing his people’s quest for survival and respect for their environmental and human rights to Canadian and international prominence. This was the classic struggle of the underdog against overwhelming odds. It was the Crees against the might of mega-utility Hydro-Quebec and the Quebec government.
The struggle of the James Bay Crees has and continues to inspire North American and European environmental movements and other indigenous peoples. What the Crees won with the help of Matthew’s leadership showed the world the little guy did count and still does.
In almost Abraham Lincoln-like beginnings (born in a remote log cabin), Matthew was born in the bush, near the community of Mistissini on his father’s trapline 41 years ago.He, however, did not experience the “emancipation” policies so beloved by Lincoln.
Like many Aboriginal people of his generation in Canada, he was taken by his family and community to residential school in the south, as part of the “Indian policy” of the day that aimed at assimilation of Native peoples and the destruction of their cultures and languages.
Despite this “exile” at a harsh age, Matthew completed elementary and high school, going on to Trent and McGill universities, where he took Native Studies, Political Science, Economics and also some Law.
Matthew then returned to his people in the North. There, he continued his education, this time to continue learning the Cree way of life with his father and grandfather acting as his newest “professors.” After two years living as a Cree with the land, he was acknowledged as “graduated” -summa cum laude – as a Cree hunter. A proud moment for any Cree, but Matthew knew that in order for this life to continue he would have to serve the Cree people politically.
Matthew entered politics, becoming Chief of the Mistissini Crees from 1981 to 1986. The Crees at that time were pioneers in local and self-government in Canada and Matthew was a part of that. He was the inland coordinator in the development of the Cree-Naskapi Act, the first federal legislation on local Aboriginal government in Canada.
Today, Matthew is the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Grand Council of the Cree Regional Authority. He serves as a director on various Cree entities and working groups, including Air Creebec, CreeCo., the Cree Construction Company, James Bay Eeyou Corporation, James Bay Cultural Education Centre, Cree Health Board and the Cree Educational Authority.
Matthew was instrumental in having a Cree referendum during Quebec’s secession question. “To forcefully take us out of one country into another would be the hijacking of a whole people and our lands,” he said. “This we will not allow the separatists to do.”
In addition to these domestic duties, Matthew has represented the Crees at the provincial and federal levels, including constitutional negotiations regarding the rights of Aboriginal peoples in Canada. His work in the international arena includes the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and various international tribunals. Matthew represented the Crees at the United Nations on the draft declaration of the rights of indigenous peoples.
In 1993, Matthew was awarded the Equinox Environmental Prize. He was a recipient of the Goldman Global Environmental Prize, awarded by the Goldman Foundation in San Francisco in respect of his leadership of our people in defense of Cree lands and waters against destructive hydro-electric mega-projects.
“Coon Come has marshaled a strong, local, national and international coalition to oppose James Bay II,” stated the Goldman Foundation. More recently he was awarded the National Aboriginal Achievement Award for his work on environmental issues.
In addition to those duties as Grand Chief of his people, Matthew, his wife Mary Annand their five children continue to spend time each year hunting, fishing, trapping andgathering on the Coon Come trapline on Cree traditional lands.
Below is the speech that Grand Chief Dr. Matthew Coon Come made at Trent upon beingawarded his honourary Doctor of Laws degree on October 2.
“It is a very great honour for me to stand before you today on this occasion.
I am humbled by the knowledge that I follow today in the paths of some very eminent human beings who were granted an honourary degree at this university. I shall just name a few, who on the basis of their contributions to society have come to this great university and been honoured this way: Gary Potts, Ernest Benedict, Douglas Cardinal, Rosemarie Kuptana, Andrei Sakharov and Nelson Mandela.
These people have devoted their energies to Aboriginal, environmental or human rights. I am proud as a Cree and as a Trent Alumnus to have my name added to this list.
I am a servant of my people, the James Bay Crees of subartic Quebec, Ontario and NWT It was my people, Eenouch, the James Bay Crees, who elected me to the position of Grand Chief of our Nation. It is they who, through their courage, wisdom, determination, forbearance and hope, have earned this degree.
I therefore accept this honour in the name of my people, Eenouch, the James Bay Crees.
Today I am receiving an honourary Doctor of Laws. There is a certain irony in this, because it is laws – including the constitution – that were the instruments that have been used, and are still being used, to dispossess and oppress our people.
I would like to recall a key moment in my life. I was 17 years of age, living as a student in the south far away from my family and community in James Bay. One day I read in a paper that Hydro-Quebec was going to build the hydro-electric project of the century. I looked at a small map in the paper and saw that our traditional lands at Mistissini were to be flooded for this mad idea.
It has taken me some time to identify and understand the phenomenon that was at work.
This was a development that was highly destructive of the environment, the animals and the Cree way of life. This was an undertaking that fostered waste and inefficiency. But I have also come to understand that the James Bay hydro-electric project was about the taking of our lands. Fundamentally, this project was about the wholesale dispossession of my people, the James Bay Crees.
At the time of this dispossession, it was stated to our people that in law we were squatters on our traditional lands. The Quebec Court of Appeal actually declared our Aboriginal rights to our land been extinguished in 1679, when King Charles II granted
our lands to his cousin Prince Rupert and the Hudson’s Bay Company of Gentleman Explorers. King Charles did not ask us, tell us, or even know we existed!
After the fact of these court cases and dams, our leaders negotiated an agreement, the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, in an attempt to obtain some recognition of our rights to ensure that our people might survive. We entered into this agreement in 1975.
Survive we have, in spite of duress, and in spite of the continuing dispossession through deforestation, mineral development, and further proposed hydro-electric development. Through our own efforts, we have even begun to make a success of the many aspects of our lives, economies and communities in the face of these invasive realities.
And yet now the Crown, in right of Canada and Quebec, twists the legal meaning of the Agreement we signed to state that our Aboriginal rights in and to our lands have been “extinguished.” Importantly, this is what the government of Quebec says in response to our statement that in the event of Quebec separation from Canada, we will have the right to choose to remain with our traditional lands in Canada.
And at the same time, we have learned that the other terms of our Agreement with the Crown, the provisions that were to have provided for the training, employment, development and infrastructure an our communities, and the preservation of our traditional way of life in the face of hydro-projects, were empty promises.
In 1982, an extraordinary provision, section 35, was inserted into the Constitution of Canada, the highest law of the land. It stated that the existing Aboriginal and treaty rights of the Aboriginal peoples in Canada were now constitutionally recognized and affirmed.
This was certainly an important development in the legal history of Aboriginal and treaty rights in Canada. As of that day, the rights of Aboriginal peoples that arose from treaties with the Crown could not simply be taken away at the pleasure of the Crown. Likewise, existing Aboriginal rights were now constitutionally affirmed.
I would like to examine the use of the word “existing” in section 35.
Imagine for a moment if the word “existing” had been used in the context of gender equality rights in the same constitution. In earlier decades, women and people of colour were declared by the courts and governments not to have equal rights. By various laws, court judgements, policies and practices, women were stripped of their fundamental rights.
Imagine if the word “existing” had been used in the context of gender equality rights in the same way that it was used in the context of provisions concerning Aboriginal and treaty rights. It would have meant that only those gender and other equality rights that still existed in 1982 were constitutionally recognized and affirmed.
This is an amazing and discriminatory approach to fundamental rights; only those rights that have not been extinguished are recognized and affirmed. The others, like our rights that King Charles is said to have extinguished in 16 70, are gone forever. It seems that just like at Animal Farm, some rights in Turtle Island are more equal than others.
It seems to me that this word “existing” was inserted into the provision concerning our Aboriginal and treaty rights to prevent it from having any broad remedial effect in Canada. It was inserted to ensure that the unlawful takings and dispossessions that had taken place up to 1982 could not be overturned on the basis of s. 35. I should point out that Mary Simon was the Aboriginal leader who fought bravely against the use of the word “existing” in s. 35 in 1982.
I recently traveled for two weeks to Thailand, as part of a delegation from the Canadian Council on International Cooperation. There are two classes of people in that country. One of these classes is wealthy. The other is dependent on government and international aid to meet its most basic human needs. This was sadly
familiar to me from my travels to so-called Indian Reserves across this country. It is common knowledge that our people across this wealthy land are still suffering in conditions of mass poverty, unemployment, dependence and third-world-style underdevelopment.
There is not some complex social dynamic that causes this mass poverty and social ill health, whether in Thailand or Canada. Simply put, the situation for our people is the result of dispossession that continues to this day. Dependent peoples, whether in Thailand or in Canada, are those peoples who are excluded from any meaningful involvement or participation as peoples in the resources in their traditional lands. It is as simple as that.
However, it is a system of laws that will provide a basis for overcoming this dependence and oppression.
International human-rights law is binding on all governments. This system of law provides that all peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of this most fundamental human right, it is declared that a people may dispose freely — and thus of course retains, if this is its choice — its resources. And yet in Canada and Thai-
land, dependent and dispossessed peoples are essentially prevented from obtaining any direct benefit from the resources extracted from their lands.
By virtue of this right of self-determination, it is declared that under no circumstances shall a people be deprived of its own means of subsistence. And yet in Canada and Thailand, dependent peoples continue to suffer the devastating effects of such ongoing deprival. In Canada, this is a result of legal doctrines such as “extinguishment” and “existing.”
Andrei Sakharov and Nelson Mandela refused, along with their respective peoples, to accept the operation of unjust laws that oppressed and dispossessed them. They refused to accept legal systems that were in breach of their fundamental human rights.
Our Aboriginal and treaty rights are our fundamental human rights. We know what they are and will continue to assert them in every legitimate corner. And we know that the Trent University community recognizes and supports this cause.
Many thanks – on behalf of my people – for this very great honour.”