It has been 40 years since the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA) was signed. I remember those days, which had a vast influence over how Cree economics, politics and culture have developed to this day. Something precious was taken from us that wounded the spirit but made us stronger in the end. Even when the beaver were threatened by over-trapping by non-Cree in the 1930s, the Cree along with the Hudson’s Bay Company saved them for the future wellbeing of the people and the land.
This time, however, the land itself was threatened by a massive hydroelectric project that we dubbed the white man’s biggest wet dream, and they called La Grande. It was massive in scale and would flood thousands of square kilometres of Eeyou Istchee. The Cree fought the construction of the dams in the courts. Initially we won but within a week, without new testimony, the decision was overturned and negotiations started.
During the court case many of the Cree and Inuit had never been in a city. One incident had a few Inuit pulled out of the court to answer questions. It seems they kept some food fresher by immersing it in water. They had used the bathtub to keep a seal carcass fresh. The poor cleaning lady nearly had a heart attack and called the police. The Inuit were confused as they didn’t understand what the fuss was about.
During the negotiations leading to the JBNQA, a Hydro-Québec spokesperson came to Mistissini to explain the project to the people. At one point everyone started laughing, confusing the man. It was explained that when he was describing the millions of kilowatts the dam would produce all the translator could say in Cree was “and lots and lots and lots and lots,” as there wasn’t a number in Cree that high at that time.
To me, these examples showed the differences and difficulties between Aboriginal and mainstream cultures. They still exist to this day to a great extent and eventually must be overcome. The connection to the land is strong for any Cree and the extent of it mystifies non-Natives. It was the La Grande experience that led to a real desire to understand mainstream societies that fuelled higher education among my generation. No more would we be fully dependent on others to explain what was happening and to fight our battles. The fight against the Great Whale hydroelectric project showed how much we learned. It was Cree leading the way and gathering allies across the world.
The JBNQA, through which we regained a measure of control over our future, made this possible. I honour the leadership for their foresight and work – work that continues to this day. Every Cree who has played a leadership role has contributed. Their work comprises the foundation we have and will continue to build upon.
Look at what we have compared to other First Nations in Canada, and realize that 40 years of achievements were built upon the JBNQA and the treaties and agreements that followed. Be proud and know you are strong enough to overcome the challenges now before us.