On Saturday, January 28, the Mistissini Band Council received a 10-day injunction against the roadblock on Highway 167 North.

The roadblock, preventing workers from beginning the construction of an extension of the highway to the Otish Mountains as part of the Charest government’s Plan Nord, had been put up by a group of tallymen whose traplines the highway is to cross. Rather than accept government compensation for roads built on traditional hunting and trapping lands, the tallymen demanded that they – in consortium with Victoriaville’s Excavation Marchand et Fils and Saint-Étienne-des-Grès’s Construction et Pavage Boisvert – be given the contract for the construction of the road.

Le Devoir reports that under the advice of Jocelyn Deschamps, a Montreal lobbyist employed by Excavation Marchand, the tallymen formed a partnership with Excavation Marchand and Pavage Voisvert, who offered equipment, staff and financial backing that the tallymen did not have. The new alliance was named Uuchii General Contractors Inc., and with it they intended to deal directly with the Quebec government for the construction of Highway 167.

Jean Marchand, proprietor of Excavation Marchand, said that this new way of trying to do business in the Cree Nation was bound to be controversial, but under the Paix des Braves it should be allowed.

“Anybody in Canada is allowed to do business,” he said. “But since this is the first time somebody gets out of the Cree nation way of doing business, it creates some turmoil within the people. From my point-of-view, Cree people have ancestral rights, and that land belongs to the people who were there before. It belongs to them and their family, transferred from generation to generation. Some of those people were born on those lands.”

According to Bill Namagoose, Executive Director of the Grand Council of the Crees, this approach put the tallymen at odds with the people of Mistissini. Echoing a press release from the Mistissini Band Council, Namagoose says that the Chief and Council have done everything in their power to negotiate with the Quebec government to achieve the best possible agreement for the people of the community. As a result, they have gained a preferential contract for the construction of Section B of the highway, along with some slashing work in Section A of the extension.

“What they’re asking the Quebec government to do is totally impossible,” said Namagoose. “They’re asking the Minister of Transport to give the partnership that [Excavation] Marchand and [Construction et Pavage] Boisvert have formed with some Crees a contract without public tender, but the Minister of Transport must call a public tender to build roads anywhere in Quebec. They misinterpreted that to say it could be given to individuals. It cannot. It can only be given to municipalities and band councils. You and I can’t be given a road contract – if that was the way, the minister would give contracts to all his friends.”

Namagoose said that the only option was for the Quebec government to negotiate with the band council – which is what it did. The band council said its negotiations were designed to serve the best interests of everyone in Mistissini, but also made special arrangements to compensate the tallymen in question. According to a document the band council released detailing the history of the disagreement, the contract for the extension of Highway 167 was given to the Cree Nation of Mistissini, which was to subcontract with Mistissini Trust, Eskan and the General Partnership LRP, with workers to be supplied by the Makaahiikan Construction company. Additional contracts, including catering and waste disposal, were to be given to Mistissini businesses, while the slashing contract was given to Eenatuk, which (according to the band council document) hired the tallymen and their families.

The same band council document declares that the tallymen were given special consideration in a variety of ways, including being put on recommended hiring lists, having their machinery given first priority for work, and being given some choice of the direction that slashing work would take place.

Nonetheless, on January 19, the tallymen set up their blockade, using equipment emblazoned with decals of Uuchii General Contractors. (Namagoose said that members of the band council checked the license plates and found the equipment belonged to Excavation Marchand.)

The blockade remained in place until the afternoon of Friday, January 27, at which time the court passed a 10-day injunction against it.

At press time, calls to Deschamps and the tallymen continued to go unanswered. However, Marchand was willing to speak to the Nation, picking his words carefully.

“We’re not against anybody in the Cree Nation,” said Marchand. “The family [of tallyman Coone Matoush] asked us to help them. That’s what we’re doing. We are with the Matoush family, the consortium and the tallymen, to help them to bring prosperity to the Cree people. We don’t have bad intentions.”

Namagoose sees the potential effects of the blockade as far more damaging.

“They’re jeopardizing Cree rights by saying they’re now becoming property rights,” Namagoose said. “It’s going to court, and we’re very concerned about that. We’ve always tried to limit the interpretation of Cree rights to how the Crees understand them, not to how some judge will interpret them. We want Cree rights, and the interpretation of treaty rights to be expanded. But if you give [the rights] to a commercial enterprise like Marchand and Boisvert, and they take those rights to court, then we will intervene. But we’re concerned with how the judge will interpret those rights – especially the rights in [Land] Categories 2 and 3 [of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement].”

Namagoose said that while Crees have had some successes in the courts, their power as a people comes from 30 years of political and public efforts. He worries that this confrontation, regardless of how it ends, will erode some of those successes.

“Of course, we’ll get extra scrutiny from now on,” he said. “As you know, Aboriginal people are 10 times more accountable than the average Canadian citizen when it comes to accounting and financial matters. With these kinds of actions from these companies, that only means more scrutiny.”