For five years already, the most divisive issue in recent history has been gripping the Cree Nation: the loss of the irreplaceable Rupert River. The issue has created a deep divide between the people who voted for the Paix des Braves and those opposed to it.
It has torn apart friends and family and has created a new question in the back of people’s minds. “What side are they on?”
The James Bay and Northern Quebec and the Paix des Braves agreements, while similar to a degree, are starkly different in how they came about.
Back in the early 1970s, Crees weren’t familiar with hydroelectric power and were sparsely scattered over the territory; most were still semi-nomadic, living outside of a permanent community. The population was half of what it is now.
These days, Cree communities are well-established and, for the most part, are thriving. With the construction of roads have come new businesses like eco-tourism. The people of Eeyou Istchee were seeing the importance of the cash economy and it became a defining factor in the eyes of the next generations.
At the same time, trappers and elders were faced with life-changing elements, introduced by the newfound opportunities. Broadcast radio, television and now satellite media have imported southern culture and attitudes. ATVs, snowmobiles and Ford trucks made their way into the communities. Eeyou Istchee evolved in a 30-year spurt to a degree that took the south 100 years to absorb.
With it came problems of course. Diabetes is a fairly recent phenomenon that only started hitting Crees when their sugary food intake surpassed allowable levels. That was thanks tothe influx of southern junk food into Eeyou Istchee.
The Paix des Braves was touted as an agreement with vision. A famous Cree personality, who will remain nameless, once said during the AIP discussions that if the Cree didn’t sign this agreement, Quebec would come in and take the river anyways.
Although it’s impossible to ascertain this claim, it showed that the Cree leaders were making a deal with the proverbial gun to their head. Why else would the Cree leadership rush through the referendum process of a mammoth agreement the size of the $3.5 billion Paix des Braves?
But that’s all water under the bridge. The agreement was signed and that’s that.
The chiefs of Nemaska, Waskaganish and Chisasibi have accepted what the Paix des Braves brings to their people: jobs, economic opportunities and somewhat of a say in the development of the land.
But they are not taking the loss of their beloved Rupert River lightly. Each community had a referendum this week that brought a clear question to their people. Did they want the diversion, yes or no?
The Cree-Quebec COM EX committee announced their approval for the project on November 24. But the chiefs want the last word.
They claim that the diversion was subject to the consent of the Cree people and if that consent was not given through a referendum separate from the 2002 agreement, then the project would be quashed and the Crees would still get the $70 million a year.
If the Rupert River is lost, both sides will be heartbroken. Its flow will be reduced by 71 per cent at a certain point. That’s a lot. What will the unborn generations think when they are told that the once mighty Rupert River was sold for cash? Ask them in 50 years.
It has been a travel route from Mistissini to the southern part of James Bay for centuries. It connects the inland communities to the coast. If the diversion goes through, the Rupert River as we know it will be dead.
When people, Native and non-native alike, can no longer fish as they used to or travel by boat on the majestic river, or sit and stare in awe at the beauty of Smokey Hill in Waskaganish, maybe then we’ll fully realize what the Rupert River has meant to Eeyou Istchee and what it is worth. And maybe only then will people see that Mother Nature does not come with a price.