The Municipalité de la Baie James has many powers over category 2 and 3 lands thanks to a law passed in the Quebec National Assembly in 2001, the Grand Council has recently learned. The legislation effectively handed over control to the MBJ from the Société de Development de la Baie James, or SDBJ.
“We didn’t know about it until the MBJ posted the notice in newspapers like the Sentinel, that they intended to invoke some by-laws on category 2 lands,” said Bill Namagoose, Executive Director of the Grand Council of the Crees.
The notice informed residents of the MBJ’s powers and asserted their right to govern the territory and make unilateral decisions. Despite the fact that they no longer need to answer to Quebec as the SDBJ did when they were overseeing the territory, they still would not go ahead with major plans unless they consulted with the Grand Council.
“We don’t want to make war with the Cree for sure, we just want to manage the land,” said Gerald Lemoyne, Chairman of the Regional Conference of Elected Officials and Mayor of Lebel-sur-Quévillon and of the MBJ.
Namagoose added that the GCC has requested a meeting with Quebec Premier Jean Charest. If the outcome is not to the Crees liking, the possibility of court action is something Grand Council lawyers are currently looking at. The council board authorized the proceeding of action in a meeting on October 17 in Whapmagoostui.
The situation relates back to the 1975 James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement when the SDBJ was given control of the James Bay region, from the 49th to the 55th parallel. A provision stated that they must consult the Crees on anything they decided to do within the territory.
The problem with Bill 40 is that the MBJ, which is made up of a committee of regional mayors, no longer has to get Cree consent if they want to build a police station or to create a locality, for example.
When asked if the GCC had contacted any of the mayors, Namagoose downplayed the idea. “The mayors are not the ones that passed the law, it’s the Quebec government that did. The mayors are merely the recipients of these new powers and they’re exercising them,” he said.
“Quebec passing the law and giving the mayors by-law authority is an affront to the Crees. There was no consultation and now these mayors are asserting their control over the territory,” said Namagoose.
Grand Chief Mathew Mukash sent a letter to Charest citing the Crees position and how they were “left with an MBJ set up as a colonial political instrument in the hands of southern non-native communities.”
Documents obtained by the Nation from the Grand Council suggested a few scenarios that the GCC would look at as an alternative to the current situation. They include amending legislation so the MBJ would fall back under SDBJ, thus ensuring Cree rights and entitlement to the lands.
A second suggestion called for dividing the MBJ territory between “Jamesian” communities and Cree communities.
Lastly, the Grand Council suggested expanding the existing MBJ to include Cree representation in direct relation to their population.
“They have municipal powers,” Namagoose fumed. “They can run a police force, they can issue building codes, they can issue or deny building permits. Anything a municipality can do, they can do.”
Lemoyne reiterated that nothing would be done until the Regional Zone Council, created duringthe JBNQA signing, met with the Crees. “We received a letter from the Grand Council a few weeks ago and they asked to have a meeting on that,” said Lemoyne.
“I think there are misunderstandings somewhere because I don’t think we ever asked for building permits for people to build camps on their traplines,” said Lemoyne, who admitted he does not sit on the RZC board and would have to double check, but he was confident that was the case.
Two mayors and an MBJ council board member currently sit on the RZC board. They would like to add three Cree representatives, according to Lemoyne.
“We were apprised of it when Premier Charest met with Chief Mukash in August in Whapmagoostui,” said Quebec Indian Affairs Minister Geoff Kelley. “We have been asked to look into clarifyingthe roles that the many bodies in that part of the territory have.”
Kelley says that there are discrepancies on both sides of the story and Quebec is hoping to fix it.
“We seem to be getting from both sides that the other side has the entire jurisdiction and the other party has nothing to say,” said Kelley, who told the Nation that the MBJ mayors are cryingfoul that the Crees call all the shots.
“The truth lies somewhere in between the two and we have every interest to try to find a way tosit down so we can work together,” said Kelley.
He also said that a meeting with Premier Charest should be sooner rather than later and that they are working towards a date before Christmas.
Namagoose added that there have been problems with the MBJ before, such as in Chisasibi wherethe Cox family is having trouble setting up tourism lodges because of pressure from the MBJ.
He was angry that the bill was passed on December 20, 2001, a few months before the February 2002 signing of the historic Paix des Braves Agreement.
“This is not mindful of the new relationship we’re trying to establish, setting up a legal structure that will confront the Cree traditional use of the territory. We’ll try to find a solution.”
Namagoose claims he only found out about the bill during the environmental review on the Em-1 A Rupert River Diversion. He admitted that the Grand Council should have known about the bill before finding out in a newspaper and he couldn’t explain why it wasn’t brought to thepublic’s attention until now.
“The problem is not with the mayors or the MBJ, it is that the Quebec government unilaterally amended the JBNQA without Cree consent and they gave tremendous legislative powers to the mayors. In the process, they left out the Cree Chiefs.”