Jimmy Cooper and his traditional right to hunt wild game is being called into question once again. This time however, the courts have set a date for his incarceration and the Grand Council has vowed not to fight for Cooper because if it lost, the precedent the case would set could adversely affect Cree rights in the future.
As of April 15, barring a minor miracle, Jimmy Cooper will spend 10 days in jail for practicing traditional pursuits.
Provincial game wardens “caught” Cooper hunting on farm land below the 49th parallel in Val d’Or. Cooper was given permission by the farmer to hunt there, but according to the Grand Council of the Crees, his consent has no bearing on Cree hunting rights.
“It doesn’t matter if the farmer gave him the right to hunt, technically he is not allowed to because it is out of the treaty area of the Crees,” said Bill Namagoose, Grand Council Executive Director, in reference to the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement.
Namagoose warned against setting a dangerous precedent by taking the issue to court and citing Aboriginal hunting rights as a reason to allow Crees to hunt outside JBNQA-defined borders.
He also went on to say that the Grand Council is ready to pay for Cooper’s fines incurred and to supply him with a lawyer, providing he pleads guilty to the misdemeanour.
“They don’t fully comprehend why I would raise my Aboriginal rights and what I mean by that,” said Cooper. “Their hands are bound because of the agreements they signed. I’m not here to dismantle the agreements, I’m here to straighten them and enhance Aboriginal rights.
“Even in our Cree territory, the laws overlap us,” he said. “We can’t even travel on the skidoo trail if we’re hunting,” Cooper said of the Federated Skidoo Trails that require permits to travel on.
Cooper was fined a few years back for traveling on part of that trail on his own land, which he paid.
“All these trails are on our traplines – on Cree land,” he said. “What’s the difference between here and out there? Why do they have rights to implement their laws on Cree land and we can’t assert our rights there?”
Cooper also said that if he can raise money to hire a lawyer independent of the Grand Council, he will fight the case based on a technicality. When he was apprehended by the game wardens he was on water – which is federal jurisdiction and therefore not subject to provincial laws. His guns and the day’s haul were seized and he was treated like a criminal.
After he pleaded not guilty at a court date in 2004, he was found guilty at a follow-up date in November of that year that he could not attend.
Cooper said that the territory in question, which is an ill-defined buffer zone, was open to every nation who wished to hunt there in the past. It’s only now that hunting and fishing rights are worth a large sum of money to the province that his inherent right to hunt on the land is being called into question. Politics also play a big part in hunting rights.
“I plan to get a lawyer and fight,” he said. “I’m not only here to fight for myself but for other people in Eeyou Istchee as well as the Algonquins and other tribes to exercise that right. It’s important for all Aboriginal rights.”
Namagoose talked about a case a few years ago where Cree hunters were invited onto Algonquin territory to hunt, only to be turned in to the game wardens by other Algonquin hunters. In that case, their guns were seized and they were forced to pay the fine to get their rifles back.
The sticky situation of lending hunting rights from one nation to another is still not clearly defined.
“It’s unclear if Aboriginal rights could be given from one nation to another to hunt on its territory,” said Namagoose. “If others oppose, it’s a losing battle.
“If Jimmy wants to fight it in court on an Aboriginal rights basis, that’s a fight we cannot win at this time,” said Namagoose who stated that a fight to assert Cree rights over territory traditionally hunted on by numerous different nations, would take “20 to 30 years.”
He said the Grand Council will continue to stand up for Cree rights, but only if they have a good chance of winning.
“In that case, the Algonquins would have testified against the Crees and we would have lost,” he said. “We fight the fights we know we can win. The ones we are sure we cannot win, we don’t bother.”
Cooper is ready for any outcome.
“My grandpa went to jail for hunting in that area once, so why not go to jail even if I lose my case? At least I said something and did not give up my rights as an Aboriginal.”