It’s been an interesting year and Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come is probably one of the hardest working politicians in Canada. His typical day starts at 6am in the morning and doesn’t end until after midnight. Yet he still ensures he attends many functions, such as the opening of the latest Cree venture, a partnership in a hotel in Val-d’Or, and the opening of the Justice Centre in Mistissini. These actions allow him to keep his pulse on what is happening in the Cree Nation as well as knowing what people want and need. Once again the Nation asks him a few questions to find out what he thinks and has done. Through our Grand Chief we can get an idea of accomplishments, tasks carried out and what might be happening on issues important to all Crees.

The Nation: First off, how close are we to self-governance? What has been done in regards to Quebec and Canada?

Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come: Currently, the Cree Nation is involved in several very important initiatives all of which, together, have as their objective the development of a Cree Nation Government which will provide our nation with the tools to truly become masters in our own house.

Pursuant to the New Relationship Agreement with Canada we have entered into negotiations with the Government of Canada. The Cree Regional Authority will now have an expanded role in regional governance and it will have new legislative authority. Our current negotiations will be based on a proposal for a Cree Nation Constitution and a description of these new and expanded powers of our regional government.

We are also currently in negotiations with the Government of Quebec on matters of Cree governance. When Quebec enacted Bill 40, the control over the planning and administration of our traditional Cree lands was transferred to officials elected in non-Cree municipalities located mostly in the south and outside of Eeyou Istchee. I made it very clear to Premier Jean Charest that this was, in effect, a form of “apartheid”, and the Cree Nation would not stand for it. This bill represents a clear assault on Cree rights and threatens to undermine the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA) and the “Paix des Braves” Agreement. Charest agreed with me that Bill 40 must be undone. We are now in negotiations with Quebec to define a new governance structure in the region, which acknowledges Cree control over Cree territory, and builds upon, rather than undermines, previous agreements.

We have entered into these nation-to-nation negotiations with the intention of establishing a progressive and democratic model of a Cree Government which will clarify a wide range of governance issues in the territory and which will provide clarity and certainty with respect to the future development of Eeyou Istchee.

To support the work of these negotiating tables, we have also established a Cree National Governance Working Group which we have charged with the responsibility to consult with all the communities, all the Cree entities and with our people in urban environments for the purpose of reflecting upon, and developing ideas related to the development of an Eeyou constitution and governance structures. To ensure maximum participation by our people in this process, not only are we visiting the communities, but we are also using new communications media to reach out to as many people as possible.

It is my hope that, as a result of all these interconnected initiatives, that we will develop a unique Cree form of government, which is based on our fundamental belief that “our land is our life”. It is the relationship to the land which is the basis of our traditional way of life and our understanding about our relationship to the natural world. The land and its resources have sustained us and taken care of us in the past, and it must continue to do so in the future. It is our governance initiatives which will ensure that this happens.

TN: Now when we are talking self-governance, one issue sticks in everyone’s mind and that is the Municipality of James Bay (MBJ) and the powers granted to them under Bill 40. This issue affects the people on the land, our way of life as traditional activities are affected and a host of other potential problems dealing with economic, social and cultural development. What is the Grand Council doing in this area?

MCC: Part of the struggle to undo the effects of Quebec’s Bill 40 is to put a stop to some of the most severe actions that MBJ has taken which are contrary to our Cree and Aboriginal rights. Some time ago, MBJ charged a Cree Elder with firearms violations. We consider this an attempt to undermine Cree hunting rights and to impose misguided MBJ regulations on our hunters. We have indicated very strongly that we do not accept this and we will ensure that it never happens again. Our legal counsel is exploring the possibility of settling these charges by payment of a minimal fine, however, without any admission whatsoever of the validity of the MBJ Council or its by-laws. MBJ has indicated that this might be acceptable to them and they may be prepared to drop the charges against the Cree Elder.

In another attempt, MBJ had begun proceedings before the “access to information” commission to obtain and make public information concerning our maps of what is known as the “Cree 1% areas”. Our legal counsel has been able to obtain an indefinite postponement of these proceedings. However, if MBJ ever attempts to revive them we will fight this in the courts on constitutional grounds.

MBJ has also attempted to impose its own taxes on Cree businesses. Legal proceedings have been initiated; again, however, we have managed to obtain a suspension of these proceedings.

We will remain vigilant and ensure that MBJ is not permitted to undermine our rights and to claim for itself powers which are neither legally nor morally justifiable.

TN: Another potential problem area is the Plan Nord. Crees know that there are various tables and whatnot that the Cree have managed to participate in. What is the Cree outlook on the Plan Nord?

MCC: When Charest announced his proposal for a northern development plan we made it very clear that any such plan would need to be undertaken within the context of the fundamental agreements with the Cree Nation that describe how the territory will be developed in the JBNQA and the Paix des Braves. We argued, in fact, that the JBNQA is already a Plan Nord and anything new must be completely compatible with it. We also made it very clear that unless this Plan Nord is compatible with the JBNQA, unless it involves the Cree Nation, and unless there are clear benefits for the Cree Nation, there will be no Plan Nord.

Quebec’s Deputy Premier Nathalie Normandeau has understood our concerns and agreed to establish a separate Cree/Quebec table to discuss the proposed Plan Nord. Normandeau, together with Minister Pierre Corbeil, met with the Cree Chiefs to present the Plan Nord. As a result of this meeting a number of sub-committees have been established for each of the sectors covered in the Plan Nord.

We have developed our own “Plan Nord” which describes, from the Cree perspective, the range of potential projects which could form part of a northern development plan. This Cree Plan Nord will be the basis for our further discussions with Quebec on the subject of northern development.

We have also informed Quebec that a northern development plan cannot be discussed independently of a discussion on governance of the territory. We see these two as intimately connected.

We have on numerous occasions reiterated our position that we are prepared to work together with Quebec to implement a northern development plan provided that there is Cree consent, that there is Cree involvement, that the projects are socially and environmentally acceptable, that the plan respects our previous agreements, and, that the projects result in benefits for our communities.

TN: A big thing this past year at the Grand Council/CRA AGA was the issue of the offshore islands. We had a referendum and a response from the Cree people. How is that file going or not?

MCC: Over the course of the last year, the people of Eeyou Istchee overwhelmingly approved by referendum, the Eeyou Marine Region Land Claims Agreement, often referred to as the Cree Offshore Agreement. Under the agreement, the Crees now have full ownership, including subsurface rights, over almost all of the islands in the Cree traditional area of eastern James Bay and Hudson Bay from Long Island going south. We also have joint ownership with the Nunavik Inuit of most of the islands from Long Island to north of Umiujaq. All Crees will continue to have access to these islands, while non-Crees will need permission.

The Crees have the right to harvest in the Offshore Area without the need for permits and licenses but harvesting may be subject to certain conservation measures. Also, the Crees will need to be consulted before any major decisions are taken regarding development projects in the Offshore Area, and proponents of projects will be required to negotiate impact and benefit agreements with the Crees. Further, the Crees will have the right to receive a share of royalty payments made to government from the extraction of natural resources in the Offshore Area.

In addition, under this agreement, Crees will have priority for government employment opportunities in the Offshore Area as well as access to government contracts. Canada will provide the Crees a one-time payment of $5 million to assist the Grand Council in implementing this agreement as well as a capital transfer payment to the Crees of $50 million.

I recently met with Minister of Indian Affairs John Duncan, who assured me that the legislation which will enact this agreement will be introduced to Parliament very soon.

TN: The Nation covered a new Mining Policy in the past year. Have there been results or actions taken as a result and in what way will it benefit the Crees?

MCC: It has become very clear that in the coming decades mining development will become an increasingly important sector in the development of our territory. At the same time, we continue to occupy and use the entire territory for our traditional activities of hunting, fishing and trapping.

In this context, our challenge is to reach an accommodation between mining development and the Cree needs for protection of the environment and our traditional activities and for a fair share of economic benefits for our communities. To help meet this challenge, we have recently adopted the Cree Nation Mining Policy.

The Cree Nation Mining Policy is one of the positive outcomes of decades of effort on the part of the Grand Council to secure recognition and acknowledgement of Cree rights. It is an expression of how our fundamental human rights and our Cree rights are applicable in the context of mining development within Eeyou Istchee.

While some might still believe that the Cree are anti-development, the Cree Nation Mining Policy makes it clear that this is not the case. Under this policy, the Cree undertake to support and participate in resource development within our traditional territory, provided that our rights are respected, that appropriate measures are taken to protect the environment and our traditional activities and that benefits flow to our communities.

To be clear, our position is that no mining developments may occur in Eeyou Istchee unless they are socially acceptable to the Cree communities, as demonstrated by the recent conclusion of agreements with our communities. The Crees must be active partners, not just passive bystanders, in these developments.

These agreements must address a wide range of social, economic and environmental concerns on the part of our communities. Through these agreements, the Crees and mining proponents ensure that mining development is in keeping with our traditional approach to sustainable development.

With the proper governance structures in place, I am confident that we can proceed with proper development of the resources within Eeyou Istchee. On the governance of the territory, the Cree Nation is now at a crossroads with the Government of Quebec. We have before us an unparalleled opportunity for the development of the Eeyou Istchee for the benefit of all Quebecers, Cree and non-Cree, in a spirit of mutual respect and partnership.

TN: Do you have concrete examples? Some of the past agreements, such as Troilus, have been great but there have been some others that weren’t.

MCC: To illustrate our undertaking to meaningfully participate in resource development within our traditional territory, let me mention a few examples of discussions in which the Cree are involved with mining companies.

In 2007, the Crees began discussions with Les Mines Opinaca, a subsidiary of Goldcorp, on the Élénore project, a gold mining project near Wemindji. The purpose of the negotiations is to finalize a Collaboration Agreement between the parties, which would allow for the operation of the mining project, while ensuring direct and indirect benefits for the Cree Parties.

In late June 2008, the parties signed an Advanced Exploration Program Agreement for the Opinaca Mine, an initiative of the Crees, to promote the common or simultaneous assessment of the permanent road, airstrip, power line and exploration shaft for the mine. While negotiations slowed in late 2008 and early 2009, essentially due to the worldwide economic situation, the parties successfully finalized a Collaboration Agreement in December 2010.

Second, the Crees are currently in discussions with Stornoway Diamonds for the Renard project, the first diamond mine in Quebec. In July 2010, the parties signed a pre development agreement, which is essentially a framework to collaborate on subjects of common interest during the planning and development of the Renard diamond mine. It is a first step in the direction of an “Impact and Benefit Agreement” (IBA) which will be developed by the parties during the coming months.

A third example is the negotiations between Nemaska Exploration Inc. and the Crees on the exploration and possible commercial production of a lithium ore body recently discovered on the Wabouchi property. These negotiations led to the signature of a Memorandum of Understanding last summer, which sets the framework for upcoming discussions on an IBA.

These examples show that the principles embodied in the Cree Nation Mining Policy are more than words. They guide the way in which the Crees will conduct themselves with mining proponents on the territory.

TN: What about the Matoush Uranium Project? It’s been a hot issue in Mistissini and the surrounding area.

MCC: Chief Richard Shecapio was very clear in his statement at the public hearings held in Mistissini and Chibougamau on November 23 and 25 in relation to the underground exploration phase of the Matoush project.

The public hearings were a forum for the commissioners of the federal review panel, COFEX, and the provincial review panel, COMEX, to assess the Matoush project. The hearings were the final stage of the public review process for the environmental impact study on the underground exploration phase of the Matoush project.

The Grand Council of the Crees, knowing that this was a difficult decision for the community of Mistissini, and knowing that the decision was based on a great deal of research and fact-finding on the part of the community, immediately acknowledged and offered full support to the Cree Nation of Mistissini in its decision to reject a proposal for a uranium exploration mine within their territory.

Decisions of this nature are especially difficult for First Nations particularly at a time when we are seeking out development proposals to address very real employment challenges. The Cree Nation as a whole remains open to mining development opportunities provided that they are compatible with the Cree way of life. However, as Mistissini indicated, on balance the community felt the potential impacts of this proposal far outweigh its benefits.

I was shocked to learn that there were reports in the media that suggested that the Grand Council had previously supported the Matoush project. Knowing that the community was carrying its their own extensive research into the potential impacts of uranium mining, and not wanting to prejudice their final decision on this project, the Grand Council made no statement whatsoever on this project.

TN: I know there are other inhabitants of our traditional lands being affected by development in the territory. One of the concerns brought up by some trappers concerned the diminishing caribou herds. It’s been on the news and hunters and trappers are concerned. Are there problems in Eeyou Istchee and how is it being dealt with?

MCC: Recently, I publicly called upon Quebec’s Minister of Natural Resources, Nathalie Normandeau, to apply “The Forest-Dwelling Caribou Recovery Plan in Quebec (2005-2012)” to the Cree territory in northern Quebec.

For some time now, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Wildlife (MNRW) has been side-stepping this issue in our territory. The government’s Recovery Plan for Caribou is being applied throughout Quebec resulting in a cautious approach to forestry development. However in Eeyou Istchee, the MNRW is pushing for the approval of major forestry roads in critical habitat areas.

The James Bay Advisory Committee on the Environment has called for the herd to be protected and for a plan to be developed for this. This request has been met by MNRW with excuses and no action.

The companies and citizens of the area have been led to believe that the shortage of wood is due to the Cree forest protection measures in the Paix des Braves. This is untrue. In fact, the current wood shortage is due to years of unsustainable levels of cutting. We have been making this point for many years. Even the present proposal will allow for only a few more short years of wood cutting while it takes more than 80 years for the trees in this area to grow to a commercial size.

It is difficult for the Crees to accept the government’s promise of a Plan Nord based on the principle of sustainable development if it neglects to apply its own laws regarding endangered species in our territory. This why I called upon Normandeau to take immediate action on this issue.

It is our view that not enough is known about the impact of the proposed roads on the resident caribou populations. Rather than proceed at this time we should invoke the Precautionary Principle, whereby there should not be any roads built or any cutting done in these areas at least until the consequences for the caribou are known and protection of the herds assured.

It is important to note that forestry roads and its associated development have been identified in Quebec’s Recovery Plan as one of the most critical threats to the species.

We support recent action taken by the Cree First Nation of Waswanipi, who recently joined with Greenpeace to protest these forestry roads.

TN: Oujé-Bougoumou has been in the news recently?

MCC: I am pleased to report that the negotiators on behalf of the Grand Council and Oujé-Bougoumou have successfully concluded the negotiation of a Complementary Agreement to the JBNQA which will finally incorporate Oujé-Bougoumou into the JBNQA as the ninth Cree community. Amendments to the Cree-Naskapi Act have already been enacted to reflect this, and these amendments will come into effect once the land which will form Oujé-Bougoumou’s land regime will be set aside by Quebec and Canada.

Our negotiators have also concluded a “Final Agreement” pursuant to the section of the Paix des Braves which addresses the formal inclusion of Oujé-Bougoumou into the JBNQA. These agreements deal only with Oujé-Bougoumou matters and leave other matters related to an eventual transfer of lands from Mistissini for resolution in the future.

TN: That’s great but I was thinking of…

MCC: Yes, the sweat lodge in Oujé-Bougoumou. I am aware of the issue and I am also sensitive to the concerns of all those involved in this very difficult issue. This is one of those issues, which forces us all to think through the relationship between our collective rights and the rights of individuals. It may be, that as we work through this issue we may find that it is a blessing in disguise since it forces us to think through very difficult issues and put into place approaches to such difficult issues which is sensitive, dignified, respectful and forward-looking.

The Cree Nation now needs unity as never before as we try to make serious advances in the area of governance. It will be essential that we find an appropriate accommodation of diverse views and diverse beliefs.

We need to find a solution to this issue, which strikes just the right balance between respect for fundamental human rights and the sensitivities of community members, particularly our Elders.

I have spoken to Cree Elders about this matter and they have told me about the way in which sweat-lodge practices and shaking-tent ceremonies were performed as part of our Cree culture in the past. They have told me that when these practices were carried out in the past they were always done away from any tents that people lived in. The Cree tradition is to perform these practices further away. The people in Oujé-Bougoumou who are involved with these practices may wish to consider conducting these ceremonies in a way which respects traditional Cree practices and perform these practices away from any residences.

As we continue to move forward in our various negotiations to enhance Cree governance we will, of course, affirm the basic human right of religious expression as well as other basic rights which are reflected in international, Canadian and Quebec human rights instruments.

It has always been the Cree way to find accommodation, to respect sensitivities and concerns, and to find workable solutions whenever there has been the potential for tensions or conflicts. I am confident that we will continue to do so in a way that gives expression to the fundamental Cree values of respect and caring.

TN: Do you have any last words you want to say to Quebec, the Jamésiens and to the Cree Nation?

MCC: Let me start by reiterating that the Crees support the sustainable development of the North. In all our discussions with Quebec, and with our neighbours, we have listened carefully to their concerns and priorities, and we share many of them. Like them, we face the challenge of creating jobs for our youth and making Eeyou Istchee an attractive place for them to live and raise their families. Like them, we know that education is the key to a secure economic base for our population, especially the younger generations. Like them, we seek improved education and housing for our people.

We have made, and continue to make, efforts to build partnerships, in the spirit of the Paix des Braves, with Quebec, Jamésiens and others for the orderly development of the territory, for the benefit of all.

I wish to emphasize that the Crees want to build a real partnership with Quebec and Quebecers. After all, we Crees live in Quebec and the North. We want to take our rightful place in the public life of Quebec and the North. We want to be fully involved, as partners, in the economic, social, cultural and political development of Quebec. We have much to contribute, in skills, initiative, imagination and drive. We can be privileged partners of Quebec in the sustainable development of Eeyou Istchee. Believe me, we could ask for nothing better.

We now have the opportunity to do something bold that will benefit, not just the Crees, but all Quebecers, including the Jamésiens, now and for the future. We are working now with the Government of Quebec to modernize governance structures in the territory.

We have also begun to involve the Jamésien leaders in the process. We challenge them (in a friendly way) to show imagination and openness in working with us to put in place innovative and responsive governance structures for the territory and for the future that we share.

This reflects broader trends. Economic globalization has fostered partnerships among peoples from opposite sides of the globe. When the JBNQA was signed in 1975, who could have imagined that China would today invest in a major iron mine in northeastern Quebec (Innu territory), that a Swiss mining company would today own the Raglan mine (Inuit territory) or that a Brazilian mining company would own the Voisey Bay mine (territory of the Innu and Inuit of Labrador)? And who could then have foreseen that one of the world’s leading gold mining companies, Goldcorp, would sign a Collaboration Agreement with the Crees for the Opinaca Mine in Eeyou Istchee? Yet it has all happened. And it is just a taste of things to come. We must be ready; we must prepare our future, now. Of one thing we can be sure: together, we are stronger than we are alone.