Though the Crees as a whole may not feel like celebrities on a day-to-day basis, they are world famous for the development of the world’s first modern treaty, the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement.
This is why when other Indigenous groups have been faced with the outside world looking to develop natural resources on their traditional territory, the Crees and the lessons learned from the JBNQA are often discussed.
During the last week of March, members of two Indigenous groups – the Nivkhi People from the Sakhalin Island in Russia and the Tahltan Nation from British Columbia – traveled to Eeyou Istchee to take in a number of presentations and see what they could learn.
The tour was arranged by First Peoples Worldwide, an Indigenous-led international organization whose mission is to promote Indigenous economic determination while strengthening Indigenous communities through asset control and the dissemination of knowledge.
Here is the story of their visit as told by Grand Chief Matthew Mukash, who spoke with the groups at length while in Eeyou Istchee.
The Nation: Why do you think this delegation from Russia decided to visit the Crees and not another Indigenous group in Canada?
Matthew Mukash: First of all, we learned about a year ago that the Russian delegation was interested in coming to Canada to learn first-hand from an Aboriginal group about how best to deal with development while at the same time protecting the people’s language, culture, heritage and land.
First Peoples Worldwide talked with the delegation of Nivhki people and the Tahltan Nation about what they were interested in learning in a knowledge exchange with other Indigenous peoples. They were interested in the balance of development within the traditional territories of an Indigenous people and how the communities developed and the culture and identity remained. The Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee is known throughout the world for this balance and the relationships we have created with governments and the business community within our region. It is for this reason that they came to visit Eeyou Istchee.
What was the overall message that you wanted to deliver to the Indigenous Russians in regards to their present position?
What we wanted them to know was that although it took a few decades to do, our achievements to date have been outstanding. We have been able to build good relations with governments and the business community here in Quebec. Our treaty (JBNQA) is being implemented and we still maintain a strong, vibrant culture and way of life. Although we’ve faced, and will continue to face, many challenges, we have been able to build a strong Cree Nation – culturally, socially, economically and politically.
I guess the important message here was that we are willing to share our success stories for other Aboriginal peoples as a way of helping them get the most out of development without compromising the value of their culture, heritage and way of life.
Do you think that they were hesitant about development?
In any Indigenous group there is concern on how development will impact on their traditional lifestyles and their lands. The Nivkhi and the Tahltan Nations are much like us in that they hunt for wildlife, fish, trap and gather for subsistence. Pipelines and mines planned in their territory will impact on these activities so the question is: how do you approach a balance? What do you have in place to ensure that there is a review of environmental, social and economic aspects of these new activities in your territory? We have a number of mechanisms in place to ensure that there are reviews, and we continue to work on relationships and guidelines with the industries that have an interest in development in our territory. It must be something that we as a Nation accept, and that we can make informed decisions about.
In your view, do they stand to gain a lot in terms of development in their region?
It is hard to say what another Indigenous Nation will do in terms of finding that balance and benefiting from development activities within their own territories. We made a number of presentations to them throughout their tour to ensure they had the benefit of our experience and an insight into what we have developed in terms of mechanisms and relationships. We have built within some of our departments the capacity to participate on bodies that have interests in preserving our lands, resources and the fish and animals that live within our territories. Eeyou Istchee has been our homeland since time immemorial, and we will continue to protect what is important to us.
What kind of social infrastructures could they develop should their deal go through?
We are not sure at what stage they are at in the negotiation of a deal with developers or governments. Certainly Russia has a different legal system and governance structure which makes a difference in terms of how you would develop a strategy to ensure there were social structures in place to protect their rights and interests. However, their situation is the same as ours in that they wish to preserve their subsistence lifestyle and culture while developing capacity within their people and Nations to build the infrastructure they need to meet a changing world and realities in their communities.
What kinds of lessons did you share with the Russians that the Crees have learned from working with Hydro-Québec?
The relationship we have developed with Hydro-Québec is well known. We had a rather tumultuous beginning, as projects were announced in our territories in the 1970s without our knowledge or consent. The court that granted us an injunction in the early ’70s found that we did have rights in our lands, and then it became an issue of negotiation.
We were able to develop the first modern-day treaty in the world, the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. It enumerated a number of protections of our rights to Eeyou Istchee, and mechanisms and institutions to ensure these rights and interests were respect and further developed.
Then, in the early 1990s we launched an international campaign to stop Phase II of the James Bay Project because governments were reluctant to live up to their obligations under the JBNQA and refused to recognize our treaty rights. It was not until 2001 that the Quebec government finally realized that they couldn’t promote development in Eeyou Istchee without Cree consent. Thus, the Paix Des Braves came about and this year we signed an agreement with Canada that settles outstanding Cree claims under the JBNQA. These agreements are based on the concept of new relationships with governments.
With the creation of Niskamoon and subsequent agreements with Hydro-Québec we meet on a more regular basis to discuss issues. Real Courcelles from Hydro-Québec came to the Grand Council Office to discuss with our guests this relationship, and described it in much the same way. He said it was a difficult start but we have gone beyond that and established a better relationship as we are both in the territory.
Do you know if they will be developing a treaty in regards to their development deal?
I believe the Tahltan Nation is in the B.C. Treaty Process at present. Their territories have a significant amount of interest in development for resources, including forestry, mining and natural gas. About 100 years ago their leaders put together the Tahltan Declaration exerting their sovereignty and the conditions under which they would deal with outside interests on their traditional territories and impacting their resources. Today, there are more complex issues with respect to negotiations for development and a mutually beneficial relationship.
As for the Nivkhi people, two members of the delegation work inside development organizations. They represent Nivkhi interests and look at ways to enrich their culture and engage in community development. In Russia, it is different as principles of governance and ownership of land are not like they are in Canada.
What was their reaction to the Cree communities?
I had dinner with them after the first day of presentations by a number of Cree organizations and departments. At this point, they were already overwhelmed with how much information we were sharing, and were very thankful. The Nivkhi and Tahltan viewed it as an incredible start. I was unable to accompany them to the communities as I came down with the flu the day before. I asked Donnie Nicholls to travel with them represent the GCCEI Executive Office. He coordinated the community tours. The Russians were touched by the hospitality and generosity of the two hosting communities – Mistissini and Ouje-Bougoumou. Because they had a limited budget and a tight schedule, we could only host them in a couple of communities; but they were treated to many presentations by key local and regional Cree organizations and, of course, with lots of traditional food.
They said in the end that this is one trip that will remain in hearts and memories.