With all of the rumours flying around about Bourassa’s bulldozers coming out of retirement, The Nation thought it would be a good idea to visit the man at the top of the Cree totem pole and ask him to shed some light on the situation. Grand Chief Coon Come was as candid as always, but some darkness remains.
As you’ll see from Coon Come’s interview, Hydro-Quebec’s latest president is just as vague and evasive as the utility’s past presidents. We find out that the government of Quebec will make the official announcement, if any, on whether Cree rivers are slated for death, or not. We learn the truth behind Premier Bouchard’s visit to Waswanipi and that the Quebec media news reports were wrong when they said the Crees are surrendering and “giving in” to Hydro-Quebec’s desires for Crees to sacrifice more rivers.
In the end, it is an interview that leaves one wondering just what pressures are being placed on the Crees’ top leadership.
The Nation: I guess the question on everyone’s mind is what is going on? First of all, the spin doctors and the papers have all been saying the Crees have broken down and have given away the Great Whale and Rupert rivers. The headlines say, “Crees Hail Bouchard,” and they talk about revenue-sharing and the Rupert as being allowed to be diverted. Could you explain that?
Matthew Coon Come: I always found it interesting how the journalists can write the way they do when they weren’t in those meetings. It’s amazing because it depends whether they’re the separatists, the federalists or if they’re more liberal-minded. It depends on how they perceive the meeting and what angle they want to use to sell their paper.
For the Crees, we’ve never hesitated to meet with the premiers like Bouchard, Rene Levesque, Parizeau or Bourassa. We felt we should take these governments to task and test their sincerity in dealing with the Crees of Quebec. The meetings we had with Bouchard were get-together, acquaintance meetings. There were no agreements; there were no understandings. Nothing was signed. Basically we wanted to take the opportunity to exert our views and principles.
We clearly stated to him that while we are having this meeting or there’s a launching of the Waswanipi sawmill, we are far from resolving our problems and our relationship between Quebec and the Crees. That we will continue to exert our rights and our status. That we will continue to exert our right to self-determination. If there is to be any so-called new relationship between the Crees and Quebec, for it to be meaningful there has to be meaningful recognition enlarging our present land base so we have full ownership, jurisdiction and control over Iiyuuschii.
If there is to be a meaningful relationship, it has to include the benefits of extraction of resources from our land whether it be mining, forestry or other natural resources. We clearly told them that there should be revenue-sharing, the sharing of the wealth of the land. There should be royalties from any project taking place on Iiyuuschii.
We certainly told them we want our right to self-determination, genuine self-government. We want to talk about resources, land, equitable rights. We took the high road in informing him of what I call Cree traditional demands. That’s land, resources, equitable rights, genuine self-government and the right to self-government. Those will not change. Those are non-negotiable principles.
I think Bouchard understood because he said he recognized those are Cree principles because of all the meetings between the Crees and Quebec that have taken place for the last two years.
I told him that in the last two years we’ve seen nothing from Quebec from the MOU meeting (Memorandum of Understanding signed between Crees and Quebec-Ed). I also told him it is reasonable to expect that his government fulfills its obligations under the JBNQA and we should talk about those services and programs without giving up our positions.
So from then on, that’s when Bouchard stated very clearly his government’s position. He started directing and questioning (Resources) Minister (Guy) Chevrette and giving instructions on what needs to be done. He talked about priority lists. He talked about time schedules as to when this should be resolved. So that gave a signal to the chiefs that there was an understanding here, that we needed a premier to kick-start this process. But only time will tell where that will go.
We did not talk about Great Whale. We did not talk about any hydro-electric projects of any nature. That was not up for discussion. But we talked about our right to self-determination. He definitely understood because he clearly came out and said we are at the opposite spectrum. He may have seen it as a historical meeting for him. We did not see it as that. I’m a young Grand Chief. I have seen and met with Bourassa, Rene Levesque, Parizeau and now Bouchard. I’ve seen them come and go. I clearly stated to him, even at the press conference, that my people will not believe until they have touched, until they have seen, until the Elders, if we’re talking about Elders’ homes, can walk into those homes. If we talk about CEGEP that young Crees can walk into that CEGEP That those young people must touch and feel before we can believe what Quebec officials tell us.
So spin doctors from their side, of course, would want to show Bouchard meeting with Crees and hopefully smiling Crees. I mean no premier comes up into the territory without expecting something, or without making an announcement.
We are well aware of that. We as leaders will not shy away from meeting any premier or prime minister, whether it’s federal or provincial officials, to tell them of our views. It’s important to tell them of Cree positions in a face-to-face situation. I think it’s important, because it sets the stage, the framework of where we are coming from.
Do you think we’ll finally start to see results from the MOU?
Well, we never referred to it as the MOU when we met with Bouchard. We talked about meaningful relationships and fulfilling past obligations. I’m not sure as to how that will work out, but I know that he will present it to his cabinet and we’ll have to wait and see. The Crees will not believe until we see and touch it. Until we see it at the grassroots level.
One of the other burning questions concerns your recent meeting with the new head of Hydro-Quebec. Was that an exploratory meeting on the part of Hydro?
He had called a meeting. Again, I think it’s a get-acquainted meeting because he’s the new president and they are restructuring. I agreed to meet him because he wanted a one-on-one. I felt comfortable because I knew the position of the Crees. I certainly did not hesitate to meet him and when we did, of course, he began with his background. He was a former deputy minister, he was the environmental administrator who approved all the James Bay I projects. He was a businessman because he worked for Gaz Métropolitain. He was telling me some of what he sees that needs to be done at Hydro-Quebec and where he sees HQ going in the future.
What was interesting was that he mentioned his father was a farmer. His father worked the fields, fished the rivers and farmed the land. He said if a road was built through his father’s land, he wouldn’t be surprised if his father would want to have a say in what was happening on his land. He used that analogy to say he understood the Crees and the trappers whose land would be affected by hydro-projects.
We talked about local participation and partnerships, etc. He gave me some of the past HQ problems, where it came from and where it’s going.
I figured it was my chance to tell him what we think as Crees. Hydro-Quebec has signed agreements with the Crees starting in 1975 and all the complementary agreements, and there are still major issues to implement. I said, You haven’t done anything. Look at the mercury problem, that needs to be resolved. You’ve undertook to look at mitigating works (repairs to damaged areas -Ed), but you neatly exempted James Bay I and those projects from any environmental assessment. If you haven’t done impact assessments, how can you carry out proper mitigating works programs? We talked about the energy-subsidy program and the problems we’ve had with that. I talked about the water-supply problem that happened by diverting the Eastmain River. That’s the drinking water problem that Eastmain has. We need to discuss and deal with that. I talked about the problems we face. Like the Chisasibi people and the impacts those projects have had on them.
No matter what our positions were in the past, Hydro-Quebec has certain obligations to the Crees because of the agreements.
That I would not let Hydro-Quebec off the hook. We would still • be taking them to task regarding their commitments to the Crees.
Following that, I was trying to get him to tell me what projects they anticipated and he couldn’t tell me. All I could get from him was that they would undertake some studies, some scientific research. That’s nothing new. That’s in the JBNQA. Crees can’t prevent Hydro-Quebec from carrying out their feasibility studies or scientific research, etc.
I asked, What areas. I said, Like EM-1? He said they were still looking at that. I was asking about Lake Bienville and said I was aware that was part of the original project that was part of James Bay I. He said, Well, we’ll have to look at that. He was very vague and said there’s no specific project. It was very clear to me that they would undertake studies and they would not make an announcement. Also it would be the government of Quebec that would make the announcements. I think Hydro-Quebec would have to get permission from the government.
So I think it’s premature to say that there’s Great Whale, that there is Lac Beinville, that there is EM-1, because I’m not even sure they know what is feasible. So we’ll have to leave it at that, but one thing is clear that any modifications to the La Grande Complex of 1975 and complementary agreements require Cree consent, whatever that may mean. You have the right to say yes and the right to say no. So far, the Crees’ position has been very clear and I think he understood that. I think the people have to see what those projects are between LG-1 and LG-4, R-11 or EM-1, Lac Bienville.
Your guess is as good as mine.
When they attempted to do James Bay Phase II, a.k.a. Great Whale, they had to do studies, feasibility or impact, etc. After the announcement, they had to go and do all these studies and go through the environmental processes. In the meantime, we fought the project while the studies, etc. were ongoing.
You must remember before we fought Great Whale, the announcement was made by Bourassa, so that’s why we began, even though in the Agreement it talked about the possibility of Great Whale and the NBR. We had to wait until the official announcement was made. They were trying to do their studies, so we pushed for environmental and social-impact studies, public hearings and, debates. We don’t want to jump the gun.
Chief Billy Diamond said this is just a water-rights issue. Do you agree with that?
We’ve always used the water-rights argument. This is nothing new. In fact the U.S. Indians are more advanced in this area than Canada. Great Whale itself was a land, water and rights issue from Day One.
Will this subject be part of the agenda at the GCCQ/CRA Annual General Assembly?
Any time there’s an announcement, it will definitely be on the table at the AGA. But more specifically, it will also be looked at by the communities that will be directly affected.