Ever since the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement was forced on the James Bay Crees in the mid-1970s, it cannot be said that they have been treated generously by Canadian governments, provincial or federal.
As that deal was being signed, the $16 billion James Bay Hydro Project was already being built in the centre of their traditional hunting territories. They had no alternative – sign, and get some money, or refuse to sign, get nothing and be overwhelmed by Western technology and culture.
So, reluctantly, they signed. For the next quarter of a century, the two governments dragged their heels even on implementing the deal they had forced on the Cree. Some parts were simply ignored.
The Crees were supposed to have priority in employment in their territory; they were supposed to have priority in the setting up of tourist camps; they were supposed to have priority over disposition of the hunting animals they had always depended on for food. To obtain any of these things, they had to go to court, repeatedly. But even if they won their case, as they usually did, measures were then taken to ensure that they lost.
The most egregious example of government bad faith came at the turn of the century. The Crees, tired of their hunting territories being clear cut by outside forest companies, obtained a court injunction from Judge Jean-Jacques Croteau, who declared the Quebec forest management regime to be unconstitutional in that it ignored the legally entrenched rights of the Crees. He ordered Quebec to rewrite its forest management process within six months.
The Quebec government, with the support of the companies, moved that Judge Croteau should be removed from the case. This obligingly happened, and the substitute judge found resoundingly for the government.
Such naked manipulation of the legal process had possibly never before happened in Canada. But it seems to have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. Within five years the Crees caved in to pressure to develop the (until then) sacred Rupert River.
This deal was designed to enable the Crees themselves to undertake the many provisions of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement that the government had simply not bothered to implement! Such is the trustworthiness of any deal signed by Canadian governments with Aboriginal people.
Now comes the news that the Crees have agreed to a deal with the federal government, which will pay them $ 1.4 billion over 20 years, “to build up public health and security services, improve the Cree judicial system and develop the northern regional economy.”
Of course, it is entirely up to the Crees to determine the course they follow. When the JBNQA was signed, it was obvious to many of us that the major impact would be the monetarization of the Cree economy.
The outside world had decided that they could not wait to get their hands on the riches in Cree territory. So today the grandchildren of the last generation of remarkable Cree-speaking hunters and trappers are living in posh new houses, running businesses, and are wired with every fancy technological contrivance known to man. For almost quarter of a century, outside powers have been taking an estimated $5 billion worth of timber and electricity out of the Cree lands in return for a pittance.
There could, I suppose, have been a chance for their traditional culture, their remarkable knowledge of the biology of animals and of the bush, to have been used as the basis for a way of life different from that of the rest of Canada. One that is economically viable, culturally rewarding, and a model for relationships between Western technology and a hunting culture.
We did not ever consider that, except in the hunting and trapping provisions of the original Agreement, which, admittedly, allowed hunters to continue in the bush while technology was raging all around them. To that extent, one has to say a great opportunity has been lost.
for more Boyce Richardson go to: www. magma.ca/—brich