When the provincial government switched from the Parti Québécois to the Quebec Liberal Party last April as Premier Philippe Couillard took over the helm, it gave the Cree the chance to put new issues on the table and form new partnerships.
On September 3, the first official Cree-Quebec meeting took place between Couillard, Minister responsible for Native Affairs Geoff Kelly, Liberal Ungava MNA Jean Boucher and their officials and Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come, Deputy Grand Chief Rodney Mark, Executive Director Bill Namagoose, Cree Negotiator Abel Bosum and lawyer John Hurley of Gowlings.
The two sides sat down in Quebec City to discuss the region and its future by initiating a dialogue and a relationship based on a nation-to-nation process.
According to Coon Come, the meeting’s goal was to offer solutions and set up future processes rather than to submit a list of grievances.
While the Cree had a specific list of issues to address with the premier, Coon Come said it was a cordial meeting. The following interview contains Coon Come’s impressions of this first face-to-face meeting with the new Quebec leadership.
The Nation (TN): What was the plan on the behalf of the GCC with the first official Cree-Quebec meeting with Premier Couillard?
Grand Chief Coon Come (GC): This first official meeting with Couillard was very positive. We had several objectives. The first was to establish direct working relations between the premier and myself in order to continue developing the nation-to-nation relationship between the Cree and Quebec. We wished to remind the premier of the special status and rights of the Cree under the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement treaty, the Paix des Braves and the Cree-Quebec Governance Agreement. A key objective was to advise the premier of the Cree perspective on the Plan Nord. And we discussed how to advance specific files of importance to the Cree of Eeyou Istchee.
TN: What was discussed regarding the road improvement of the James Bay Highway?
GC: I informed the premier that the condition of the James Bay Highway requires urgent attention due to years of neglect. I strongly recommended that major repairs for the highway be addressed on a priority basis. I also requested that Quebec address the shortfall in funding for maintenance of the highway due to the reduction in Hydro Québec’s contribution.
TN: What was discussed regarding the Broadback River project?
GC: Deputy Grand Chief Rodney Mark requested the premier’s support for rapid implementation of the Broadback Watershed Conservation Plan, including park and protected area designations as well as special management buffer zones.
TN: As the Plan Nord is back but now being looked at as a second edition, how does it vary from when the Liberals were last in power?
GC: Quebec’s approach is somewhat different, since its focus is now more on specific projects. The Cree approach remains as outlined in the Cree Vision of Plan Nord, which I gave to the premier. Our approach calls for respect for Cree rights under the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, the Paix des Braves and the Cree-Quebec Governance Agreement. In addition, projects in Eeyou Istchee must be environmentally and socially acceptable and provide real benefits to the Cree in terms of employment and business opportunities.
TN: What were your impressions of it?
GC: I found the premier’s approach to Plan Nord practical and positive. He knows that the Plan Nord can only succeed with the support of the Aboriginal nations of the North, in particular, that of the Cree. We indicated that the Cree wish to reactivate the special Cree-Quebec process for the Plan Nord in order to advance specific, priority Cree projects.
TN: What was discussed regarding energy?
GC: We asked the premier for clarification of Quebec’s intentions regarding the development of renewable energy projects. We requested Quebec to set aside a block of renewable energy for the Cree communities of Eeyou Istchee.
TN: Was there anything new outlined or discussed regarding the ECN Phase 2 fibre optic project?
GC: We advised Couillard that it is urgent to deploy Phase 2 of the ECN Project since the health, education, public security, justice, education and other services in Eeyou Istchee rely on the ECN network. Phase 2 work is critical to reinforce network robustness by closing the fibre-optic ring. This project should be considered as a priority for funding.
TN: I also see that Washaw-Sibi, Cree Development Corporation (CDC), health and Cree governance and Cree Canada issues were discussed. Can you briefly discuss what was talked about here?
GC: Regarding Washaw Sibi, we requested that a Cree-Quebec process be established to address the site selected by Washaw Sibi for its future village.
Regarding the Cree Development Corporation, we pointed out that it will serve as one of the main vehicles for Cree economic development and investment. The CDC can make strategic investments and it will play a vital role in ensuring Cree participation in Plan Nord opportunities. Cree members of the board of directors of the CDC have been designated. We asked that Quebec appoint its representatives to the CDC board of directors as soon as possible. These directors should facilitate partnerships between Cree and Quebec businesses.
Regarding health, Couillard, as Minister of Health and Social Services in 2005, supported the Cree-Quebec Health Agreement signed that year. He visited Chisasibi and Wemindji during these negotiations. We pointed out some of the improvements already made by the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay in first-line services to the Cree communities, including new or renovated clinics. We noted that the development of services and facilities will continue under the renewed Health Agreement of 2012. We asked for the premier’s support in addressing some outstanding questions, including the revision of the law governing the Cree Health Board.
Regarding the Cree-Quebec Governance Agreement, we informed the premier of the status of implementation, including the assumption of new governance functions by the Cree Nation Government on Category II lands and the operation of the new Eeyou Istchee James Bay Regional Government on Category III lands. We requested that Quebec formalize with us the boundary adjustment process provided for in the Governance Agreement.
As for Cree-Canada issues, we advised Couillard of Canada’s attempts to impose its Self-Government Policy and Own Source Revenue Policy on the Cree in the negotiation of the Cree-Canada Governance Agreement. We stated that the Cree reject this position as contrary to our treaty rights under the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement.
TN: What will you be following up on at the next meeting with Quebec?
GC: Couillard and I agreed to meet on a regular basis. The next meeting will take place in about six months. We will review the progress made on the files already mentioned, and address any other issues that may need our attention. I have also invited Couillard to visit us in Eeyou Istchee.