Twenty years after the James Bay Agreement was signed, a key issue has never been resolved—the fate of nine Mistissini Cree traplines that fall outside the category-three boundaries defined in the Agreement.
For two decades, trappers here haven’t had the same rights as other Crees, and have endured harassment from Quebec conservation authorities. Now, the issue is becoming more urgent because Hydro-Quebec is moving full-steam ahead on the development of a hydro project that would drastically affect these Cree traplines.
“The issue is still very much on our table,” says Mistissini chief Henry Mianscum. “It is our view that when the James Bay Agreement was signed, those tallymen appear to have lost all their traditional rights, while other people gained recognition of their exclusive rights to harvest. These people have been deprived and this is something they can’t understand or accept,” he said.
“I think that issue should have been dealt with many, many years ago. Not now, 20 years after the signing of the Agreement.”
The Nation: We’ve heard Mistissini recently petitioned the Grand Council to act on new land claims outside the territory set out for Crees in the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement?
Chief Henry Mianscum: I don’t know if I’d call it new land claims. It was something that was supposed to be dealt with immediately after the signing of the James Bay Agreement. There are a group of approximately nine traplines located on the eastern side of the height of land. In the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement there is a territory that is marked out which follows the boundaries of the 1898 and 1912 Acts.
That was done to simplify the area that was going to be included in the Agreement. At no time were the Crees informed they would lose any rights to hunt, fish and trap on the traplines located beyond the height of land that aren’t included in the James Bay Agreement. There was always an understanding, however, that it would be dealt with by the Quebec government and the Cree people. The trappers of that area themselves understood that they would be involved in the alleged benefits that the James Bay Crees would receive under the Agreement. So these people would be enjoying full harvesting rights as stated under the Agreement.
Under the Agreement, you have category 1, 2 and 3 lands, and all Crees have exclusive rights to practice harvesting activities on all these categories of lands. The area we are contesting lies past
the height of land, where we do not have those exclusive rights. We have been subjected to the administration of the MLCP [Quebec’s Ministry of Recreation, Hunting and Fishing), and were forced to have an administrative arrangement with another group of native people, the Montagnais, before our people could practice harvesting activities on traplines that have historically passed from one generation to another generation.
What we are doing is bringing the issue to the table and forcing the issue to be dealt with by all the signatories of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. So it’s not a new land claim, but rather the reinstatement of those rights that those people had before the Agreement even existed.
What does Mistissini need to do to bring this issue to the table? Does it involve historical studies or archeology? How do you prove this was historically Cree territory?
This issue has been in the Cree files since 1982. I recall that file when I was Director of Traditional Pursuits for the CRA. It was one of the files I had to deal with at that time.
One of the main problems was to bring the Montagnais to recognize the claims made by the Mistissini Cree tallymen. In those days, it was difficult to include the height-of-land issue as a priority, as there were many other priorities the Crees had to deal with, namely housing, education, health. Everything had to be established as well as the Cree/Naskapi Act and Indian self-government legislation.
So all these so-called little issues became secondary, less of a priority. It seemed that this issue was lost in the shuffle. But it was not lost to us, the people of Mistissini. We’ve requested from time to time that this file be administered and coordinated through the CRA or the Grand Council because we wanted that issue to be dealt with and resolved.
That’s not the only issue pertaining to lands that was outstanding. The entire category 1A and 2 lands have yet to be finally transferred to the Bands. We still have an outstanding issue to deal with there. The Quebec government almost forced the Mistissini band to accept as not being in their area of interest category 2 areas of Lake Mistissini which include the prime fishing areas we need to sustain our outfitting operations.
As for the height-of-land issue, many of the people had difficulty going into the traplines without being harassed by the conservation agents of the MLCP. It came to the point where people didn’t understand why they being harassed or why it was difficult for them to approach their own traditional hunting grounds.
It was something that was never contested by the hunters and trappers of the Montagnais people. Their elderly people who were always in contact with the Cree trappers who owned those traplines had never confronted the Cree tallymen to tell them they had no right to those lands or that they belonged to the Montagnais. As a matter of fact, the hunters and trappers of the Montagnais recognized that we were indeed we the owners and the rightful hunters and trappers on the traplines in question.
So we had two groups of people who recognize each other. Where the problems lie is with the elected officials of the Montagnais people, including the regional entity, the Council of the Altikamik/Montagnais. The CAM didn’t recognize it as Cree land and I speculate it’s probably because they see the height-of-land claims issue as something that would interfere with their own land-claim negotiations with the government of Quebec.
Historically, they claim that land was part of the Montagnais territory. That is where the difficulties lie. What we have wanted to do over the years is bring in the Montagnais people and have a meeting on a nation-to-nation basis without involving the Quebec government or the MLCP, and try to hold some kind of forum that would resolve many of our differences.
We don’t believe we should have to go and see an entity that is foreign to both of our peoples to solve an issue that could easily be solved by the two sides. But the difficulties are the political differences of the two groups.
I can understand why they were reluctant to come to an agreement. At one time, the elected chief of Point Blue accepted to meet with us and go over that file to see how we could resolve it. That was the closest we ever got to setting up a meeting. You have to understand there is a language barrier. The Montagnais speak either just their language or French. Very few spoke English or Cree. Perhaps that’s changed today, but that was part of the issue back then.
We have to respect their people and, of course, we want them to respect our people, but it has always been one of our views that this should be dealt with on a nation-to-nation basis. Now we know that the Montagnais are in the process of concluding their negotiations with the government of Quebec, as well as talks with Hydro-Quebec on future hydroelectric projects in that area. These projects would affect some of our traplines in the height-of-lands claim. We wrote a letter to Premier Bourassa last fall saying we objected to any form of settlement with the Montagnais if part of the settlement includes our traplines. We sent that letter to let him know the issue is still very much on our table and there were other letters that went to other ministers, as well as to the Grand Council of the Crees and CAM over the years.
The file was picked up again and, rather surprisingly, we were notified that the Grand Council had successfully arranged for a meeting with CAM on these issues. In the meantime, two of our representatives have continuously met with the concerned trappers to go over the file to determine the boundaries and keep in contact with the Montagnais. I guess their efforts paid off.
I wanted to say we are very grateful to learn the Montagnais are willing to come to the table to resolve this issue. The meeting was on Feb. 8. The next meetings will include myself and other people who have followed this file. I want to make it clear we are dealing on a nation-to-nation basis. We are not approaching the provincial or federal governments. It’s not any form of a land claim. We just want to ensure we have the recognition that our people historically owned those traplines and have harvested in those traplines for many, many generations.
That is something we want to establish. If any rights have been lost as a result of the omission of these traplines in the James Bay Agreement, that is another issue we may be looking at. But first of all, we want to establish that respect and recognition that our people can go to their traplines without being harassed or dominated by an outside agency telling them where or how much they can hunt, or who they can bring. This is something no one expected as a result of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement.
Have you discussed this with the Quebec conservation authorities?
We have not talked with them specifically on this issue, but we have contested some of their actions in harassing the Cree tallymen in the past. We did not like what the conservation agents were doing to these people, threatening them or confiscating their stuff. We don ‘t approve of those types of tactics.
We never met with the MLCP on that issue because they couldn’t single-handedly resolve it. It’s the government of Quebec that we would have to deal with. It is our view that when the James Bay Agreement was signed, those tallymen appear to have lost all their traditional rights, while other people gained recognition of their exclusive rights to harvest. These people have been deprived and this is something they can’t understand or accept. The James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement was something agreed to collectively by the Cree people and was not supposed to exclude any of the Cree people.
But I guess the way the Agreement was negotiated resulted in that. I don’t know if it was deliberate or if it was just an issue that couldn’t be resolved at the time. But I think that issue should have been dealt with many, many years ago. Not now, 20 years after the signing of the Agreement.
What proposed dams in the Montagnais territory would affect those traplines?
The Mistissini River comes through those traplines and that is the area they studying with the idea of possible dams. We know there is a project Hydro-Quebec and the Montagnais have been discussing, the Ashuapmushuan hydro-project. We have limited information, but we have grave concerns.
Recently, I received a letter from the president of Hydro-Quebec in reply to a letter we wrote last fall contesting the fact that negotiations on future hydroelectric projects were still an issue that the Crees of Mistissini had to deal with. We were basically talking about EM-2, the next project that would come after EM-1. Aside from EM-2, we brought up that project in the east that would affect those traplines.
What part of the James Bay Agreement deals with this issue?
The land regime is under section five and that is what we are contesting. We are contesting the fact that there are no provisions in the Agreement that mention this area.
Is there any section in the Agreement that allows for future negotiations on any omitted areas?
No. This is the way many things came to be after the fact. For instance, the Ouje-Bougomou is another issue where there are no specifics on how the la nd transfer or the whole question of Ouje-Bougoumou would be handled.
It was only done as it arose and the height-of-land issue is the same thing. But the issue is still there. The only thing we can depend on is what the negotiators can recollect. One of them was Philip Awashish and we are very fortunate to have Philip working on this file because he is one of the few people who can recall a lot of these discussions that were left up in the air that would be dealt with after the signing of the Agreement.
The important thing is that people want none of their rights to be lost. In this case, they have lost their rights and we want this resolved as soon as possible. This was never the intent of the Agreement.