In the mid-1960s, the Indian Affairs Head Office in Ottawa ordered its Quebec regional office to organize a number of province-wide meetings with the leaders of Indian Bands to encourage them to develop a regional Indian organization to be prepared to meet with Ottawa to discuss proposed changes to the Indian Act. Initial organizational work was difficult in a vast province which, in those days, had poor transportation links and only primitive communication facilities (radio or radio-telephone connected remote reserves to Quebec but not with one another). Indian Affairs responded by holding several province-wide meetings and by taking Max Gros Louis, Chief of Village Huron, Loretteville, along as a passenger in its regular chartered flights to the remote isolated communities where he did organizational work.
A Quebec-wide Indian organization called the Indians of Quebec Association (IQA) was set up in February 1968. Within a year Ottawa provided operational funds and between April 1969 and February 1971 the new Association received a total of $217,195 (about $2 million in today’s dollars). This enabled the IQA to maintain an office in Loretteville where Gros Louis effectively ran the organization. Its president was Grand Chief Andrew Delisle from Kahnawake, who had national prominence having served as the Ambassador of the Indian Pavillon at Expo 1967.
Gros Louis continued his visits to remote communities on the Indian Affairs plane where he sold IQA membership cards to the local people (and postcards of himself in heroic pose decked out in full Huron regalia) and made arrangements for local chiefs or Band Managers to attend an annual week-long get-together in Ste-Foy, Quebec once there was regular federal funding. (In 1970, there were about 80 members listed in Waswanipi, over 170 in Rupert’s House, more than 500 in Fort George and 160 in Mistissini.)
By 1970, the IQA had designated certain delegates with regional responsibilities. Billy Diamond, Robert Kanatewat and Smally Petawabano were given the title of Regional Chiefs to represent the interests of the Indians of northern Quebec. These Cree representatives were well known to Indian Affairs for in the late 1960s all three had been selected by the Indian Agent to follow a three-month course at the District Office following which they returned to their communities as fulltime Band Managers.
Almost from the beginning, the IQA – that is Gros Louis and Delisle – began to hold regular meetings with both the federal and provincial governments in what was then known as the Tripartite Commission. It was set up to discuss and try to find solutions to a range of Indian problems in Quebec. Stable Ottawa funding permitted the IQA to engage two lawyers – Jacques Beaudoin and James O’Reilly – as advisors.
While Indian hunting and fishing rights and unsettled territorial claims were on the agenda, a more dominant issue became Indian exemption from Quebec’s Retail Sales Act, which was introduced in 1968. The Retail Tax issue was of little or no importance for the Cree and other Indian hunters and trappers since traps, firearms, canoes and snow machines were exempt from sales tax similar to the exemption for the tools of the trade used by farmers and fishermen. However for people living in “urban” reserves like Loretteville or Kahnawake, sales tax exemption was of great financial importance since many people owned cars and their houses had expensive appliances like televisions, refrigerators and washing machines.
In the late 1960s, the matter of Indian land claims in Quebec came into high profile when the Commission d’étude sur l’intégrité du territoire du Québec (Commission on the Territorial Integrity of Quebec) – a.k.a. the Dorion Commision – began discussing the legal status of Quebec’s northern lands. The IQA presented a formal submission to the Commission, which included a claim to the whole of northern Quebec. In January 1969, Gros Louis quantified the claim by announcing that the IQA was demanding $5 billion (about the equivalent of $40 to $50 billion in 2011 dollars) to settle all land claims in the province. He also tabled this claim before the Tripartite Commission and presented it to the Quebec government – but not to Ottawa.
In the radical 1960s, these were matters of great importance reported widely in the national press. Particularly prominent was the claim by the Indian people in Alaska who in the late ’60s fought and won a celebrated land-rights court case against the oil pipeline developers. Their settlement was worth about a billion dollars. Of course, such issues were totally unknown to the people on the land in the remote Indian settlements of northern Quebec. However, for the few northern students attending post-secondary studies in the south, the IQA claim of $5 billion to settle all Quebec claims on the heels of the Alaska settlement and the Dorian Report was viewed as an attempt by the southern Indians to take most of the benefits from any potential northern Quebec settlement. For them, Gros Louis became persona non grata and the IQA a suspect organization.
By 1970, the IQA, through the Tripartite Committee, had succeeded in negotiating a temporary (but for the Cree an unsatisfactory) arrangement with the province concerning Native rights to hunting and fishing. It also had made a formal demand for $5 billion for Quebec’s unsettled Indian land claims. Still on the table was the matter of exemption from Quebec’s Retail Sales Tax, an issue which would have a major effect on the outcome of the 1971 meeting in Mistassini.
That was the situation when on April 29, 1971, Premier Robert Bourassa announced the James Bay Project. Less than a week passed before Gros Louis announced the IQA position that the project was on Indian land and called for a $5 billion settlement for all land claims in Quebec. He appealed to the conclusions of the Dorion Commission which, only three months earlier, had published an opinion that Quebec did not hold clear title to northern Quebec because the province had not complied with the conditions of the 1898 and 1912 land transfers.