It was 35 years ago that a young Chief would help shape the destiny of the Cree Nation. Robert Kanatewat, Chief of Fort George, was one of the signatories to the 1975 James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. On the eve of the 35th anniversary, I sat down with him to talk about the Agreement. There is still a fire in him as he recounts those days and his resolve to keep working until the day he can’t move.
On when the Crees first heard of the Projects: When Mr. W.G. Walton was around (from 1892 to 1932 he was the priest for Fort George, Wemindji and Whapmagoostui), he had already told people that they would come for the rivers. There was also a trader named Frank Dupuis, who asked a couple of people to take him to Upichuwin, the first rapids. One of them was your namesake Ernest (Herodier?). I guess he took people who could speak English. He took photos of the rapids from the different sides. They asked him why he was doing that and he answered them that they will see “the river closed up.” I guess they didn’t really believe him because they weren’t too alarmed. It was when the project came that they spoke of it.
On the housing program: This was in 1968 or 1969 and Jean Chrétien was the (Indian Affairs) minister. We had him flown to Great Whale to look at the housing. We had the Chief get ready to show him three types of housing. The best, the worst and one in the middle. He was taken to the middle first and he said he’s seen enough and didn’t want to see more. That is how we got housing in Fort George.
On the first meeting of the Grand Council: I didn’t know right away. It was Billy (Diamond) who told me. I guess it was Philip (Awashish) who told him, Ann Marie was his wife at the time, and Edna Neeposh. Those three organized the first meeting of the Chiefs. I took a charter with Josie Sam and Joseph Pepabano. The first meeting took place in Mistissini. They were in their 20s, Billy must have been 20 or 21. I was already in my 30s. That is how the Crees got together.
On Billy Diamond: He had a good memory. Once he searched his memory in no time he’d have the answer. He’d be very certain of the answer. Either the day, the month of what ever happened. He had a good memory bank. He was our first Grand Chief and I miss him.
On running Cree affairs: We wanted to make sure we had our own laws. That is the Cree-Naskapi Act. If we didn’t have that, the government would’ve been running our affairs. The money that comes in for us, they would’ve been administering that. With that Act we run our financial affairs. We put some away each year for the future, as we know things get more expensive.
On the original court case: When Steven Tapiatic was on the witness stand for the court case, he was asked where he traveled in the territory. He answered that “to the east he’d go to the houses” which is Goose Bay. And to the north, Fort Chimo. He surprised the judge with his extensive travels.
On the move from the island Fort George to the mainland now Chisasibi: When we discussed the move from the island to the mainland, I told them if I only thought of myself I wouldn’t move. We have to think of the future generations. We can’t not move. We’ll miss this place but we have to think of the ones not yet born.
On the Malouf decision: If the government had used the lawyers from Hydro-Québec and not their own and taken the case seriously, we probably would not have had the injunction. But the government didn’t take us seriously. If we didn’t win, I don’t think we’d have anything that we have today.
On the extinguishment clause: It says we relinquish our rights. Some see it as relinquishing our rights on the territory. I see it as relinquishing them on the job site.
On the basis for the Agreement: For us, the base was the land and hunting rights. That is what we emphasized. That is what we wanted to hold on to, the land and the occupancy. Hunting and fishing.
On opposition to the Agreement: People from all across Canada were against the Agreement. About three years into the Agreement, they were talking about the Mackenzie pipeline from Alaska to the Yukon. The Natives there invited people to advise them on what to do. The AFN had a council of Elders who went. They invited Billy, but I went instead. I listened in on the meetings and then someone said, “Don’t sell your land. Don’t sell your land like the Crees.” He told them other things as well. He was so sure of us. He told them we had no land left. So I replied, “Sir, how much of the Agreement do you know?” He said, “I know all about it. I read it more than once.” I replied, “Your knowledge must be vast. I’m one of the signatories and I might understand half of it. I know of no one who understands all of it. It’s the first I hear of someone understanding all of it. If you go to the National Assembly, you won’t find anyone there who will understand all of it. And our lead lawyer, if you asked him he wouldn’t be able to tell you all of it. It’s the first time I meet someone who understands all of it.”
On the transition: The man going out to get the food and the woman staying in camp getting water and preparing the food. People thought that way of life would never end. It’s been harder for those of us who grew up with that. It is a completely different lifestyle but the younger generations like yours maybe have it easier to make the transition. We still have to keep our Cree culture but do it in a modern way.
On Cree expertise: We were considered not to have rights and looked upon as squatters on the land. If we understood what it is like now, we would have asked for more. Some of what we fought for didn’t always jive. In order to keep going, we had to drop some things. We didn’t ask for some things. For instance, to participate in the development. To become partners. Although we didn’t have our engineers, our politicians, our experts, we had our own expertise we could have used. Take the first rapids where we scooped fish. They asked where the fish came from. We told him that they came from the sea and went there to spawn. There was a company that was given a contract for $30,000, another was given $21,000 to prove they came from the sea. “Yes the Indians are right. The fish do come from the sea.” After $51,000 worth of contracts and we gave the information for free.
On not having enough water: You must remember what the river looked like in August? It was very dry. I told them at the time that they would never have enough water. They told me that’s why they were damming the rivers. Look at today they have to divert other rivers to there. They never opened all the doors yet. The overflow spillway has never been used.
On the old days: At the school where I worked, a new principal had come in and he wanted a case of pop. He asked the students to get some. It was a Friday afternoon. At the time, a case cost $2 or $2.50. He gave me $10. I asked a couple of the older boys to go. They got back around 4pm. The principal was already gone. They asked what to do with the pop. So I told them to put it by the door. They put the case down with the receipt and change on top. He got back on Monday and remembered asking for the case. He looked at the bill and the change. It was all there. There had been kids running back and forth all weekend. On Monday morning it was all still there. That’s Chisasibi for you in the old days. And nobody ever locked their doors.
On working: I will not quit until I can’t move in trying to keep the Cree Nation working. It is my hope that we all do well and that we run our destiny.