The Grand Chief picks up his fiddle and plays tunes on the Rupert River, power plays in James Bay and working with Hydro QuebecIt has been a little over a year since Matthew Mukash was elected Grand Chief of the Eastern James Bay Crees. The Nation caught up with him in Montreal during a Council/Board meeting December 12 to talk about the past year and his priorities for 2007. Those of you with Internet access will soon be able to visit Mukash’s own website where he will post personal thoughts and communicate with Crees from across Eeyou Istchee.

The Nation: Christmas is just around the corner. What are your plans?

Grand Chief Matthew Mukash: I’ll be spending it in Montreal as my two children are here with the grandchildren. On Christmas Day we’ll be going to Odanak to visit my in-laws. It’s about an hour and a half from Montreal. I’d like to take this time to wish everyone a Merry Christmas, and Happy Holidays and all the best in the coming New Year!It’s been a year since you’ve been elected, what has been happening in that year?
We’ve done a lot of work. The most important thing that the Deputy Grand Chief Ashley Iserhoff and I had to do was to ensure the ongoing relations with Quebec and Canada continued with the present administration, working together in implementing the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. That was our number-one priority. Negotiations have been going well, particularly, in policing and justice. We’ve set up a table with Quebec on the access road to Whapmagoostui. Negotiations with Canada are still on-going. We’re hoping to reach a final agreement shortly after Christmas.

We have also made headway in establishing dialogue with other Aboriginal First Nations across Canada and in Quebec. Inter-tribal treaties are presently in the works to form political relations and business partnerships with the Crees in Ontario and Manitoba. Our business entities (CREECO) are involved in this and some partnerships have already been formed. We’re also on good terms with the Inuit of Quebec.

Long-term plans in social and cultural development as well as economic development have been undertaken. Of course, the planning and development of these strategic plans will require the participation of the Cree communities and their members.

Well, when we first met in March of this year we talked about the continued implementation of the Paix des Braves Agreement that was entered into by previous administrations on both sides. Although the Premier and I are not signatories of the agreement, we agreed to continue with its implementation and the related agreements. We’re moving forward and it’s going well, in my opinion.

Has there been anything new that has come out of it?

We know of some concerns that are forthcoming from the Cree communities. Specifically, there are grave concerns over the issue of the Municipality de Baie James (MBJ). It has been empowered to have authority over Category II and III lands within the James Bay Municipality territory. As you know, many Cree traplines are located within this area. This could be a major problem for the Crees in the future. That has been a source of concern for a lot of people within the Cree Nation.

What are the priorities of the Grand Council in the New Year?

The main priority at present is to conclude the negotiations with Canada and hopefully after New Year’s we will come up with an announcement. At this point there is no agreement as yet; we are still in negotiations. Those negotiations are progressing very well. We were hoping to have something to announce by Christmas but at this point I don’t think it will be possible. We will be touring the communities again to consult the Cree Nation members regarding the development of a comprehensive socio-economic strategy and a cultural development plan. We will also be talking with the youth leadership regarding youth development strategies. These are only some of the plans we wish to carry out in 2007.

You’ve met with the present premier but most of the deals and planning have taken place with the other party so I’m wondering how has that relationship evolved?

Even though he has a minority government, Prime Minister Harper’s priorities seem to be a lot different than the previous Liberal government. Are you seeing this show up in the negotiations?
Well, it took a long time to return to the negotiating table after the fall of the Liberal government last December 2005. We first had to meet with various federal ministers that work closely with Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice, as he was been very busy following the last federal election. We finally met with Minister Prentice in November 2006 for the first time at the First Nations Socio-economic Conference in Masteuiatsh. We agreed that the JBNQA implementation agreement is an important matter that must be concluded soon. Since then a lot of progress has been made.

Three chiefs have held referendums concerning the Rupert River. What are they looking for from the Grand Council and will they be treated the same way as your own home community was when they fought the Great Whale Project?

First of all, we have to step back a little to understand how this all began. In the 1970s, during negotiations leading to the signature of the JBNQA, our leaders had a difficult time convincing the governments that the Crees were distinct peoples with a distinct language and culture and a way of life. During this time, the governments and the general public were not in favour of recognizing the Crees as such. But eventually the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement was reached, which recognized us as having distinct rights and so forth. We were asked to give up certain rights in exchange for compensation and certain protected rights under that agreement. Thus, the principle underlying the JBNQA is that we give consent to development in our homeland in order to receive what we have today.

Our treaty rights are protected under Section 35 of the Constitution Act of 1982.

But shortly after the signing of the JBNQA, Canada and Quebec reneged on their obligations under the JBNQA. In 1989, we went to court and opposed all further development in Eeyou Istchee. We actively campaigned against the then-proposed Great Whale Project in the early 90s. And then there were several Supreme Court decisions that were handed down that required that Aboriginal peoples in Canada must now be adequately consulted and accommodated whenever development is proposed in their traditional territory. I like to theorize that Hydro-Quebec and the Quebec government must have realized that it would be more and more difficult to promote development projects in Eeyou Istchee without Cree consent and participation, and thus, came about the Paix Des Braves Agreement. This agreement basically settles Quebec’s outstanding obligations to the Crees since 1975 and transfers some of Quebec’s obligations under the JBNQA to the Crees. That agreement was accepted and ratified through local referenda in all Cree communities with 69.3 per cent of the votes in favour of the agreement, which included the EMIA/Rupert project.

It seems clear, when you read the agreement carefully, that consent was given to the project but subject to social and environmental impact assessment under section 22 of the JBNQA. Once consent is given to a project, it is assumed that the parties will accept the outcome of the impact assessment whether it favours the project or not. This is why the GCCEI could not oppose the project outside of the EIA process. It’s important to understand this.

With regard to the recent local referenda held by the three communities, questions are being asked as to why these referenda were held after the public hearings took place. Maybe I am being judgmental when I say this, but it would have been proper in my opinion to hold the referenda earlier in the process and submit the results before the committees during the public hearings. However, the Grand Council of the Crees respects the right of the local leadership of those three communities to ask their people what they think about a project that will have a great impact on their land, their way of life and their future. We have received letters from the three Chiefs requesting support and assistance in promoting dialogue with Quebec regarding their communities’ concerns and, more specifically, to consider alternatives. We’re going to be discussing this matter this week at the GCCEI/CRA Council/Board meeting here in Montreal. We’ll see what happens after that.

What are some of the other challenges facing the Cree Nation?

One of my greatest concerns is what will happen after the proposed EMIA/Rupert project has been completed. The Quebec government recently amended legislation (Bill 40) empowering the Municipalité de la Baie James (MBJ) with authority over category II lands. The MBJ is now imposing taxes on existing hunting cabins in the James Bay Cree traditional ter ritory. The Jamesiens are being recognized as a group having special powers to take control of Eeyou Istchee and promote development. After the project is done, they will be empowered with more resources to do whatever they want. They have already asked that they be granted the right to hunt out of the hunting season granted to non-Cree hunters, and aswe speak they are suing us, challenging us to give them Cree traditional knowledge so theycan develop forestry resources in Eeyou Istchee.

Is this in terms of bush medicine or Cree inventions to survive in our land?

It has to do with our knowledge of the land. If we don’t do anything about it in the near future, I predict that there is going to be an aggressive campaign of the part of MJB to take control of the Cree traditional territory, particularly, after the project has been completed. This, of course, is my personal opinion.

I have to ask: how did this slip past Cree lawyers?

I don’t know. It just seems curious that the amendment (Bill 40) to the legislation I mentioned earlier was made in the summer of 2001, before the Paix des Braves and we only found out about it quite recently.

You know, I remember saying publicly back in the early 1990s that once we’re outnumbered in our homeland, there would be forces that would eventually try to take away as much as possible, that which makes our Nation thrive and flourish. It will begin with Category III land and then II, and that once we lose control of these lands, we will then be left with the Category I lands upon which our communities exist. We must not let this happen and that is why Cree unity will be crucial when it’s time to address these issues.

So at this time Indians should be circling the wagons?

I have a four-year mandate, with three to go, and it’s important for me to have good working relations with governments and developers who want to enter into partnerships with the Crees. We can avoid the ensuing conflict if we’re unified, and I hope the government is open to addressing the concerns of the communities over these issues. We have mentioned those concerns with the premier of Quebec and he has instructed his ministers to look into it. There has to be a resolution to these issues long before the project goes ahead. There are many and some difficult issues we have to resolve with Quebec.

So the Rupert River seems to be a focal point for a lot of these issues?

Indeed it is. The questions we have to ask ourselves are these: If we are likely to lose another major river in Eeyou Istchee, which has been the lifeline not only for the Eeyouch, but also of marine and other forms of wildlife, are we satisfied of the outcome of the EIA?
Have Cree concerns been adequately addressed? Are the anticipated economic spin-offs realistic? Are the benefits long-term? Are we ready for unanticipated negative social impacts? We have to remember that once the Rupert is diverted, it’s gone forever. As Cree leaders, there will be major challenges before us and we must be unified in order to adequately address these matters.

In your community, you’ve been a Councilor, a Deputy Chief, a Chief, and with the Cree Nation you have been a Deputy Grand Chief, now the Grand Chief. Are you finding there are limitations to the current position you hold?

Yes, there are limitations; but I think that all leaders at any level often find themselvesin this situation. As a leader one must accept that not everyone will support you. Good communication is important. When we came into office, Deputy Grand Chief Ashley Iserhoff and I agreed that in the first year we would carefully observe and assess the organization in terms of its effectiveness. Today, we have an idea in terms of where the limitations lie. We have addressed some, but others will take time.

What is important for us is that everyone in the organization understands that we are all working together for the Cree Nation; thus personal differences must be set aside. We must concentrate our time, effort and dedication to the well-being of the Cree Nation and its members. This is one of the goals of good government.

As far as establishing working with governments, other First Nations, developers and so forth, it is important to be in good terms and always be open to talk. I find that it’s easier to talk with someone when they are across the table from you. That way, you can express freely whatever it is that you want them to know or expect of them. It’s easier to understand each other like that, I find. That’s why I’m all for having good working relationship with those having interest in Eeyou Istchee. I’d like to sit down with Hydro-Quebec one day and hear about views on the Crees and to understand them. Mutual respect and cooperation must be a two-way thing, it’s reciprocal.

On a last note, so to speak, we hear you have an album coming out?

Yes, it’s a fiddling album with old Scottish and Irish tunes. After about 10 years or more of pressure from the elders to record, it has finally happened. I am not a good fiddler; I am an amateur and I am my biggest critic. That’s why it took so long. The CD will come out on Thursday, December 14, and will be aired on CBC North. I am hoping it will be available in the communities before Christmas.