While there have been many books written about the David and Goliath story of how the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement came to be, nothing really compares to hearing it from those who made this history.
After years of discussion over the film, the Grand Council of the Crees, in collaboration with the Cree Naskapi Commission, finally had its moment in the sun with the first screening of Together We Stand Firm on February 10 at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.
The event not only brought out Quebec Premier Jean Charest, former Minister Responsible for Aboriginal Affairs for Quebec, Pierre Corbeil, and his successor, Geoffrey Kelley, but many others who were actually part of this history.
In attendance were many of the film’s stars, such as original signatories Robert Kanatewat, Dr. Philip Awashish and Fred Blackned, as well as the relatives of the other signers who blazed these important trails for the Crees.
Other players involved in the story, such as lawyer James O’Reilly and former Quebec negotiator John Ciaccia, were there to see themselves on the big screen and remember what it was like to be part of shaping this monumental treaty.
Together We Stand Firm is the first in a series of four films to be released by the Cree-Naskapi Commission and the Grand Council of the Crees. Chapters on the history of the Crees and their political battles and achievements are expected to follow with one film to chronicle each decade since the signing of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement.
The evening began with a series of speeches and dedications to those who fought so hard and made so many sacrifices in the name of their people and what the deal for hydroelectricity in the north meant not only for the Crees but all Quebecers.
This was so eloquently expressed by Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come. “The lives of many of us have been touched and even defined in powerful ways by the events of the 1970s in Eeyou lstchee, Quebec. For Quebecers in the ’60s and ’70s hydroelectric development was to be the economic engine to bring their growing nation economically and politically into the 20th century.
“For the Crees who pursued a traditional way of life in the bush, the arrival of this project on our lands was also going to bring our society into the modern world. Only in our case the distance to be covered was long and the speed of the journey of change was therefore to be much more rapid.
“In a manner similar to Quebec, we place conditions on our own development so that our language, values, way of life and social conventions can adapt to the impacts of development and at the same time so that we can take advantage of the opportunities that come with the transformation of the territory.
“The importance of protecting culture and language is shared by Quebec and the Crees and this fact was important in the shaping of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement,” said Coon Come.
“This was a generation of Crees who were born in the bush where their parents harvested what the land naturally provided. Many of this new generation, such as the late Grand Chief Dr. Billy Diamond, the late Albert Diamond, Grand Chief Dr. Ted Moses, Robert Kanatewat, Dr. Philip Awashish, the late Smally Petawabano, the late Steven Bearskin and many others bravely stood up to defend their lands and their people’s way of life. This young generation of Crees sought recognition of their people’s time-honoured control over their lands and communities. They sought it in the face of the massive James Bay Development Project already being built.
“The opposition of the Crees in the courts to the James Bay Project was the appropriate reaction to decisions that had been made without our consent.
“It was the only way for us to be heard in Quebec at that time.”
Coon Come also made a special dedication to the late former Grand Chief Billy Diamond. His widow, Elizabeth, was honoured on stage for Diamond’s courage, commitment and many sacrifices in a heartfelt moment that brought the audience of nearly 100 to tears.
The film depicts a blow-by-blow battle between the Crees and then-Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa. So it was appropriate that Charest take the stage to offer the Quebec government’s perspective.
Charest began his speech making light of how his recent cabinet shuffle brought two Aboriginal Affairs Ministers to the event.
“I wanted to do something special for you tonight so I brought with me two Ministers of Indian Affairs. We started the day with Pierre Corbeil as minister and finished it with Geoff Kelley.
“You should take this as a compliment, not only after negotiating with the Cree did the agreement for James Bay (happen) but also the Paix des Braves. We finally came to the realization that to successfully negotiate with the Cree requires two ministers, not one.
After the screening, Charest spoke to the Nation regarding his impressions of the film.
“I’m very touched by the film. It is a very important story for Quebecers to share and for the Cree Nation to share. Ironically, as I was watching it I thought Robert Bourassa would be surprised to find out today that he gave birth to the modern Cree Nation by his actions. I am delighted by the fact that a lot of lessons were learned through that experience in the 1970s.”
Charest said he was anxious for the film to be translated into French so that it could become a teaching tool for all of Quebec’s youth, not just the Cree as he is certain that it will have a positive impact on the province.
He praised Together We Stand Firm in that it serves as a tremendous reminder that the north is not just a great land mass, as so many in the south of the province tend to see it.
“There is not enough known about the presence of the Cree or the Inuit or the Naskapi,” said Charest.
Using this public engagement to remind those in attendance about the Plan Nord, his controversial plan for development in the north, Charest was quick to add that whatever plans for development are made they will be done in partnership with the people who have occupied the land for so many centuries.
In his first working day as provincial Aboriginal Affairs Minister for the second time, Geoff Kelley said he was honoured to have been invited to the event, particularly as it was such a unique way to mark his own day in history.
“I am by training a historian so I was very excited (to see it) because the notion of being a witness to history. What we saw tonight was an extraordinary story told by the people who made it. And, I think that sadly, the death of Grand Chief Billy Diamond last fall reminds us that we have to get these stories down.
“It is an extraordinary project to get those pioneers, those people who made history, to tell their stories in their own words.
“Life changes so quickly and we see that in the film. Today we are now in the era of Facebook, Twitter and the Internet. But if you think back to 40 years ago, how isolated those communities were in terms of geography and the uneven fight between David and Goliath and what an extraordinary event this was.”
James O’Reilly, who was a young lawyer when he agreed to represent the Crees in the early ’70s, was on hand to see his big screen debut and reflect on the history he once lived.
“One of the things that struck me the most was how accurately the film portrayed the way of life of the Crees during that particular time.
“This truly brought out the core spirit of the Crees with their relationship with the land and the animals as well as the intelligence and determination of the people. I have been a great admirer of Billy Diamond since the first time I saw him.
“I have always thought that he was one of the greatest Indian leaders I ever met and he went beyond that to become one of the great leaders of the modern world.
“It struck me as a good synopsis. It is a difficult thing to do on film, to present different angles and I thought they did quite well.
“Obviously they could have put in a bit more drama in the courtroom because that was very tough, but that is also my profession,” he said with a chuckle.
Having witnessed the events leading up to the signing and fighting alongside his fellow Cree in the ’70s, former Grand Chief Ted Moses reminisced about old times – good and bad. He was also one of the film’s big stars.
“It brings back a lot of memories for me, especially when it came to remembering those who are no longer with us. It captures the history that we will now be able to keep forever, a story that can be told to other people in Quebec and Canada and the rest of the world,” said Moses.
Though he was not featured in the film, former Grand Chief Matthew Mukash was beaming with pride, particularity as he played a role in the film’s development.
“We have been talking about this project for a long, long time. Finally when I came in as Grand Chief, this was something that I wanted to see happen because our signatories, these major players were getting old, we didn’t know how long they were going to be with us and some of them are already gone. So, we decided that it had to be done,” said Mukash.
Waswanipi Chief Paul Gull said he found the film inspiring but very emotional at times as Billy Diamond was his second cousin and someone he was very close to.
When asked what he thought Diamond would have said about the film, Gull said, “I would say he would be humble, he wouldn’t say great things about himself. He would probably be happy about it, especially seeing his other friends and all of the people he worked with in it.”
Chisasibi Chief Abraham Rupert was also on hand to see the film and was happy to sing its praises.
“It was great. This is something that was needed for some time because young people need to know their history. The history of the Cree and how we got to where we are today, what it took and the sacrifices that a lot of people had to make,” said Rupert.
At the same time, because the project meant such a dramatic change of lifestyle, having to relocate what was then Fort George to what is now Chisasibi, Rupert wondered whether there would be merit in giving Chisasibi its own historical film.
Original signatory Fred Blackned seemed happy looking back on what has happened in the last 35 years.
“The film was pretty good. It will do the good that it is intended for, like using it in schools. Many people out there, who are 30 and younger, don’t know what was going on back then,” said Blackned.
Another signatory, Dr. Philip Awashish from the Cree-Naskapi Commission was proud of the film.
“I was taken back by the fact that this was one of those rare moments that we actually have on film, the Cree people who made Cree history themselves. I have always said history is really about the activities of people and for a change I was watching Cree history itself as told by the people who made it. So, it was quite a change from the Eurocentric history I was taught in my school days,” said Awashish.
His Cree-Naskapi Commission colleague, Robert Kannetwat, who appears in the film to discuss being a signatory, told the Nation why he believes this film will have such an impact.
“What made me proud was that Premier Charest spoke about translating this film into French so that it could be put into Quebec schools — that is wonderful. It is all right to read books about history but sometimes your mind wanders when you read. But when you see a film like this, it is a really good lesson about the past,” said Kannetwat.
Having represented Bourassa during the negotiations, former Quebec minister John Ciaccia played an important role in the development of the Agreement and was interviewed throughout the film.
“It was not only nostalgic (to see the film), but it was very interesting to see how the Cree have adapted and moved on. It’s a wonderful film and it is also wonderful for the younger generations who will see this, you have to keep those values,” said Ciaccia.
Representing the Inuit, the other party involved in the negotiations, Pita Aatami, president of Makivik Corporation, said the film was a learning experience.
“I have heard a lot of discussions in the past about what the Inuit and the Cree went through but I really think that this was a well-documented reflection of what they went through to get us where we are today,” said Aatami.
Together We Are Strong definitely made an impact on those at its debut screening. In time all Crees and the rest of the province, if not the country and the rest of the world, will have the opportunity to see it, to learn and relive an important part of Aboriginal and Canadian history.