A leading media analyst spells out a macabre vision for the future of Quebec and the Crees
“The future is north…
We don’t know what’s up there, nickel, maybe diamonds.
It has to be explored.”
HE’LL NEVER forget the date. October 21, 1991. That was the day that changed Henri L. Comte’s life.
That day, a full-page ad appeared in the New York Times denouncing the Great Whale River Project. The ad, paid for by the Grand Council of the Crees, Greenpeace and other environmental groups, made Comte’s blood boil. Here was Quebec being insulted in the world’s most influential newspaper, and what’s more, no one in Quebec seemed to care.
“I was sitting in my living room waiting for a reaction and they were doing nothing. They were letting all this go,” says Comte, who is one of Quebec’s most influential media analysts and is editor of Publics, a magazine for public relations workers in Quebec. “This has been going on for five years, this major offensive by the Crees.”
That day, Comte decided he would be the one to defend Quebec’s honour. In the office of his media consulting firm in Montreal, Comte flips open a glossy travel magazine to an article about Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come. Just days before, the magazine Conde Nast Traveler had awarded the Grand Chief a $10,000 prize for his work to save the environment.
“I mean, five years later, this kind of misinformation is still going on,” he says. “This whole thing is so biased, so… ” Comte doesn’t finish. He only sighs and shakes his head.
Comte is a man possessed. Possessed by an outlandish, imperial vision of Quebec’s future, and obsessed with the Crees and the threat they pose to his vision. One part of Comte’s vision is the Grand Canal project, a bizarre scheme promoted by U.S. engineering firms to build a dike across the top of James Bay and pump millions of gallons of fresh water through canals to irrigate the U .S. Mid-West.
Comte is wistful when he talks about the Grand Canal project, imagining that it could be for Quebec what the pyramids were for ancient Egypt’s Pharaohs. “It’s almost utopia. It’s a dream,” he says, a little lost in thought. “It’s a little pharaonic.”
Then, remembering the people who would be affected in James Bay, he adds, “But imagine the opposition…” And that seems to be why he’s obsessed with the Crees. They’re in the way.
Just how obsessed is Comte by the Crees? Every other week or so, you can be sure there will be an opinion piece or a letter to the editor in a major Quebec newspaper written by Comte about the Crees, usually denouncing the Grand Chief for this or Chief Mukash for that. Several maps of James Bay hang in the office of Medianor, Comte’s media consulting company. He’s been spending his spare time studying an academic essay written by Grand Council advisor Brian Craik about hunting patterns among west coast Crees 200 years ago.
Every Sunday for a year, Comte has been watching Maamuitaau even though he doesn’t understand Cree (the show isn’t subtitled). He constantly litters his conversation with references to discussions he’s had with various Cree personalities (“I was talking to Romeo last week…”) He reads The Nation religiously (“I scrutinize it”).
And soon there will be an entire book filled with Comte’s views on the Crees timed to come out on the 20th anniversary of the signing of the James Bay Agreement next year. In Comte’s words, the book will be about “how they came to use the media in the public relations war against Hydro-Quebec and, in brackets, against the Quebec people.”
Just to be sure, I asked Comte point-blank in his office: Is this an obsession for you, the Crees? A little embarassed, he grinned and said, “Yeah.”
“Stop asking me about my clients”
HARD AS it may be to believe, in person Comte isn’t at all the menacing man his views might suggest. He is slight of build, friendly and curious, in his late 30s and has a boyish mop of sandy blond hair. He talks eagerly about what he believes in and has hardly any humility. But he is also easily provoked into suspicion and seems to bean unsettled individual. A sort of boy-genius gone bad. At one point he described himself as “kind of a loner… It’s hard to get along with me.”
Comte’s office in Montreal is straight out of George Orwell’s book 1984. Lining one wall is a bank of TV sets, each set to a different channel, where his employees record news shows and transcribe them for clients. Along another wall are a dozen ghetto blasters, each tuned to a different radio station. Every major newspaper in Quebec is read here and analyzed for shifting trends in public opinion.
Medianor, the fastest growing media consulting firm in Quebec, makes its money by selling daily reviews and analyses of what the media is saying about different issues to big companies, federal and provincial departments and foreign governments. Before starting Medianor, Comte made quite a name for himself by helping to start three other media consulting firms in Quebec. He is probably more responsible than anyone for putting the media-analysis industry on the map in this province. And one of his main specialties is following what Quebec’s media is saying about the Crees.
Comte admits that attracting business for his company is a big reason for all this writing about Crees in the newspapers. “Whenever I go out in the media, it’s my own personal signature and since I own Medianor I take the opportunity to get some advertising at the same time,” he says. The articles are his way of making potential clients believe he can provide them with valuable information about the Crees—even though on some occasions he’s proven to be poorly informed.
Some examples: Comte recently stated in a letter to The Nation that the top Cree leaders are appointed by the nine Chiefs (in fact, the Grand Chief and Deputy Grand Chief are elected by all Crees). He’s stated matter-of-factly that there are three churches in Chisasibi (there are only two). And earlier this year he wrote a bizarre 1,000-word opinion piece in La Presse claiming that Crees in the northern communities are all radicals and Crees in the southern communities are all moderate and support Hydro-Quebec.
Comte won’t reveal who his clients are or what he makes in a year, and he got edgy when asked what percentage of his business is related to the Crees (“stop asking me about my clients”). But he does admit that he’s worked for the Parti Quebecois and Bloc Quebecois.
Which makes sense because, like Jacques Parizeau himself, Comte’s got big plans for Quebec. And they involve exploiting Cree lands like crazy.
“Some of my friends told me not to say this,” he confides, then goes on anyhow, “but the North hasn’t been explored. We don’t know what’s up there. Nickel, maybe diamonds. It has to be explored. There are a lot of riches to be explored and there’s a lot of room, despite what some people say.”
The Ayatollah of James Bay?
THE WAY Comte sees it, Crees stand in the way of the future. “The future is north. The future is up there whether you like it or not,” he says. “Water is a major commodity in Canada. Sixty per cent of the rivers flow north. That can’t stay forever because it’s in the south that you need water. Something will happen. If it doesn’t come from Canadians or Quebecers, I don’t know if the Americans will be thirsty enough to convince us to do it.”
And that’s why Comte gets his back up about the Crees. They block an otherwise glorious future for Quebec. Comte feels it’s his mission to show Quebecers how much the Crees are hurting them with their international campaign. “This thing with the Crees, it’s a niche for me because there’s not enough people out there who take an interest in it,” he says. “I’m getting people to realize that we’re not on an island here. There are people on boats out there spreading false rumours.”
Yet, Comte doesn’t blame the average Cree for this anti-Quebec campaign. He points the finger at “radical” leaders like Grand Chief Coon Come. They blindly fight against the Great Whale River Project, he argues, while the average Cree couldn’t care less and just wants a job(!)
Comte has little patience for rhetoric about the traditional Cree way of life, which he believes only the Elders still want to preserve. “Crees say their traditional way of life for 5,000 years is threatened. Bullshit. Fifty years ago, the traditional way of life of the Quebecois was to live on the land and they were told not to go to the city and prostitute themselves for the Protestants. There’s a lot of parallels between the two.”
Comte even speaks of a mysterious conspiracy behind the Cree churches. “Diamond, Coon Come and Blacksmith seem to be very morally and religiously inclined in a certain direction. Is it the Baptists, the Pentacostals?” he asks. “Who’s behind these churches? Ontario? The States? What are they trying to do? Who are they trying to convert? How does the money flow? All these things warrant investigation.
“When the political elite becomes the spiritual elite, it becomes a little like the Ayatollah Khomeini. It’s like a theocracy.”
But after all this, Comte still has a bit of good will left over for the Crees. Throughout our interview, he professed a deep concern and sympathy for Cree society. He spoke of the need for youth centres, jobs and economic development, a solution to the social problems like family violence and substance abuse. “What is Creeness?” he asks. Creeness, he says, is under threat. “The social [aspect] is disintegrating. The political is being overplayed. The spiritual is caught in the middle. The economy is at a standstill.”
What’s needed, Comte proposes, is “a rapprochement” between Crees and Quebecers. “We are condemned to live together,” he says. “How long are we going to be fighting?”
And coming from a man of Comte’s ambitions, that’s a sign of hope for Crees. His call for a truce is an acknowledgement that Quebec can no longer mess with the Crees. As Comte admits, “The Crees have a world role now.” In the aftermath of the postponement of Great Whale, Comte teaches us two valuable lessons: Dangerous ideas still lurk about. But the Crees are a force to be reckoned with.