The Institute for Research on Public Policy has just released a study, “Aboriginal Quality of Life under a Modern Treaty: Lessons from the Experience of the Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee and the Inuit of Nunavik‚” suggesting that though life may have improved dramatically over the last 30 years for both the Crees of Eeyou Istchee and the Inuit of Nunavik, things might have progressed just as well without the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement.
Martin Papillon, an assistant professor at the School of Political Studies of the University of Ottawa and author of the study, wanted to examine whether the people living under the JBQNA were better off than those living in similar northern communities across Canada and to see where living conditions and quality of life were better. The results were surprising, even for him.
By comparing statistical data on housing, health, employment, income and education between places like the Northwest Territories, the Yukon and Nunavut to those under the JBQNA, Papillion found similarities between all of the communities, even though some were not under treaties. In fact, when it came to certain issues those under the JBQNA actually fared worse.
“They are not necessarily the worst,” said Papillon. “But they’re definitely worse off in things like overall housing, the level of education, control over the natural-resource sector and employment. The raw numbers suggest that they are not better off than those in the Yukon or in Nunavut.”
According to the statistical data presented in the study, the Cree and the Kativik School Boards have the province’s highest drop-out rate at 75% and housing conditions in northern Quebec are among the worst in the country and have not improved in the past 10 years. Incomes are exponentially lower in the north than in the south, particularly when the cost of living in the north is taken into account. The rate of infant morality in both Eeyou Istchee and Nunavik is still more than three times higher than in the rest of Quebec.
In the study, Papillon points out how there is this false pretense about those under the JBQNA as though they were “the spoiled children of the federation,” because of the amount of money they received in exchange for allowing hydro development. What never gets taken into consideration is how those first major transfers were all for infrastructure and that the sheer cost of building schools, health facilities, roads and airports was massive.
“Since then, the transfer of money on a sort of per capita basis is not that different from what a non-Aboriginal community in northern Quebec would receive on a governmental basis,” said Papillon.
According to Papillon, the failures attributed to the JBQNA fall mainly on the government as once the treaty was written “it fell through the cracks.” There were no governmental bodies responsible for the agreement and in the first years of its inception both the Cree and the Inuit spent much of their time fighting to have it implemented.
The government also saw the structures created under the JBQNA as “administrative arms of the federal and provincial governments,” limiting their scope of the Crees and the Inuits and constraining them far more than they envisioned.
“What I am saying about the JBQNA, and this is the important message, is that it was not enough. What really changed for the James Bay Cree and the Inuit is that the land claim agreement was a basis to start with but what really made the difference over time and is starting now to make a difference in terms of quality of life is the way that they use it as a basis to challenge what is going on at the federal and provincial policy level,” said Papillon.
For as much as he agreed that it was hard to quantify the political transformation within these communities as result of the JBQNA, the agreement itself brought about a type of “political cohesion,” that did not exist previously that in itself could bring about the fulfillment of the agreement’s intentions.
In creating the political presence of the Grand Council of the Crees, the Cree Regional Authority and the Makivik Corporation as a result of the JBQNA, more power has been given to the north when it comes to battling governments and creating a confidence amongst these First Nations groups.
For as much as Papillon has posed the question as to whether the Cree and the Inuit would have the same quality of life as other northern Native communities had they not signed the JBQNA, the real answer is hard to find as perception on quality of life is such a variable and not defined by statistical data. At the same time, in that this was the first modern treaty implemented within Canada, it has proven to be “panacea for the problems of northern Aboriginal communities,” for as much as there is a tremendous amount to be learned from the experience.
For a copy of the study, go to: www.irpp.org/indexe.html