Waswanipi truck-driver Gary Cooper felt there was something wrong with his dismissal from the Cree Construction and Development Company (CCDC) in April 2009, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. He says he was told he was being laid off due to a lack of work, but other workers who had been hired after him were kept on. At the same time, he maintains, non-Cree workers from the South were taking CCDC jobs that Cooper says he thought should be going to Cree workers.

“I can understand being laid off because of a shortage of work,” he says. “If you’re working for a three-year project, I know when that time is going to come. But when you’re doing road maintenance that takes care of the Route du Nord all the way up to James Bay Road, the main road to Matagami, that road never disappears. It’s always a process: you have to keep it open. So I set myself up to stay there as long as I could.”

Cooper figured he was well placed to remain in his position. As workers who had been there ahead of him were leaving, he kept count, noting that only three others had been there longer than he had.

“I knew where I stood,” he says. “Then I got laid off – and they needed 10 people to stay there!”

At the time, Cooper didn’t understand his reasons for being laid off, but he suspected favouritism.

“A lot of the workers don’t go through the hiring process at [Cree Human Resources Development (CHRD)] because of project managers,” Cooper says. “[The project managers] were keeping their own people – non-Natives. They bypass the CHRD and go directly to people in Montreal or places like that.”

He claims he knew of non-Aboriginal workers from cities in the south who used false addresses to apply for work with the CCDC, and feels that when the time came for layoffs, the CCDC should have given priority protection to Cree employees who had been there the longest.

Cooper began talking with his lawyer about the possibility of a lawsuit against the CCDC; on April 24, he will get his day in court.

According to Cooper, the CCDC has told him that it does not have to give hiring priority to Cree workers because it is a private business. Cooper disagrees strongly with this.

“Where did the money come from to start Cree Construction?” he says. “They have to get the money from some place. They got it from the CRA or the CREECO treasury. That’s our money, our funding, our people.”

It will be for the judge to decide whether the CCDC has the responsibility to the community that Cooper says it does. All the same, much of the CCDC’s public image revolves around its association with the Cree Nation as a whole, a position that may foster the impression that it is a public company.

“This Canadian company is owned entirely by The James Bay Cree of Northern Quebec,” reads the CCDC website. Among its primary purposes, it lists developing projects within Eeyou Istchee “that will provide opportunities for the Cree nation”, and it refers to work on the Eastmain-1 hydroelectric station, saying, “Ten different construction companies hired Cree workers […] However, the CCDC alone accounted for 96% of hours worked by Cree employees.”

As a result, it is possible to understand Cooper’s rejection of the argument that the CCDC has no obligation to give hiring priority to Cree people over non-Aboriginal workers.

Further complicating the story, however, is a letter that Cooper received in August 2011 from Eric Wood, his former foreman. In it, Wood states that he received a direct order from CCDC Executive Director Robert Baribeau to “get rid of Gary Cooper”. Wood’s letter says that when he asked questions, Baribeau claimed that Cooper was selling drugs and alcohol.

“To the best of my knowledge,” reads Wood’s letter, “I had no evidence to justify such a reason. I was told to make up an excuse (plan) that S.E.B.J. was closing your position (Water Tanker).”

Cooper laughs at the suggestion that he was selling drugs. He says that he sent a letter to the CCDC informing them of Wood’s claim his dismissal was related to this accusation, and has not yet seen a response.

“I don’t think they want to go near those accusations, those rumours. The law doesn’t make room for rumours,” he says.

William MacLeod, president of the CCDC, refused to discuss the story, saying, “We wouldn’t comment on anything when there’s a lawsuit.”

However, court documents show that the CCDC maintains that Cooper lost his job as part of a routine layoff. The same documents claim the CCDC offered Cooper an alternate 18-month position as a truck driver, a statement that Cooper says is false.

The judge hearing Cooper’s case is Robert M. Mainville, a former lawyer for the Grand Council of the Crees who became a Federal Court judge in June 2009. Cooper’s complaint against the CCDC will be the first Cree-related case that Mainville has heard since becoming a judge.

When it comes to his chances in court, Cooper is uncertain how his case will play out.

“You know, the judge doesn’t have to listen to me,” Cooper says. “If I lose, I’m still going to go home to my wife and my children. I’m still going to breathe the same air. I’m not going to put a bullet through my head. I’m here to try to defend my own people, and how they treat us. And I’m sure there’s a long list of people behind me. I’m not alone in this.”