Quebec says it will protect several areas of Cree territory near Waskaganish. The provincial government announced March 4 it would limit development and industrial activity on the Mistikawatin Peninsula, in Boatswain Bay, the Missisicabi Plain, the lower section of the Harricana River, and Muskuuchii. All of these areas are within the territory of Waskaganish.

One area in particular, Muskuuchii, had been identified under the “Paix des Braves” agreement signed between Quebec, and the Cree Nation on February 7, 2002. This area is considered environmentally, and culturally sensitive to the Cree, and this fact was recognized by Quebec.

Waskaganish Chief Robert Weistche says he is happy with the announcement: “Protecting Muskuuchii from logging has been a long-term project of Waskaganish since the forestry companies first moved into that area.”

According to Geoff Quaile, environmental analyst for the Cree Grand Council, the goal is to try to get those areas protected which don’t already have claims on them by forestry, mining, or any other companies. That will be the easy part. Getting other areas that already have a claim to them by non-native companies will not be so easy. Muskuuchii is the exception says Quaile, because it had already been written into the agreement. Therefore, Cree claims took precedence over other claims made by the forestry company that was using Muskuuchii for their benefit, in this case, Nordbord.

“We didn’t have direct input from them (Nordbord), they weren’t part of the process, but they did write several letters saying they wanted to be part of the process. We wrote letters saying that once we have a proposal put together we’d be willing to share it with them to see what they had to say.”

Muskuuchii, which means Bear Mountain, is basically a large hill in what otherwise is a low-lying area of James Bay wilderness. It rises up about 200-300 feet above the surrounding area, and is densely forested. Along with bear and moose, there are also all kinds of small game, as well as woodland caribou, which are quite rare.

In Cree history, Muskuuchii was a place where the people would venture to when food in more immediate areas became scarce. Because of that, the area has a special significance to the community of Waskaganish.

The area has been deemed a biodiversity reserve which, according to Quaile, “means it’s pretty well the second highest level of protection. Existing hunting, fishing, and trapping for sport hunting and for the Crees continues, but there’s no further industrial development.”

All areas which are to be protected are biodiversity reserves except for the Harricana River, which is an aquatic reserve.

This announcement raises the question of Cree conservation officers. Who better to oversee the land and these special reserves than the people who know them best? “There was a program several years ago where Crees were trained, but then relations with Quebec soured. Now under the new agreement there is a training program going on right now where Crees are involved to become conservation officers,’’said Quaile.

As far as these areas being protected, Quaile cautioned that for now, that’s as far as it goes, “Let’s not confuse parks with protected areas. Right now they’re protected areas, set aside.” In other words there is still a little way to go for these areas to become fully protected parklands.

“There will be seven years to produce and implement a conservation plan. And within that time frame recommendations can be made to stop sport hunting if they feel the numbers aren’t there in terms of the game. They were doing studies this winter on moose and woodland caribou, aerial studies of the region, so that will go into part of the development of the conservation study,” quipped Quaile.

Protection is a big word, let’s hope that with Quebec’s past record when dealing with natives in general, and Crees in particular they will remember the definition of the word in the years to come.