What is Christos Sirros’s game?

That’s the question on many minds after the man who Crees got to know as Quebec’s tough Native Affairs Minister was handed the Natural Resources Ministry in a January cabinet shuffle. Sirros retains the native-affairs portfolio.

Some Crees saw the Sirros appointment as an ominous sign, a signal that Quebec wants a bare-knuckles kind of guy in the job of energy czar so the Great Whale project can be rammed through. But in his first public statements, Sirros was critical of Hydro-Quebec’s gung-ho approach to hydro-development and said Quebec’s energy policy may need to be reevaluated.

Sirros reiterated these sentiments in an interview with The Nation last week. “I think if we’re going to develop projects, it has to be done on the basis of needs,” he said. “I’m reluctant to agree with confrontational style, period. This is not something I believe leads us very far. I think the native question and the native relationship to the rest of the society is an important element in the decision-making process. ”

But Sirros made it clear he’s no softy. At times, he was quarrelsome, and repeatedly suggested that the James Bay territory isn’t really Cree land, anymore than it belongs to Greeks or the Chinese. “We’re basically temporarily here. Okay?” As for Great Whale, he gave no hint Quebec is backing off. In fact, he left the door wide open.

The Nation: Do you believe it’s getting harder and harder to justify new hydro-development? Hydro-Quebec recently set a record for energy use—30,000 megawatts—but on that day, there was still an overcapacity of nearly 4,000 megawatts.

Christos Sirros: Look, I’d like to be able to talk openly and frankly with you. Your question seems a little bit twisted or tainted or oriented in a particular way. If you’ve got things that you’re trying to prove, ask me what it is you’re trying to prove and I’ll answer. If you want to talk more generally about energy needs, I have no problem with that.

That’s what I’m trying to ask. Do you think Quebecers are worried by the large overcapacity?

I think if we’re going to develop projects, it has to be done on the basis of needs. But needs evolve and what is today X situation can tomorrow be Y situation. Inevitably, energy needs increase with time. It’s a question of how quickly they increase and what other things we can do to supply the energy we need—energy efficiency and conservation, alternative sources of energy, economic costs of the whole thing and social costs of the whole thing.

This is not just a change in name that has happened here. It’s no longer just the Ministry of Energy and Resources; it’s the Ministry of Natural Resources. Water is obviously an important natural resource and it serves a variety of purposes. A major one obviously is the supply of energy. When you look at the available sources of energy, hydroelectric energy comes out on the top of the list environmentally and cost-wise. So certainly water resources are going to continue playing an important role in supplying us with electricity and energy.

You recently hinted at a review of Quebec’s energy policy. Could you tell us why you made that decision?

I’m not precluding that. I’m looking at putting forward an orientation that talks about things like sustainable development and puts it forward. Within that context, there may be a need to reevaluate Quebec’s energy policy in the sense I was talking about before.

Do you include in this the possibility of promoting wind power and energy-conservation measures? Are you looking at these areas?

Yes, we are.

You also mentioned that need for energy is important to look at. Do you think Hydro-Quebec has in the past overestimated this demand?

If you look back at their forecasts, they haven’t always been on target, and particularly in terms of their short-term forecasts. It’s difficult to do short-terms forecasts. It’s much easier for someone to tell you what the forecast will be for the average mean summer temperature than to give you what tomorrow’s temperature is going to be.

They could very well be off for forecasts over the next two or three years, but in the long-term it moves forward by two or three years certain deadlines.

In 1977, Robert Boyd, then chair of Hydro-Quebec, predicted before the National Assembly that Quebec’s energy needs were rising so fast, it would need 70,000 megawatts of power and 30 nuclear reactors along the St-Lawrence by 1993. Of course, now Quebec needs only 30,000 MW. I’m wondering why you think Hydro-Quebec has repeatedly overestimated future energy needs.

My understanding of the way they estimate is that they a certain number of factors into account and sometimes these factors don’t play out. They may make mistakes in terms of economic growth. They may make mistakes about the needs of specific industries. I don’t think this is an exact science. I don’t think anybody can hold them responsible for not being able to predict with extreme accuracy what’s going to happen three, five or 10 years down the line.

But if Mr. Boyd was wrong in terms of 70,000 MW, I wonder what the actual consumption we were having at that time was. It’s probably a lot less than 33,000 MW. Over that amount of time, there have been substantial increases in our energy needs.

What role did the political situation play in your decision to review Quebec’s energy policy? A Le Devoir report said you’d like to diffuse confrontations with native people. But I’m also wondering about the upcoming elections.

I don’t believe confrontations are a good thing. If we can avoid them and find a way to conciliate differences rather than overpowering one or the other, that’s the role I’d rather take.

There’s some confusion about whether you think the Great Whale project is or will be on the table in upcoming talks with the Crees on development.

I’m not sure what you mean by “on the table.” I think the question of development of the territory is of interest to the Crees. At least, that’s what they tell me all the time. It’s certainly of interest to the government of Quebec.

What are the possible development areas in that territory? It’s not only Great Whale, but probably Great Whale is there. It’s in the James Bay Agreement; it’s foreseen. But I’m not saying I’m willing to review the application of the James Bay Agreement only if Great Whale happens. If there are things in the James Bay Agreement that the government of Quebec has not lived up to, we’ve got to live up to them.

Do you believe the James Bay Agreement is flawed?

Again, I’m a bit wary of what sounds to me like a leading question. The James Bay Agreement is a document of 400 pages, the first of its kind in history. Clearly, there are chapters that area little bit more vague than others. Vagueness leads to different interpretations. There are some things that are very concrete and clear. And most of those have been met.

Is it flawed? It was a product of its time. So there probably is a need to modernize it. Now, there are some basic principles in the James Bay Agreement. One is Quebec having access to the development of its resources on all the territory of Quebec. And the other is the Cree having the ability to maintain and preserve and develop their lifestyle, their identity and their way of being. Those are the two fundamentals that don’t change.

If we need to review some of the structures set up by the James Bay Agreement, in my mind so be it.

Do you believe that Crees signed away or could legally have signed away their inherent aboriginal rights in the James Bay Agreement?

Again, this is a very sensitive area, so I’m going to answer it as delicately as I can. What are inherent aboriginal rights? That’s a question that has never been answered. I think what the James Bay Agreement did was to exchange rights—to say there’s a claim here that there are aboriginal rights and we’ll try to find expression for them in concrete terms.

In many other societies, the question of aboriginal rights, the question of peoples that received other peoples, was often settled in less eloquent ways. All I want to say by that is you have to look at it in terms of historical perspective as well. We’re part of an evolving civilization, and we do belong to the world, if you like. And the world belongs to no one; the land in a sense belongs to no one. We’re basically temporarily here. Okay? That’s true for the Crees; that’s true for the Quebecers; it’s true for Greeks or Chinese, whoever.

It’s a question of how we’re going to live on the territory. What the James Bay Agreement of 1975 tried to do was to find a way for these things to find concrete expression. But that is not to say that it is perfect and that it can’t be modernized.

Do you think Crees have the right to self-determination?

Self-determination is something that anybody says you have a right to. It’s something you do because you want to do it. I don’t think Quebecers are going to wait for someone to tell them they have the right to self-determination if they want to determine their future in X, Y or Z way. Self-determination is a process. You can take it wherever you want.

Well, do you believe Crees have the right to hold a referendum to decide whether they would stay within Canada in the event of a separated Quebec?

Again, I’m very wary of a flashy headline that says, “Sirros recognizes Crees’ right to secede.” Theoretically, can the Crees hold a referendum on any issue they want? Theoretically, they can. Who’s going to go into a village and tell them they can’t vote on X, Y or Z. It’s an abstract question.

But right now, with the sovereignty debate looming, it’s a very real question for Cree people.

Yes, but what I’m telling you is, the question isn’t whether they have the right to hold a referendum. The question is: What in concrete terms will they do?

I wanted to get your reaction to concerns about how you would resolve potential conflicts-of-interest between your new natural-resources position, where you must advocate for Hydro-Quebec, and your old native-affairs job, where you are providing services to aboriginal people.

It’s funny because the Gazette reported that based on statements made by Mr. [Bill] Namagoose [executive-director of the Grand Council of the Crees). At the same time, I’ve received all sorts of letters from native chiefs who are very happy to see me in this portfolio.

Cree chiefs?

Yes, I’ll fax you the letters if you like.

From the Grand Council?

I didn’t get a letter from the Grand Council. But when I spoke to [Grand] Chief [Matthew] Coon Come, he was glad I was in this ministry. One reason I’m happy to be here is it allows for a non-confrontational approach. If one sees government as one ministry fighting another ministry, that is perhaps the way things were. Hopefully, we’re looking at things with a more integrated approach.

Do you mean the way things were under former Energy Minister Lise Bacon?

And other governments before that.

In one news report you were described as being part of a backroom group that was reluctant to agree with Bacon’s confrontational style.

Well, I’m reluctant to agree with confrontational style, period. This is not something I believe leads us very far. I think the native question and the native relationship to the rest of the society is an important element in the decision-making process.

Many Crees are concerned that the equivalent of one trap-line has been clearcut since the mid-1970s with no say from Crees or even compensation. This is in addition to the millions and millions of dollars in minerals taken from Cree land. Do you think such development should continue, or will you make any changes?

I think development has to be done sustainably and we have to integrate all the factors into our development decisions. I had an interesting experience in Barrier Lake where we agreed a few years ago on a process that will allow us to come up with a plan for integrated resource management. One of the elements that goes into that kind of planning is the activities of the people who live in the territory.

Do you think Crees will need to barricade roads before they get such an agreement for their lands, like the Algonquins did?

No, I would hope not.

So such an agreement is forthcoming then?

Well, give me a chance.

Are you at least willing to make an agreement on shared jurisdiction over forests and minerals?

You’re jumping a bit. I want to put forward principles for the development of our resources that approach things in a sustainable manner, that look at an integrated resource-management policy. One of the elements that has to go in there is the activities of the people on the territory. In the territory we’re talking about, the Crees are very present and need to be taken into account.

Does that lead us immediately to something in terms of shared resource management? You know, it’s all our territory. I mean, I don’t see it as Cree territory or Quebecers’ territory with the exclusion factor put in.

Your Say:

The Nation asked two of its readers what question they would ask Mr. Sirros if they had the chance. Here are the questions and the minister’s responses:

Robbie Matthew Sr., an elder, trapper and former chief of Chisasibi, asked: What will happen to us as Crees if we give more and more land to hydro-development? Will there be land for future generations?

Yes. I believe what we have to do with our collective resources, and I would hope that this speaks for the Crees as well, is to make sure that any decision we make in terms of development always allows us to think of our future generations in terms of the needs that they will have—to have access to resources. Land is certainly an important resource.

Matthew Mukash, chief of Whapmagoostui, asked: Each day, $9 million in resources are taken from Cree land just by Hydro-Quebec. But Chisasibi still doesn’t have a sewer system. Shouldn’t resources taken from native lands go to help natives?

Perhaps the question is really: What can be done as a society as a whole to make sure that all the people have an equitable access to the wealth of that society. This is what the James Bay Agreement was supposed to have done.

If there are things that have not been properly, we should look at them. If there are things that still need to be done properly, we should look at them too in the context of what we can carry forward as a society, what we can afford, what we want as a relationship between the different groups that make up this society.