Who has figured out all the ins and outs of the Agreement in Principle signed between the Cree and the Quebec government last week? If you haven’t worked out all the angles yet don’t be ashamed, you’re not alone. There are people out there who will tell you that this deal is a marriage made in heaven. There are others who will be quick to point out that the agreement is full of the kind of good intentions that help pave roads to hell. Somewhere in between lies the truth.

The issues are far-reaching and touch on every aspect of Cree life. There are legal matters, financial considerations, and environmental factors. Though there are those who seek to push this through in record time, the truth is that it might take years to truly realize what tangible effects such an agreement will have upon the James Bay Cree of northern Quebec. It might help shed light on the agreement to try and understand the motivations of the Quebec government. Why are they so eager to put $3.5 billion on the line? What do they gain by suddenly becoming fast friends with the Cree? It’s kind of like buying a used car. As eager as you might be to get your hands on the wheel, you have to remember that there must be some reason why the other guy is so eager to sell.

For one thing, Quebec gains recognition as a nation from the Cree. It’s right there at the top of the agreement in black and white: “Whereas the parties wish to enter into a nation-to-nation agreement . . .” Should any doubt linger as to the use of the word ‘nation’, just skip ahead to the beginning of section one, dealing with context, where it is written that, “Both the Cree Nation and the Quebec Nation agree to place emphasis in their relations on those aspects that unite them as well as on their common desire to continue the development of Northern Quebec and the self-fulfillment of the Cree nation.”

Does anyone remember the referendum the Cree held following the last one held by the PQ? To anyone fearing Quebec’s separation from the rest of Canada (not to mention the kind of self-righteous flag-waving and historical revisionism that comes with it), the Cree were seen as a beacon of reason. If Quebec was to push forward in its surge toward sovereignty based on a unique linguistic and cultural history here dating back some 450 years, then how strong an argument would the Cree have had for sovereignty with a unique cultural and linguistic history going back thousands of years? If you think it is significant that the PQ is respecting the Cree as a nation, think again. What is significant here is that the Cree are now respecting Quebec as a nation.

This deal will reap huge political benefits for Premier Bernard Landry. Landry, who inherited his post when Lucien Bouchard stepped aside, will have to win an election someday soon and has yet to leave his indelible mark on the province. Should the deal go through, it will stand as a monumental achievement for Landry and could help him in his bid to remain in power and regain some lost momentum for the PQ who have not been the same since Lucien Bouchard resigned in the wake of racist comments made by party hardliner Yves Michaud.

Hydro development has always been on the front burner for the provincial government. Successful Cree opposition has been a constant stumbling block to the full exploitation of Quebec’s natural resources. It is no secret to anyone that Hydro-Quebec is one of the brightest jewels in the crown for an economically viable independent Quebec. To forget the separatist mandate of the current government would be to ignore the obvious. Hydro development will allow the PQ to create thousands of jobs, to redirect the Rupert River and to ultimately fortify the government’s plans. The political gains from such a project will be enormous. Landry will be able to look voters square in the face and say that he has managed to secure a deal that will bolster the economic aspirations of Quebec. He will have solved issues of employment, development, and Native relations in one fell swoop.

The Cree have long been a thorn in the paw of PQ political ambitions. Landry will be seen as Androcles, the man who managed to remove the ever-prickly thorn from the paw. The lion will be free to roam at will. The deal, in effect, creates a clean slate for the PQ in its dealings with the Cree. Old court cases will be cleared off the books, old disputes will be signed away, old injustices will magically be erased, and history between the Cree and Quebec will start fresh from the year 2002. It is imagined that the plan will also go some way to further the distance between Quebec and Ottawa as the feds have been left out of the starting line-up on this one.

With the allegations of racism that the PQ has endured, especially since the Michaud episode, a new deal with the Cree will be a public relations coup. The Quebec government will benefit from a new reputation for being tolerant, respectful and progressive, a far cry from the old image of a government that fails to respect the rights of its Native population. At a time when Native politics are ablaze from coast to coast (Burnt Church, Ipperwash, Barriere Lake), it would be quite an achievement for Quebec to settle its disputes with the Cree with a stroke of the pen.