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Cree, Quebec agree to development options

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After decades of contention and a remarkable ability to hold off major development in their region, the James Bay Cree of Northern Quebec have approved a large hydro-electric agreement with the province. Tribal members voted by some 70 percent to put their seal on a nation-to-nation agreement-in-principle that the Cree chiefs, and Grand Chief as well, feel is much improved over earlier approaches.

On a previous occasion, in 1975, Hydro-Quebec, the provincial energy conglomerate, attempted to ramrod a development deal through the Cree and their ancestral lands. That strong-armed deal over the Great Whale hydro project, would have dammed and flooded substantial watersheds, including large expanses of prime hunting grounds. The James Bay Cree, under the leadership of then Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come, organized a widely effective international media and education campaign, in Canada and the United States and Europe, that paralyzed the project and altered the scope of the grand project. Lawyers' groups, environmental networks and Native nations supported the Cree effort to hold back a project that lacked their participation. Most significantly, the Cree were able to successfully lobby New York City and New York State politicians to forego plans to purchase energy from Hydro-Quebec, affecting the actual expected income of the promised enterprise.

This time events have taken a different turn. According to the results of a Cree referendum voted on in the nine Cree communities, some 70 percent favor the new deal as an adequate compromise. The new arrangement, negotiated by Grand Chief Ted Moses, who has staked his political future on it, is intended "to develop this land in a way which is respectful of its vital importance to our survival and mindful that both Crees and Quebecers must have the means to create a common future of prosperity."

The deal allows some partial development on two rivers in Quebec, but eliminates plans for 14 new dams, that would have flooded some 8,000 square kilometers. As a result of the new deal, a joint commission including Crees will increase their decision-making over development approvals, particularly in logging.

The opposition has accused Moses of secretive tactics and of misleading the people. They claim the deal subordinates Cree sovereignty. Groups of elders and youth have been the most vocal opposition. There is the charge that the voting systems were inconsistent in the remote hunting villages. These groups, in part grounded in families who trap and hunt the affected rivers, are totally against damming the parts of the rivers slated for the power project. The groups also involve many others, environmentalist and fundamentalist-traditionalist, who oppose all earth-moving development projects, particularly if they involve government monies.

Most Cree chiefs see the realities before them and endorse the new resource deal. They feel the new deal elevates their position in the province, by giving them powers over forestry, mining, tourism and hydro projects in their territory. After the 70 percent in favor vote of the referendum, the Cree chiefs signed on to the agreement. The chiefs have agreed to the diversion of part of two rivers, which will increase hydro power. This is contrary to the traditional fiber in the Cree hunting and land-living families. The chiefs argue about the need to make some significant push for development, to create new jobs, better housing, community projects and to increase nation revenues from natural resource development. Most significantly, they are convinced that the new deal makes the Cree nation a more substantial player in the control and administration of their own lands. The deal will pay the Cree $23 million this year; $46 million in 2003, then $70 million annually for 48 years, a total of $3.6 billion. The chiefs feel this provides their people with a financial base on which to plan for the first half of the century. Clearly, many jobs will be created and currency will circulate more consistently in the region.

While opposition is apparent, perhaps it is more vocal than extensive, when compared to a nation vote of 70 percent in favor and the near unanimous support of the elected council chiefs. Another former Cree Grand Council chief, Billy Diamond, an early opponent of the force-fed deal of the 1970s, now opines that the relationship has changed. The Cree gained positioning during those earlier fights and now have negotiated more equitable "partnership" approaches to relationships with Quebec and with Hydro Quebec, who have tempered their momentum considerably since those more free-for-all days. More significantly, former Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come, now leader of the Assembly of First Nations, hails the new agreement, calling it a model for Aboriginal resource agreements. Nevertheless, opposition to the deal in outlying villages is reportedly very strong.

A great deal of Cree power these days stems from good-standing lawsuits worth $8 billion against forestry industries and other businesses that violated the law in their territories. The new agreement bargained some of these lawsuits against the long-term payments and a recognized gain in formal Cree control over natural resource decisions over a good deal of territory. To do so, it bargained the ecological disturbance of parts of two rivers, but significantly stymied the onslaught of massive projects still in contention, safeguarding major pieces of Indian country. While the compacting away of any piece of natural paradise to the rapier of modern existence should always be considered with great caution and contemplation, nevertheless, all chiefs know that, even among the northern, land-connected Cree, their people need jobs since they already have a footing in the modern economy.

Understanding the ever-growing need for Native communities to successfully participate in the national economies of our countries, chiefs often must move beyond the status quo of our territories. Some kind of viable economy, based on some potentially sustainable resource, even when fostered by big industry and guided by the reality of the entrance of many of our peoples into the modern industrial economy, is still necessary for any of our peoples to survive in today's world. Not everyone can sustain themselves on moose and other game, or on corn, beans and squash, as much as we love and appreciate these foods and the ways of life that surround them. There is unfortunately no way that any government in today's world can avoid the ethical responsibility and economic weight of providing basic care and services, from medical to educational, that all communities require. This is the main pressure and contemporary reality.

We hope the Cree leadership continues to look long and hard at all major developmental deals offered into their territories. We are sure their people will demand no less. Building on their well-developed experience as a council and government, constructing self-governance and self-sustenance, we hope that they will go on into the future as a capable nation, dedicated as always to the construction of a viable and effective lifeway for their peoples.