Cree vote yes on Quebec deal

NEMASKA, Quebec ? The James Bay Cree have approved an historic $3.8 billion landmark hydroelectric development agreement with the provincial government, apparently ending a generation of rancorous opposition. Some critics of the deal maintain, however, that the conduct of the weekend referendum in the Nation's nine villages in northern Quebec helped inflate the 70 percent yes vote.

Tribal members voted for the agreement over the first weekend in February, putting the final seal on a "nation-to-nation" treaty based on an Agreement-In-Principle (AIG) arrived at in October 2001.

"This is an historic moment," Grand Chief Ted Moses said Feb. 3. "It is an agreement that vindicates the long Cree campaign since 1975 to have our rights respected."

The Cree relationship with Quebec and the Canadian government has been sour since the 1975 James Bay Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQ) was approved, opening up the Cree territory to dam construction, river diversion, timber production and hydroelectric power stations. Numerous and continuing law suits were initiated by all parties stemming from Cree contentions that many promises made to them were not fulfilled.

"By this agreement, we stand with Quebec," said Moses during an October ceremony in Quebec City. "We share the intention 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."

In addition, the current agreement requires the Cree to drop environmental lawsuits totaling $2.4 billion and allow hydroelectric development of the Rupert and Eastmain Rivers. Quebec will be prevented from constructing 14 new dams and flooding 8, 000 square kilometers of Cree land, which were parts of the JBNQ. A joint Cree-Quebec body will make development approvals, especially where logging is concerned.

"It saves huge vast areas of our territory," said Bill Namagoose, executive director of the Grand Council of the Crees. "That's the gem inside the agreement."

Proponents of the new agreement have said the future developments will bring needed new jobs to the Cree territory, allow for increased housing and community projects, increase revenue from natural resource development as their value increases. It will also make the Cree Nation a major player in the administration of the territory.

Sovereignty of the Cree Nation will also be protected, say supporters of the agreement.

Opposition to the new agreement, however, is extensive and vocal among large sections of the Cree people. The opponents argue that new agreement does not guarantee jobs, threatens traditional pursuits, unjustly enriches Quebec at the expense of the Cree and makes the Nation "a corporate subsidiary of Quebec" damaging Cree sovereignty. They also charge that Grand Chief Moses used misleading and secretive tactics to win approval.

"We don't want to see another river dammed because it is our provider," said Bob Orr, a Nemaska resident who has organized protests against the agreement. "We believe it's a gateway to our own economy, through eco-tourism. We can share our values of the land, the animals, the universe and the Creator. We can do it ourselves. We believe Government funding is a spirit killer."

The agreement will also continue the existing Cree practice of submitting financial audits to Quebec as a condition for subsequent payments, causing even more concerns that nothing will change.

Cree Elders and the Cree Nation Youth Council have been among the loudest voices in opposition. The Elders were concerned that hunting, fishing and trapping would be too severely compromised and the ties to the land would be severed for future generations. The Cree youth felt that decisions were made without their input by a small minority of people led by Moses.

"I don't think he is planning much of a career in politics, because we are the ones coming up and he is blowing us off," said Pakesso Mukash, Deputy Youth Grand Chief, referring to Moses' refusal to apologize to the Youth Council for failing to meet with the group on several different occasions.

Will Nicholls, editor of The Nation, a publication covering Cree issues, is suspicious of the secrecy with which the new agreement was arrived since the AIG was reached last year.

"The Agreement-In-Principle was one of the most closely guarded secrets in Quebec," said Nicholls. He questioned whether or not the chiefs' "political will" was enough justification to enter into such an agreement.

Nicholls said that the high support in the referendum was misleading because of low turnout. He said that voting was difficult in the more remote settlements inhabited by subsistence hunters and trappers.

Nicholls has also challenged Moses on the speed with which the AIG was arrived at and his questionable commitment to the referendum. Moses has responded that the secrecy of the initial exploratory negotiations was necessary to preserve the integrity of the agreement and to prevent it from being misrepresented in a hostile media.

Further opposition is based on questions concerning the political agenda of Quebec Premier Bernard Landry. The Parti Quebecois, which Landry leads, is dedicated to Quebec's separation from Canada. Revenue from new hydroelectric projects on Cree land would further Landry's ability to position Quebec to make such a move.

The Canadian media has also questioned the ability of Hydro Quebec, the public utility running the power projects, to maintain future commercial contracts without the Cree-supported development.

A formal signing of the agreement with Premier Landry was scheduled for Feb. 7.