The Eeyou Istchee (Grand Council of the Cree) of James Bay have signed a governance agreement with the government of Quebec that not only gives the First Nation much more control over its land but also has earned accolades from environmental sources for its protective measures for the boreal forest.
Under the accord, the James Bay Cree will be the decision makers on 28,571 square miles of territory. About 135,000 additional square miles will be under the joint jurisdiction of the Cree and other James Bay residents in a new regional government, with each party getting the same number of votes. It replaces the current Municipalité de Baie-James, giving the Eeyou Istchee James Bay regional government “the same responsibilities, functions and powers as local municipalities, regional county municipalities, regional conferences of elected officers, and regional commissions on natural resources and land,” the Cree said in a statement. It also gives the Crees “exclusive jurisdiction” over hydroelectric projects emitting less than 50 MW, as well as wind projects in some areas of their territory.
Premiere Jean Charest said equipping the First Nations to be key players in their territory’s development is right in line with Plan Nord, the development strategy for northern Quebec that includes sweeping conservation measures. Plan Nord calls in part for protecting 62,000 square miles, an area the size of France, according to plans that Charest announced in February. The Canadian Boreal Initiative (CBI) called the agreement “an innovative model for indigenous governance across Canada's Boreal Forest” and lauded its adherence to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
"This agreement demonstrates a model of implementation of the principles of the United Nations' Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which refers to the right of Indigenous Peoples to participate fully in political, economic, social, and cultural life of the State as well as the right of indigenous peoples to maintain and strengthen their distinctive relationship with their lands, territories, and resources,” said Valérie Courtois, the conservation group’s senior advisor for aboriginal relations. “This agreement illustrates that implementing these principles is not only desirable, but is vital in ensuring equitable decision-making and true aboriginal leadership in managing the relationship with the land and its resources.”
Over the years the relationship between Quebec and the aboriginal population has evolved from a provincial-driven governance model for the James Bay region that did not involve the Cree in policy decisions, to “a model and practices of inclusion that will ensure balanced development for the benefit of all peoples," said Suzann Méthot, the boreal initiative’s regional director in Québec. Such aboriginal-government partnerships, she said, “are the future of Quebec,” and this agreement provides a model that can be used throughout the province.
The Canadian Boreal Initiative is a coalition of governments, industry, First Nations, conservation groups, major retailers, financial institutions and scientists, according to its website. The boreal forest covers much of northeastern Canada and contains 25 percent of Mother Earth’s wetlands as well as 197 million acres of surface freshwater. As such it essentially regulates the world’s metabolism, providing refuge for sea-migrating fish, cooling the atmosphere and maintaining freshwater flows that help create Arctic sea ice. It also stores upwards of 400 trillion pounds of carbon, the Pew Charitable Trust said in a March 2011 report, A Forest of Blue: Canada’s Boreal Forest, the World’s Waterkeeper.