After three decades of strife, Quebec and the Cree sign a historic agreement

BENOIT AUBIN February 18 2002


After three decades of strife, Quebec and the Cree sign a historic agreement

BENOIT AUBIN February 18 2002



After three decades of strife, Quebec and the Cree sign a historic agreement


Autumn had arrived on the shores of James Bay, the wild geese were flocking to fly south again, and Ted Moses was about to play one of the most difficult tricks in the book for the leader of an embattled minority. Find peace where none seemed to exist, and sell that peace to a flock that had known nothing but conflict and had learned to live with it—even thrive on it. Moses—the Grand Chief of the Grand Council of the Crees (Quebec)— knew something others didn’t. In the spring, he had personally initiated secret talks with the newly installed premier of Quebec, Bernard Landry. Their objective, the two men explained later, was to find an honorable way out of the deep, bitter, almost existential conflict that had pitted Quebec and the Cree against each other for three decades.

Dancing with the enemy. Other great minority leaders have tried it before and failed. René Lévesque once decided to take “le beau risque”—a calculated gamble— with Pierre Trudeau’s Ottawa over the pa-

addition, the Cree will have a say in that development, as a way of protecting traditional hunting and trapping. Landry told the official signing ceremony in Waskaganish in northern Quebec last week— disrupted briefly by a protester who told Moses “you are lying to the people, Ted”— that Quebec and the Cree now have a true “nation-to-nation relationship.”

Back in September, Moses could only contemplate the rocky ride ahead. “I knew it would be difficult,” he told Macleans. “I knew that authorizing new hydroelectric developments on our land would tear the community apart. I knew there would be opposition. I knew that would not make me popular with everyone. But I was convinced this represented the best opportunity for the majority of us.”

Then his father died. Moses became the tallyman of his clan’s ancestral trapline, a 650-sq.-km patch of lakes and forest somewhere north of Eastmain, a community on the eastern shore of James Bay, 790 km north of Ottawa. For the Cree, the land represents and contains everything:

template his heritage, question his future, and listen to the voice of his just-departed tallyman father.

If he played football, Moses would be a terrifying blocker: a big, squat man with fiery eyes, thick black hair and a booming voice. Still, it’s full of deep emotion when he describes how he felt at the time. “I needed to think,” he recalls. “I had to face some very fundamental questions: am I going to react with my heart and passion, or with my reason? What to do? Say no, and keep fighting until the end of time? Or rise to the challenge and dare contemplate making peace?”

Fie returned south with his mind made up. Dance with the enemy he would.

The agreement between Quebec and the Cree was not negotiated democratically. It was, on the contrary, a classic case of executive decision-making. Five powerful men—three high-ranking bureaucrats and two Cree leaders—needed only four months of secret meetings to undo 30 years of vicious political and judicial batding. Landry and Moses met for an initial

triation of the Constitution, only to be burned by his own party for trying. Robert Bourassa and Lucien Bouchard took the same risk with Brian Mulroney; that led to the Meech Lake fiasco.

But Moses has scored. FFis bold peace plan initially triggered divisive debate and anguished soul-searching among the Cree over opposing visions of their culture and of the future. It pitted generations, villages, even elected chiefs, against one another. But in a series of referendums earlier this month, a majority of Quebec’s 13,500 Cree gave the deal their approval. The historic treaty opens up their territory—an expanse of wilderness the size of New Brunswick in northwestern Quebec—to mining, logging and further industrial development by Hydro-Québec. In compensation, Quebec will pay the Cree a minimum of $3.5 billion over 50 years. In

culture, identity, heritage, lifestyle, survival. The tallyman is the warden of the land, the keeper of the science and of the heritage, the plank that links the past and the future.

As he was grieving with his family, and contemplating his new responsibilities as tallyman, Moses received a phone call from Abel Bosum, his point man in the talks with the Quebec government. To clinch a deal, Bosum told him, the Cree would have to authorize Hydro-Québec to build dams and dikes on the Eastmain and Rupert rivers. In short: the trapline Moses had just inherited would be flooded. And flooding, as the Cree say, is forever. That’s when the 51-year-old Moses, who maintains a downtown Montreal office and a family home in St-Adolphe d’Howard in the Laurentians, disappeared. He went north to the trapline for two weeks, to con-

meeting on June 7. “We spoke the blunt truth,” Landry says. He told Moses the province was fed up with the Crees’ publicrelations campaign tarnishing Quebec’s image abroad. Moses told Landry his people were fed up with nitpicking Quebec bureaucrats telling them what they could and could not do.

Jean St-Gelais, who as secretary-general of the executive council is Quebec’s top civil servant, then took charge of the talks. The first words from the no-nonsense economist: “The premier told me to fix the problem. Let’s do that—start from scratch, and create something beautiful.” As an opening gambit, it was a stunner. “We spent many sleepless nights wondering whether they were bluffing or grandstanding,” recalls Bosum. As a test, the Cree asked for a long-term agreement and a pile of money: 50 years, $3.5 billion. Quebec


accepted—without making a counteroffer. “Then we knew they were serious,” Bosum says. “In fact, I fell off my chair.”

On Oct. 23, Landry and Moses announced in the National Assembly that they’d reached an agreement in principle, based on “trust and respect.” When it became apparent the deal would give both parties almost everything they had wanted, in vain, for three decades, observers, specialists and assorted players were speechless. Nobody had seen it coming. “It was a shock,” says Billy Diamond, a respected former grand chief from Waskaganish who was ultimately in favour of the deal. “It is a radical change of doctrine. For the last 30 years, Quebec was our enemy. Then, all of a sudden, we have signed a 50-year peace treaty based on mutual trust and respect.”

With its population of 2,700 nestled by the La Grande River where it flows into the northern part of James Bay, Chisasibi is the largest of the nine Cree communities covered by the deal. It now looks much like a southern suburb; Chisasibi was the first to feel the direct impact of development, when roads were built leading to the nearby, massive LG-1 and LG-2 dam sites in the 1970s. It is also where Moses’s plan met some of its fiercest opposition.

In the middle of town lies the community centre: a low building that looks very much like a shopping mall except for the huge teepee-like structure emerging from a central inner courtyard. On Jan. 24, Moses and nearly 250 of his friends and foes met at the mitchuap—teepee—-to discuss the agreement in principle. About noon, Moses opened the talks with an information session; using a computer and a screen, he showed charts and graphs to help explain the agreement. Then, the debate—in Cree—began in earnest, and carried on almost non-stop until 5 a. m. All 17 hours were broadcast live on a network of Cree radio stations.

The Cree have a rich tradition of democratic debates, in which decisions are usually reached through consensus. So the secrecy that had shrouded the talks with the Quebec government was an especially sore spot. “The Cree way would have called for Ted to discuss with the people first, and to build a consensus before talking to the government,” says Larry Flouse, an elected band council member in Chisasibi.

When Quebec Premier Bernard Landry and Ted Moses, grand chief of the Grand Council of the Crees (Quebec), sat down last June to settle old grievances, it was with a new attitude. Instead of meeting as adversaries, each recognized the other as a head of state-someone with whom it was time to do a deal. “The Cree insist they are not Canadians, nor Quebecers," said Landry. “They form their own nation, one which lives inside Quebec’s territory. So, we stopped asking, ‘Who owns what land?’ and agreed that this is a shared territory." The result, after four months of top-secret negotiating, was the $3.5-billion Agreement Concerning a New Relationship Between the Government of Quebec and the Crees of Quebec that they signed last week. Some highlights of the historic pact:

But there was much more to it than protesting the process. Critics called the agreement a sellout, one that could bring about the disappearance of their unique culture and extinguish their rights. And foremost among his opponents was Moses’s own right-hand man on the grand council, Deputy Grand Chief Matthew Mukash. The agreement, he said, was “just another ploy to colonize us.”

Mukash became the champion of mostly younger, better educated Cree. Many of them were born in hospitals and live a sedentary life; few have known the harsh, semi-nomadic existence of their parents. Torn between their modern life and their traditional heritage—going to the goose hunt in helicopters, communicating via satellite phones—they often seem to idealize the past. Mukash, 50, a political science graduate from Concordia University in Montreal who led the successful battle in the 1990s to stop a multibillion-dollar hydro development on the Great Whale River, played on that sentiment. “We have been here for thousands

■ The Cree will allow logging and mining on their territory, and will accept Hydro-Québec installations on the Eastmain and Rupert rivers.

■ Quebec will pay out a minimum of $3.5 billion in compensation over the next 50 years.

■ The Cree get a say-and under certain circumstances, a right of veto-on how and where the development should take place.

■ The Cree gain more autonomy and responsibility in managing and developing their own affairs.

■ Quebec transfers responsibility for the bureaucratic administration of Cree land to the Cree.

■ The Cree agree to drop $3.6 billion in environmental lawsuits they’ve launched against the province.

Is the Quebec-Cree deal fair for both sides?

of years, we have received life from the land,” he said. “If one trapper would oppose the agreement, that should be enough for all Cree to rally behind him. I don’t think we should ever tell one trapper, ‘Sorry, we have received tons of money, but your land will be flooded.’ ”

Moses dismissed Mukash’s supporters as “radicals who all have well-paying jobs.” He said the time had come for a change in strategy because the cost of doing battle with Quebec was draining important resources from other vital needs in the community. As for the agreement itself, he said it would give the Cree the tools they need to make their own decisions. “It is a big step towards self-sufficiency and selfgovernance,” Moses argued. “We understand what went wrong over the years and we have learned from our mistakes.”

Still, the agreement left the Cree facing agonizing choices. “Lots of people are saying we’re not ready to make this leap and take all these new economic responsibilities,” House told Macleans in an interview outside the Chisasibi meeting. Sam

Sandy, another band council member, had similar worries. “We were just finding a balance between the modern ways and the traditional ways,” he said. “This upsets the balance. The fear is that we will lose our Indian-ness.” Samuel Tapiakik, a veteran trapper and a former chief in Chisasibi, also pondered past and present. “There is no escaping technology,” he said. “To go back to the woods, to live according to our traditional ways, costs a lot of money today. And there is a lot of money in the agreement.”

Billy Diamond had been down a similar road once before. He became the grand chief in 1974, after then-premier Bourassa unveiled plans to build dams and power plants on the La Grande River in 1971. Bourassa made one costly tactical mistake: he omitted warning the Cree of his plan, let alone seeking their approval. “We were not equipped to defend ourselves and to defend our rights,” Diamond says. “We were told we had no rights, that we were squatting on land belonging to someone else.” The Cree have been on their guard ever since.

Following difficult negotiations with the province, in 1975 they signed the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. Since then, differing opinions over how to interpret the deal have been a constant source of conflict with Quebec. The Cree launched lawsuits seeking billions in compensation for environmental infractions of the agreement. They also appealed to the court of public opinion,

airing their grievances with Quebec in international publicity campaigns.

But Moses also saw the James Bay agreement as a turning point. Life, he notes, was very difficult for his people before 1975. “There were famine and epidemics,” he says. “There was no running water, little housing, people had to hunt to eat.” Since the agreement went into effect, however, compensation from provings cial coffers to the tune of more than $275 I million has provided the Cree with a stani dard of living most other native commuI nities in Canada can only envy. Witness I the neat little bungalows of Chisasibi, and I the community centre’s parking lot full of I huge new SUVs and king-cab pickups. I The money comes mostly from jobs in the Cree bureaucracy, created and financed by the 1975 pact. The agreement also allowed the Cree to take control of health, social services and education. They revived their dying language—in which children now learn subjects such as math and history.

Their more sedentary lifestyle has created a major baby boom among the Cree. “There were 6,000 of us when the James Bay Agreement was signed,” Moses says. “We are 13,500 at the moment. That number will double in the next 20 years.” For the grand chief, that population spurt is one more reason the new agreement is so crucial. “Right now, our resources are saturated, we cannot offer more jobs,” Moses says. “This agreement is about creating opportunities for our young.”

Since October, Moses has travelled almost non-stop to pitch his vision of the future to his people. Thanks to the vagaries of travel in the North, Mukash flew in the same charter plane, slept in the same hotels. But in the end, it was Moses who prevailed. Whatever private reservations they may have had about the plan, nearly 70 per cent of the Cree voted in its favour. But Jean-Jacques Simard, a sociologist at Laval University in Quebec City, said their anguish in reaching that decision is perfectly understandable. “We have had 150 years to learn to live in the modern world,” he explains. “They have covered that ground in less than one generation.” The biggest change the agreement will bring about, Simard adds, is that the Cree now “will have only themselves to blame if things go wrong.” It is what happens after you have danced— and suddenly lost your enemy. ESI