A Simple Message

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Grand Chief Abel Bosum’s presentation May 29 to the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples is an appropriate message for our National Aboriginal Day issue.

Invited to speak on MP Romeo Saganash’s private member’s bill to adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Grand Chief didn’t mince words.

“The simple message that I have for you is that it is possible to fully acknowledge and give substance to Indigenous rights in a way that does not negate the roles of provincial governments, the federal government and industry,” Bosum told the senators on the committee. “It is possible to implement all the essential elements of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the sky will not fall. The current situation of our Cree Nation bears out this assertion.”

When Quebec announced the “project of the century” in the early 1970s – the largest hydroelectric project in the world at the time – it did so without consulting or obtaining the consent of the Cree. This approach reflected Eurocentric colonial practices, Bosum observed. “These concepts held that Indigenous peoples were simply non-humans, squatters at best, and without rights. The Cree Nation refused to accept this premise.”

Successful legal action eventually resulted in the 1975 James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA), the first modern treaty in Canada. The JBNQA contained the seeds of self-governance and various protections for the Cree way of life. Implementing the JBNQA took over 25 years and numerous court battles but 2002 saw the Paix des Braves signed with Quebec and then in 2008 a “New Relationship Agreement” reached with Canada. Both of those agreements empowered the Cree to assume unfulfilled obligations on behalf of Canada and Quebec.

“These agreements affirmed our authority to govern ourselves, and our entitlement to participate in economic development within our territory,” said Bosum.

Last year the Cree signed the Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee Governance Agreement with Canada, which devolved authority to make laws over lands under federal jurisdiction in Eeyou Istchee to Cree First Nations and the Cree Nation Government. These laws do not require approval from Canada. “We will soon be in the process of further developing our own Cree Constitution, which enshrines our basic rights, institutions and governmental processes,” said Bosum.

In the four decades since the signing of the JBNQA, Bosum emphasized, Crees have dramatically improved the standard of living in their communities.

“We play an important role in the governance and in the economic development of our traditional territory,” he said. “We have empowered our people to be responsible for our own affairs. We have worked hard over the past 40 years to put all the necessary building blocks in place to engage in a unique form of Indigenous nation building. We have achieved all these advances and the sky did not fall. Canadians do not need to fear that recognizing, acknowledging and giving expression to Indigenous rights results in ‘giving the farm away’.”

Bosum eloquently expressed why Canadians do not have to be afraid of Indigenous self-government. Respecting their rights and ways of life does nothing to diminish their own. A great message, a simple message, and we should all listen to.


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