Addressing the State of the Cree Nation

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From where the minor weaknesses lie within the Cree Nation to what makes the Crees stronger than any other Aboriginal community in Canada, Grand Chief Matthew Mukash straight talks with the magazine about the nation’s health and welfare, economics, sovereignty, the Municipality of Baie James and, most importantly, trust.
What do you see as the greatest strength of the Cree Nation?

The strength of our nation is characterized by many societal elements. One of the most important, in my view, is the fact that our language, our culture, our heritage and our way of life is still very much alive and well! It is because of this strength that we have been able to negotiate, and in 1975 reach a treaty, with Canada – a treaty upon which our rights and interests as a people are recognized and constitutionally protected! It is from this treaty that we have been able to draw upon the means to build a strong, healthy and prosperous nation. And we have! Just look at how our communities and our institutions have evolved over the last 30 years or so. The greatest strength as a nation, in my view, is the ability to protect, preserve and safeguard the characteristics that make us a strong and powerful nation, while at the same time maintaining good relations with governments and people they represent.

While we recognize that many issues have divided us in the past, it is worth noting that we have been able to stand united despite the difficult challenges that were before us, particularly, in the recent past. Our ability to stand united as a people is among our greatest strengths. Our united opposition to the Phase II of the James Bay Project in the ’80s and early ’90s is a good example of this. As a result of effort, the Cree Nation succeeded in putting itself on the political map of the world, thus showing the world that we are among the strongest and most powerful of Aboriginal nations in the world.

What is the greatest weakness?

The Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee does not have many weaknesses. Our accomplishments over the last 50 years or so are a testament to this fact. We have continuously stood up against the difficult challenges as they emerged before us. They must be acknowledged.

Yes, we have social problems in our communities but we are doing something about it. There have been many conferences, gatherings and special assemblies to identify and address these issues. And we are way beyond the first step in addressing such issues that could, if not fully addressed, be detrimental to our society.

What will make us weak is if we continue to stand divided over a certain issue, indefinitely. We must never stop for a moment no matter what the challenge, in building and maintaining a strong, healthy and prosperous nation.

What is your greatest accomplishment in office so far as the Grand Chief?

I would say the successful conclusion of the Cree-Canada agreement, which we signed in February 2008.

When I came into office in the fall of 2005, I sensed that there was an issue of trust on the part of the governments and their bureaucracies toward the Mukash-Iserhoff Administration. I reckoned this was largely due to the fact that both the Deputy Grand Chief elect and I had recently stated openly our opposition to new hydro-electric development in Eeyou Istchee. It took some time to build the level of mutual trust and respect with Canada and Quebec that was required to establish a good working relationship. Not long after I got elected into office, I met with Premier Jean Charest as well as with several heads of ministries within the Quebec government. The purpose of these meetings was to make sure that we were moving forward with on-going files and with the implementation of the 2002 Paix Des Braves agreement.

At the federal level, I met with Minister of Indian Affairs, the honourable Jim Prentice, as well as other federal ministers. I wanted to ensure that both parties commit to concluding the federal negotiations that called for the implementation of the outstanding matters stemming from the 1975 JBNQA.

Despite the initial sentiments of distrust from the governments, the Mukash-Isheroff Administration has been able to successfully implement the Paix Des Braves Agreement and to conclude the 2008 Cree-Canada Agreement which has been outstanding for 33 years. We have been able to establish a good working relationship with both levels of government.

The Cree-Canada Agreement secures funding for community development, the Cree Associations and Cree governance over 20 years. It calls for the resolution of issues that have been outstanding since 1975. It also calls for a second phase of negotiations on governance which, if successful, will bring another $200 million to the Cree Nation in addition to the $1.1 billion we have already received upon signing.

A portion of that funding was to go to the creation of a Cree development organization, how much has and how has this endeavour progressed?

Section 8 of the 2002 Cree-Quebec Agreement calls for the establishment of a Cree Development Corporation (CDC) – a vehicle through which economic development and Eeyou-Eenou self-sufficiency is to be promoted. When I came into office in 2005, this section of the Agreement had not yet been implemented. The main problem was to identify the funding required to get it going. We have a working group in place that has submitted to us a strategy to set up the CDC. If the plan is approved by the Cree leadership in December, the CDC will be in operation in 2009.

One of the success stories to come out of the Cree Nation is the creation of the Cree Police Force. How is it going in terms of the police force? What has happened so far with it and what can be expected to come out of the Cree Police force in the near future?

Section 19 of the JBNQA establishes policing services in Eeyou Istchee. Under this section, Cree units of the Surêté du Québec were to be created. In the 2002 Agreement Concerning a New Relationship with Quebec, however, section 19 was amended to instead create the Eeyou-Eenou Police Force that would have jurisdictions throughout the JBNQA territory. The legislation establishing the Eeyou-Eenou Police Force was approved by the Quebec National Assembly early in the summer.

An implementation plan is currently being developed to take into account all the needs of the Cree people in terms of police services. Most likely, the Eeyou Eenou Police Force will be in operation in 2009. Our police officers will have the jurisdiction to patrol in all categories of land in Eeyou Istchee, except in the parameters of the non-Cree municipalities that exist within our region.

Again, the present administration has been able to successfully implement the Paix Des Braves Agreement, in this particular case, concerning a service that is essential to the safety and security of our people.

In terms of the Cree Crown Corporations, how are they doing? Is there anything within the Cree Crown Corporations that need fixing? Expanding? Or anything else?

Our Cree companies have done quite well, recently. Air Creebec continues to expand its fleet and operations. They have secured a number of contracts related to economic and resource development in Quebec and Ontario. ADC has won an award for being one of the fastest-growing companies in Canada. Cree Construction remains among the largest companies in the construction industry here in Quebec. It has formed partnerships for various development projects in Ontario and in Manitoba. CANDO recently awarded Jack Blacksmith on behalf of CREECo an award for Aboriginal Entrepreneur of the Year.

As far as your question concerning whether or not anything needs fixing or operations expanding, I think the heads of these Cree companies would be better positioned to answer this. These companies are all headed by Cree people, who have brought their companies to the level of success they are currently enjoying today. We celebrated this past year their anniversaries as well as their accomplishments. Success of this scale can be attributed to our ability to effectively negotiate with governments and with the people in the business community.

As the Grand Council just finished attending a general assembly with a special focus on education, what came out of the three-day assembly? What are the concerns of the GCC in regards to the state of the Cree School Board schools? What role will the GCC play in terms of helping to ameliorate the situation? Do you think that enough was accomplished in terms of providing the support that the CSB requires at this time to get their students and their academic careers back on track?

First of all, the Special Assembly was held in response to a letter we received in 2007 from the Cree School Board’s school principals, stating their concerns over the issues that adversely affect the school environment. The GCCEI was asked to intervene. Earlier this fall, we had a joint meeting with the Executive of the CSB, including the school commissioners and the principals, to discuss how we should collectively go about addressing the issues. At this meeting, a decision was made to request the participation of the community leadership as well as that of the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay (CBHSSJB).

The discussions centered on identifying the issues that adversely affect the students and the school environment. Workshops were held in which exercises included identifying linkages or resources needed as well as the strengths of each community. It was agreed that each community needs to develop a work plan and time-line for strategies, and to keep momentum for implementing such strategies.

Everyone understands that it will take time for change to take place and that it will take the participation of the whole community to make change happen and sustain it. Many people have hope and are determined to make the change happen that needs to happen. As we learned from the community workshops, most communities have already taken steps to assess their situation and are doing something about it.

In the end, since the quality of education (both cultural and contemporary) is the key to building, maintaining and sustaining a strong Cree nation, we must ensure that our children can safely focus on their education with intent on succeeding in our schools.

The purpose of this Special Assembly was to ensure that this happens.

How are the negotiations going in terms of sovereignty for the Crees?

The Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee is a sovereign nation under Eeyou-Eenou law. It is a sovereign nation under the laws of Canada, under international law and, more importantly, under the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. We have our language, our culture, our history, our heritage and our way of life that makes us distinct from other cultures. We have a treaty with Canada and Quebec, the 1975 JBNQA, which fully recognizes this distinction. We fully occupy our traditional territory and use the same resources that have sustained us as a people since time immemorial. For the reasons stated here and other characteristics, we possess sovereignty as do any other nations of the world. These characteristics are inalienable and are non-negotiable! We have never given up our right to self-government and self-determination.

This being said, what we need is more autonomy in terms of our economic and social development and greater recognition of the inherent right we have to control what happens in our homeland. That is why we need to promote quality education in our schools so as to prepare our youth for a brighter and a promising future. Independence begins with the individual!

In the Cree-Canada agreement that we signed in February of this year, there is a provision for a second phase of negotiations with the federal government on governance. This will be a tripartite process with Canada and Quebec to determine necessary political mechanisms and a regional regime to uphold our inherent right to self-governance and self-determination within all categories of our lands. Negotiations will begin as soon as the federal government has appointed its negotiator, hopefully in early 2009. Our idea of successful negotiations will be when the Cree Nation will have more tools and instruments to effectively promote and implement Eeyou self-governance and self-sufficiency.

What hope do you have for the sovereignty movement? What obstacles must be overcome to see actual Cree sovereignty?

First of all, what needs to be said is this: in this day and age, colonization is still very much alive and well. The legacy continues. It is very obvious that governments would still prefer to assimilate Aboriginal peoples into the mainstream Western society. As most of us know, since Columbus landed in America over 500 years ago, there has been a systematic effort by nation-states on this continent to marginalize Aboriginal peoples and rob them of the means that sustain their cultures and survival as a people. This is no secret!

A case in point here at home, the MBJ serves as a vehicle for the Quebec government to try to take control of the activities in Eeyou Istchee, including the pursuit of our traditional way of life, for which under agreements they promised not to interfere with, in exchange for the substantial economic benefits they enjoy each year. Since 1975, although we have guaranteed income security benefits as a treaty right, there has been a systematic violation of our constitutionally protected rights to safely enjoy our tradition way of life of hunting, fish and trapping. Our people, particularly, in the Chisasibi traditional territory continue to be harassed every fall season by law-enforcement officers and by non-Cree hunters in the area.

This is the very same thing that tribes in the United States such as the Lakota, the Cheyenne and others, have faced over centuries. Their lands, culture and way of life have systematically been chipped away by new laws, rules and regulations that are in clear violation of their treaties with the nation-state of the United States. Here in Eeyou Istchee, our people are starting to experience the very same thing, and we must do something about it!!!!

What is the solution?

The solution must first and foremost take into account the survival of the Eeyou-Eenou as a people, ensuring that our language, culture, way of life and heritage survive indefinitely. Secondly, we must ensure that we continue to establish and maintain good relations with governments on a nation-to-nation basis and the people they represent. Thirdly, in consideration to the valuable resources within our traditional territories, we must continue as a nation to build strong relationships with the business community and those having an interest in the wealth of our homeland. We have often said that we are not a people adverse to resource development that is respectful of our rights and culture and allows us to build a sustainable economy and employment opportunities. We may, therefore, as we have done with the federal and provincial governments, continue to support relationships built upon the principles of mutual respect, mutual trust and cooperation. Without this happening, we can expect our people to oppose further development in Eeyou Istchee in the future.

What is the state of the physical health of the Crees at this time?

The national problem of diabetes, cancer and other diseases affecting Aboriginal peoples of this country affect our people as well. Diabetes continues to escalate at an alarming rate within our society. I am aware that the CBHSSJB has begun promoting awareness on the nature and causes of these illnesses, and promoting healthy-eating habits as preventative measures. I know that our people are becoming increasingly aware of these dangers and are doing something about it. I myself have taken the challenges promoted by the Cree Board of Health and Social Services to stop smoking, engage in healthier eating and making time for more physical activities. I think we have also been active as a nation in keeping informed and realizing the impacts of climate change on our traditional activities and food security.

Again, we find that many people are doing something about their health by walking, exercising, being active in sports, participating in fitness challenges, pursuing the traditional way of life, and this is good. We need to be very serious about doing something about these diseases, particularly, diabetes and cancer, which are increasingly common among are people.

In terms of addressing the state of the Cree Nation, what else do you think is important that we might have missed?

There are many initiatives that are on-going and going ahead — which merit mention here, and they are the following:

•    the establishment of Washaw Sibi as a 10th Cree community;

•    out-of-court settlement of the Ouje land transfer issue, which we hope to settle in 2009;

•    the preparation of a legal action against MBJ, and we are planning to go to court on this matter soon;

•    legal action to ensure that majority forestry roads are reviewed in accordance with the JBNQA;

•    we have expressed our opposition to the Quebec’s Forest Green Plan because it does not respect our treaty rights under the JBNQA. It violates the chapter on forestry in the Paix des Braves;

•    we took immediate action regarding the dyke break at Chapais and we continue to study issues of pollution in the area of Chapais and Chibougamou. We are awaiting a recent report done by the Quebec government in conjunction with members of Ouje-bougoumou on the contamination issue there, we continue to be vigilant in trying to identify, monitor and take necessary steps to ensure our lands are not left contaminated or harmed by development activities as we take our food, water and live upon the lands;

•    we opposed changes to provincial electoral boundaries in order to keep the Crees voting in the same electoral district;

•    we are in the process of establishing a Crime Victims Assistance Centre in Cree territory;

•    we have established the Cree Arts Festival and wish to establish a Cree Achievement Awards Foundation to recognize and honour our people and their accomplishments;

•    in May 2007, we signed Justice Agreement for guaranteed funding for next 20 years to build justice facilities, establish programs and human resources. An implementation plan is currently being developed to set up the Cree Justice System contemplated in Section 18 of the JBNQA;

•    we continue efforts to establish a tri-partite policing agreement with Canada and Quebec and to see to the funding of the Eeyou-Eenou Police Force;

•    we continue to work with the Cree communities to develop impact benefit agreements with mining companies as was done in the Troilus Agreement. Steps are currently being taken to put in place a Cree mining policy that will address Cree interests, pre-development assessment of economic and other impacts;

•    we continue to work with Mistissini and the governments of Quebec and Canada on the settlement of over-the-height of land issues;

•    we continue to monitor Hydro-Québec’s implementation of the EM1 and EM1A permits and to ensure with Niskamoon Corporation that the people impacted are fairly treated;

•    with regarding to wind-energy development in Eeyou Istchee, we are getting closer to settling the outstanding issues.

These are just some the things that we have put into place and that are on-going initiatives.

What is the GCC’s current position on the Municipality of Baie James and what recent problems have been attributed to them?

It’s no secret that the GCCEI has serious problems with the present regime regarding the governance of the 1975 James Bay Agreement Territory, more particularly, with the role of the James Bay Municipality (MBJ). As you know, MBJ was created under the 1975 JBNQA and in 2001, without consulting with other JBNQA signatories, the Quebec National Assembly enacted Bill 40, extending the role and mandate of MBJ, in effect, giving it control over Category II and III lands in Eeyou Istchee. We have sent a notice of constitutional question to Quebec for what we see as illegal amendment to the JBNQA regarding MBJ. We also have stated our opposition to this matter in our presentation in the Quebec National Assembly on the proposed Green Plan, as well as in our presentation to the Parliamentary Commission on the proposed modification of Quebec Electoral Districts.

We have discussed the MBJ issue at length with Quebec. I have raised it with Premier Charest in the three meetings I had with him since my election as Grand Chief. We have agreed to first put it through arbitration to determine the options required to address this issue. The arbitrator, Judge Réjean Paul, has just completed his report, which we hope will be distributed to the concerned parties soon. If nothing positive comes out of this, then we will have no choice but to ask the courts to declare the unilateral amendment of the JBNQA concerning MBJ, illegal.

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