Inauguration celebration: Local heavyweights weigh in on the new government

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It was a coming together of the political forces that once stood opposed over Category III lands. Representatives of the Quebec government, the Cree and the neighbouring Jamésiens gathered in Waskaganish January 22 to formally celebrate a new government comprised of all three parties as was laid out in the 2012 Agreement on Governance in the Eeyou Istchee James Bay Cree Territory.

The ceremony to inaugurate the agreement introduced a new flag to represent all parties in a display of solidarity. To gather their impressions of the historic event, the Nation (TN) spoke with Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come (MCC), Cree-Quebec Relations Negotiator Abel Bosum (AB) and local NDP MP Romeo Saganash.


Cree and Jamesien leaders at the inauguration in Waskaganish. Photo by Gaston Cooper

Matthew Coon Come

TN: You have put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into this governance deal, how does it feel for you to see the inauguration?

MCC: Well, there may have been a lot of sweat and maybe a few tears, but fortunately, there was no blood spilled to get to the inauguration day. The inauguration ceremony for the Eeyou Istchee James Bay Regional Government that was held in Waskaganish was really a very special event. As you know, when I first returned to the office of Grand Chief in 2009, one of my first objectives was to abolish MBJ and to put the governance of the territory on a new path of inclusion and to end the era of exclusion that the Cree Nation, the Cree communities and the Cree people had experienced up to that point.

I had several meetings with the then-Premier Jean Charest to start negotiations on a new governance regime for the territory. We put together a good negotiating team led by Abel Bosum and Bill Namagoose, we consulted with the communities, we had regular briefings of the Council/Board, and it took us about two-and-a-half years to finalize our Governance Agreement which enhances our governance powers on Category II lands and gives us a mechanism to plan and manage what happens on Category III lands together with our Jamésien neighbours in the region. I was very glad that we were able to develop consensus on the Cree side that this would be a good thing, so I was very happy on that day.

DSC_3967TN: What were your sentiments going into the inauguration and what did you tell the people on behalf of the Cree?

MCC: The event in Waskaganish genuinely felt like an historic occasion. Chief Gordon Blackned reminded us of the historic nature of Waskaganish in relation to the fur trade, in relation to the JBNQA and in relation to the Paix des Braves. He told us how appropriate it was that this historic event also was taking place in Waskaganish. As he was giving his welcoming remarks I was reminded that it wasn’t all that long ago that we all gathered together in Waskaganish to attend the funeral of the late Billy Diamond. And that was, of course, a tremendously sad occasion when the entire Cree Nation mourned Billy’s passing. It felt somehow that it was right that we had this inauguration ceremony in Waskaganish where we were watching the birth of something very special and something that Billy would probably have agreed with.

It felt like these two important events in the history of the Cree Nation, one sad and one joyful, were in some way balancing each other out. I think Billy would have enjoyed seeing this inauguration because it was the fulfillment of the vision of the JBNQA. It was the fulfillment of a vision for the Crees to have the tools to govern and develop the territory in partnership with Quebec. This is one of the things I told the people in attendance at the inauguration ceremony.

I also said that we Crees have had to fight very often to ensure that our rights were respected and recognized. We needed often to show that we had courage. I said that we have learned over the last 40 years that, at a certain point in our evolution, courage must also be about choosing reconciliation, harmony and compassion. For all of us in the region, it takes courage to move beyond old patterns, old attitudes and old ways of thinking. That’s really what the new Regional Government is all about.

TN: Explain who is participating in this government from each side and what their roles are.

Matthew Coon Come delivers his dedication speech. Photo by Mark Della Posta

MCC: The Regional Government is comprised of a council containing equal representation from the Cree communities and the Jamésien municipalities. The way it works is that there is a total of 44 votes, equally divided, and 22 seats equally divided. On the Jamésien side, it is up to them to decide how many of their 22 votes will go to each municipality. On the Cree side there will be one vote for every community and the Grand Chief and the Deputy Grand Chief will represent the Cree Nation Government.

The Regional Government will take over all the previous powers held by the old MBJ and will be making decisions related to the development of land-use plans, and developing a strategic vision for the economic, environmental and cultural development of the region. There are also several more specific areas where the Regional Government will be involved including regional economic development, the management of waterways, the management of parks, regional waste disposal, and a few other areas as well.

TN: What is on the agenda for this group and how will that impact the people of Eeyou Istchee?

MCC: At the beginning we may very well have a number of administrative issues to deal with so that the Regional Government is properly set up. We will, for example, need to review all the by-laws of the old MBJ to see which ones can be useful and which ones need to be discarded. We will be continuing to orient the staff of the Regional Government so that they understand the vision behind it.

TN: What can you tell me about the flag? Who designed it and what does it signify?

MCC: The logo for the Eeyou Istchee James Bay Regional Government was designed by two artists from the region. One of them, Stephanie Thompson, attended the inauguration ceremony. The idea behind the logo is that there are three major symbols and they represent people, the animals and the land. It is intended to represent the major features of the human and environmental landscape of the region.

TN: What comes now?

MCC: Now comes the hard work of governing. We will need to get used to working with people who we had serious differences with in the past, we will need to deal with new planning mechanisms and we will need to learn to work collaboratively with our neighbours. We will need to learn to use the tools of managing the territory. I hope we will dispel the myth that Aboriginal peoples and non-Aboriginal people living in the same territory have interests that are forever irreconcilable. We have work to do on our side, and the Jamésiens have work to do on their side to overcome a history of mutual distrust. The new Regional Government represents a great opportunity for the Cree Nation to take its rightful place in the governance of the territory in a spirit of peaceful co-existence with our neighbours.

Abel Bosum

TN: How do you think this new regional government will shape Eeyou Istchee for years to come?

AB: I am very optimistic about how Eeyou Istchee will be affected by our participation in the new Regional Government. For the first time, we will have a clear voice in the way in which important decisions are made on issues having to do with the planning and management of the territory. For the first time, we will sit as equals with other peoples in the region and we will have an ability to influence the outcome of major decisions impacting on our traditional territory. As we become more familiar with the administrative tools by which genuine control is exercised, our role in the decision-making in our territory will only increase. I think that the Cree Nation future is a bright one, especially if we rise to the challenge and develop our people so that we can truly take hold of our future.

TN: How is the regional group working together so far?

AB: So far, we have had an excellent working relationship with everyone. We are particularly pleased to have Mayor Manon Cyr as the first Chair of the Regional Government. We had many exchanges with her during the course of the negotiations of the Governance Agreement and since then, and we find that she has a positive perspective on what we are trying to do and she is very open-minded. I think she really shares our vision of what the Regional Government can become. It will, of course, take a while for us to get to know each other at the working level, but I am confident that will happen over the coming months.

TN: What is on the agenda for them to tackle in 2014?

AB: We will need to clarify which issues will be addressed by the Regional Government and which issues are Cree-Quebec issues or Jamésien-Quebec issues. Not everything that we do on Category III lands is necessarily the topic of discussions at the Regional Government, and not all of our rights in Category III lands are covered by the range of powers and jurisdictions of the Regional Government.

Then we will be able to tackle the hard issues of planning processes and the management of various development sectors described in the Governance Agreement. We will, initially, be looking to see what projects we could collaborate on which are of mutual interest and would be good for the region as a whole.

The priority now needs to be on orienting our youth to take advantage of the opportunities, to really become involved in the governance and in the economic development of Eeyou Istchee. We need to inspire them to contribute to the Cree Nation vision of becoming the masters of our own destiny. All of our major Cree entities need to be involved; all of our communities and even our families need to be engaged in making sure that our youth are encouraged to take on the challenge of governance of the territory. Over the course of the winter and spring we will be in all the communities and we look forward to talking to people about this important issue.

Romeo Saganash

Romeo Saganash AThe following is a statement on the inauguration from Saganash:

I’ve noticed, over the years, how people and politicians tend to abusively use the term “historic”. But in this case, it finds its honourable application and meaning. How often will we see, on this planet, two peoples deciding to join forces, for a common future and destiny?

Oh, challenges we can foresee! How we relate to the land, the territory, its resources respectively, for instance, is significantly different, to put it mildly. And that’s normal because we know that the Cree people have thousands of years of history, presence and relations with Eeyou Istchee, while it is clearly not the case of the Jamésiens. I was the Deputy Grand Chief of the Grand Council of the Cree when the National Assembly of Quebec celebrated “30 years of presence in Northern Quebec” back in 1993. So, in a way, this informs the way each people views development, the environment, climate change, and ultimately, the future of the North.

But then again, we all have a common responsibility towards these issues that have become global challenges everywhere. Facing them together may just be the answer, and that’s what the new Regional Government is all about, I think.

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