How the “Peace of the Brave” led to internal warfare among the Cree

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No one knew it at the time, except for perhaps two people. In July 2000, recently elected Cree Grand Chief Ted Moses and former PQ Premier Lucien Bouchard met for the first time in order to begin resolving several outstanding issues over the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. Described in a relatively innocuous Nation article by Alex Roslin, the meeting may eventually have been the spark for something far larger.

A year and a half later, a global deal with the Quebec government that would come to be known as the Paix des Braves Agreement would plunge Eeyou Istchee into a wrenching debate that sharply divided the Crees. While the deal would eventually be approved by a referendum, its fallout created divisions among the Cree that persist to this day.

The Nation was at the centre of the debate, giving dozens of pages over to all sides of the issue – in long interviews, analyses, reports from community meetings, and in sharply argued letters to the editor – coverage that met with sharp disapproval from the leadership of the day. Nonetheless, our reporting was credited with helping force the Grand Council to seek approval from the Cree in a vote, without which it would likely have been dogged with questions about its legitimacy.

On October 23, 2001, the news exploded like a bombshell. Grand Chief Moses announced that the Grand Council had reached an agreement-in-principle with the Parti Québécois government led by Bernard Landry, who had succeeded Lucien Bouchard as premier earlier that year.

According to an interview with Moses by editor-in-chief Will Nicholls in the November 2, 2001, issue, negotiations on the agreement had only begun in earnest six weeks previously.

“We showed we’d rather negotiate than litigate,” Moses told the Nation. “We want results rather than an ongoing fight. My meetings with Premier Landry talked about development, whether we consider ourselves a nation and my feelings about revenue sharing and partnership. Whether the Cree and Quebec can coexist came up. I think the events of September 11 played a role in showing we live in a really small world.”

Moses noted that the agreement resolved about 30 costly legal proceedings and reaffirmed Cree rights in a number of jurisdictions. It also provided an annual $70 million in funding over 50 years. But it came at a great cost: diversion of the mighty Rupert River to hydroelectric facilities further north.

For the Cree, especially the youth raised on the fight in the 1980s and 1990s against the Great Whale project, the loss of a river seen as central to the Crees’ identity, history and economy was a difficult pill to swallow.

The late Grand Chief Billy Diamond told the Nation that the youth were livid over the deal.

“The youth feel very betrayed by the Cree leadership,” Diamond said in 2001. “The sense of betrayal is showing up in their anger… Someone should have told the people we are working on an agreement with the Premier of Quebec. That’s why it shocked the people.”

A month after the deal was reached, another bombshell dropped. Deputy Grand Chief Matthew Mukash announced that he could not support the agreement and would campaign against it. For Mukash, the agreement was another step toward the extinguishment of Cree rights, and a future impediment to Cree sovereignty.

“If we just continue to ride on this wave of illusion of future prosperity or the illusion of generosity of governments, our future generations could end up with the eventual consequences of losing their language, culture and identity,” Mukash warned. “They will be the ones to pay for our mistakes. Why do you think there was residential school? They wanted to disconnect us from the land, make us lose our language, our cultural beliefs, values, and most of all, to damage our spirit.”

Despite his opposition, the referendum was passed with majorities in all nine communities but the largest – Chisasibi voters narrowly voted against adopting the agreement.

Mukash would go on to challenge Moses for the post of Grand Chief in the 2002 Grand Council election, losing by only 32 votes. In 2005, he would finally defeat Moses and win the leadership, but by then the Paix des Braves was firmly entrenched in Cree reality. Undoing a fait accompli would prove impossible during his one term as Grand Chief.

There is little doubt that the Paix des Braves Agreement has helped transform Eeyou Istchee. It has contributed to the relative economic prosperity of the communities, as can be seen in the new housing and community facilities in many of them.

The deal laid the groundwork for the New Relationship Agreement later reached with the federal government, and the establishment of a regional government with strong Cree presence, replacing the Municipalité de la Baie James. All of which ultimately helped pave the way for the Cree Governance Agreement and Cree Constitution reached during Matthew Coon Come’s last term as Grand Chief.

But the costs have been high. There remains a culture of distrust of Cree leadership in many communities, which continues to simmer on the stovetop of social media. The Rupert River, meanwhile, has been reduced to a fraction of its former power and rich diversity.

In 2008, with Neil Diamond, his brother James, and then-Nation graphic designer Richard Lawson, I paddled down much of the Rupert River just before its water was to be forever diverted from its path to James Bay at Waskaganish. It was an epic challenge, negotiating dangerous rapids and gruelling portages, but rewarded with a renewed appreciation for the stunning beauty of Eeyou Istchee.

The ghosts of the many Cree who used the Rupert as a main highway for trade and cultural ties travelled – and mourned – with us.

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