Preface to the New Edition
On September 14, 2007, a small group of 150 Canadian and American environmentalists gathered in Montreal at the headquarters of Hydro-Quebec, the provincially-owned electricity generating facility, to protest the latest move in the long-running drama that first sparked the writing of this book.
The particular object of their protest was Hydro-Quebec’s decision to dam and divert the waters of the gloriously beautiful Rupert River that runs across the province from Lake Mistassini in the east, through a series of spectacular rapids, into James Bay, at the foot of Hudson Bay, and through lands inhabited by the Cree.
A certain element of déjà vu ran through this protest, for Hydro-Quebec had already received approval from provincial and federal environmental assessment panels (on which the Crees of James Bay were represented), and the work had already started on the Rupert. So this after-the-event-protest paralleled the experience of the Crees 35 years before, when they first objected to the Quebec government’s decision to build the huge James Bay hydro-electric project in their hunting grounds. At that time, too, the work had already started, and the Crees who had inhabited the huge wilderness from time immemorial, found that they were about to become the central actors in the heroic drama that will unfold on the pages that follow.
Many of these environmentalists who gathered in Montreal had rallied to the Crees 15 years before, when they worked in the coalition that resisted, and finally killed off, after an extraordinary campaign, Hydro-Quebec’s attempt to dam the Great Whale River, in the far north of the Cree territory.
This time, however, there was a difference: the organized body of the Crees of James Bay, the Grand Council of the Crees, which had headed the opposition in past years, was no longer onside. They had signed a new agreement with the Quebec government five years before, and more recently with the Canadian federal government, under which they stand to get billions of dollars in return for agreeing that Hydro-Quebec be allowed to divert the Rupert.
Of course, that is not the way the Agreement with Quebec reads. It says the money is going to the Crees so that they can themselves perform a wide range of programs that the government undertook in the original James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA), but didn’t bother to implement.
Whatever the technicalities of this, almost everyone outside the enclosed world of these two old adversaries believed that the Crees had sold their cherished Rupert River to their enemy, Hydro-Quebec.
At this September gathering, the environmentalists in Montreal announced they would try to stop the project through court action—another echo of the past. They had established a web site, savetherupert.org. But four months later nothing new had appeared on the web site, and no court actions had been entered. They were still talking with lawyers about their chances of winning a court case, but an air of resignation seemed to have settled over the protesters. “So far, the score is Quebec and Hydro-Quebec one, environmentalists zero,” said Daniel Green, scientific adviser to the Sierra Club in Quebec, one of the leaders of the protest.
Even the possible grounds for court action seem rather esoteric. One would be a case claiming it is illegal to do anything that could make fish inedible, an echo of the mercury problems in the earlier phases of the project; another would require that the huge Rupert River brook trout, a recognized species, be declared an endangered species. Perhaps the most promising would be an action arguing that Hydro-Quebec violated the law when it failed to declare to the environmental assessment panels that a proposal had been submitted to them by the Siemens company for an alternative project, based on wind power, that would have a lesser environmental impact than hydro.
The two new Agreements the Crees have signed, federal and provincial, brought a controversial ending to more than a quarter-century of frustration for the Crees as they have struggled to get the governments with which they signed the 1975 Agreement to honor their signatures.
One has to remember that the original Agreement was signed under heavy duress. With the dams already being built, the Crees had either to sign, and get some money and some breathing space to prepare for the full weight of what the industrial world was proposing to dump on them—its wealth, technology, and insatiable appetite for energy—or hold out, and be completely swallowed.
There were only 6,000 Crees of whom only a handful had been to school and spoke English or French. They had no experience confronting industrial power—they’d never had any need to do such a thing—and, as described in the following pages, leadership fell to the few young men and women in their twenties, the only Crees who could communicate with the surrounding white society. They leaned on the wisdom of their elders, remarkable men and women who had spent their lives in the bush feeding themselves and their families from their wide range of skills, their deep knowledge of the biology and behavior of the animals and the wilderness, and their profound, almost mystical, understanding of the place of humans in the biosphere.
This combination of youth and age took the Crees to court in 1972, where they became the first people in Canadian history to argue that the integrity of their environment was essential to the continuation of their way of life. They won a remarkable victory that was quickly overturned on appeal for nakedly political reasons, but the judgment of Mr. Justice Malouf in their favor persuaded the governments they would have to negotiate and after three years this resulted in the JBNQA, in which the governments promised to help the Crees find a new role in Canadian society, based on self-government.
Although the declared objective was to create a modern administration for the Crees to live under, gradually the Crees began to realize neither government had any idea about how to enact this huge, cumbersome Agreement. They simply hadn’t thought about that.
So, for more than a quarter of a century the governments dragged their heels, and the Crees had to go to court repeatedly to force the governments to honor their signatures. Many parts of the Agreement were simply ignored. For example, the Crees were supposed to have priority in employment all over their territory; they were supposed to have priority in the setting up of tourist camps; they were supposed to have priority over disposition of the hunting animals they had always depended on for food, and there was supposed to be a process for economic development, with the training and education that pre-supposes. Even when they won their cases in court on these, and other subjects, as they usually did, their victories proved ephemeral. Ten years after the signing of the Agreement, the Crees presented to the governments a list of 65 promises that had not been fulfilled, or even addressed.
Repeatedly, judges scolded the governments for trying to change the JBNQA by making an end run around their co-signatories, something it was illegal for them to do.
A hint of the southern attitudes came quickly when a land-use map was drawn up by Quebec covering the southern reaches of the Cree territories—a map that did not even mention the existence of Crees, or of their rights in the land formally established under the JBNQA.
The most egregious example of Quebec’s determination to yield nothing came at the turn of the century, when the Crees, tired of their hunting territories being clearcut by outside forest companies working under Quebec law, obtained an injunction from Judge Jean-Jacques Croteau, declaring the Quebec forest management regime to be unconstitutional in that it ignored the legally entrenched rights of the Crees. He ordered Quebec to halt all work and rewrite its forest management process within six months.
The Quebec government, with the support of the companies (and no doubt silent support of the federal government), appealed, claiming that Judge Croteau should be removed from the case. This obligingly happened, and the substitute judge found resoundingly for the government.
Such naked manipulation of the legal process had only once happened in Canada before. Two years later the Grand Council, under their Grand Chief Ted Moses (who can be found in the following narrative as a lanky young Court interpreter in 1972), got into a negotiation with the Parti Quebecois government headed by Quebec premier Bernard Landry, a party whose program to separate Quebec from Canada the Crees had long opposed, and together they announced a far-reaching deal which has become known as the Paix des Braves.
This deal provides for expanded infrastructure, more housing, community centers, better health and education services in the Cree villages, and it guarantees the Crees (as had already been guaranteed in the JBNQA but never delivered) extensive training and work within the James Bay hydro project as technicians, electricians and mechanics. The deal details a wide range of remedial works, and gives further guarantees designed to maintain Cree access to fisheries and other country pursuits. A new forestry regime, that had been so brutally opposed only two years before, is spelled out in great detail, to allow Cree interests in their traditional lands to be given weight in decision-making by logging companies. Under each of these headings substantial sums are to be spent—for example, for the training program the annual interest on $30 million plus $5 million a year, for remedial works $32 million, and so on.
But these are mere additions to the underlying financial agreement, which paid the Crees, as their share of resource revenues, $140 million in the first three years, rising to a promise of $70 million every year until 2052, for a total of at least $3.5 billion. This is in addition to base funding provided by Quebec for health, education, and other services, amounting to well over $100 million a year.
As part of this deal, the Crees agreed to suspend no fewer than 11 court actions they had already undertaken—which provides an indication of the tense relationships that had existed with Quebec through all these years.
Added to this is the funding provided for in the new agreement signed in 2007 with the federal government. Under this one, a payment $1,050,000,000 was due to the Crees on March 31 2008, with prospective second payments of $300 million in total after approval of proposed amendments to the Cree-Naskapi Act which governs relationships with the Cree communities.
Taken all in all, these sums represent a formidable incentive to the now-13,000-strong Crees to moderate their past hostility towards the two governments. Indeed, Ted Moses went overboard in his enthusiasm for the Quebec deal, violating the long-held Cree aloofness from white-man politics when he endorsed the Landry government in the 2003 Quebec election. Unfortunately he made a mistake: Landry was beaten, and Moses was too, the next time around. He was replaced as Grand Chief in 2005 by Matthew Mukash, who had led the great fight to save the Great Whale River, with support from environmental allies from all over the north-east. But his election has made no difference: he has disappointed his former allies by going along with the recent developments, although he declared that it was a sad day for the Crees when the Quebec government announced the beginning of work on the Rupert in January 2007. Like many Crees, he seems to have been both for the $5 billion Rupert project, and against it.
Of course, not everybody in the Cree communities agrees with this direction, especially with the selling of the Rupert River to Hydro-Quebec. Chiefs of three communities—Nemaska, Waskaganish and Chisasibi, the two communities most likely to be affected, and the one that has already been most affected by the earlier works—have declared their opposition, after holding their own referenda in which an overwhelming vote was registered against the diversion of the Rupert. Still, environmentalists who have been hoping for more of a lead from these chiefs have been disappointed, especially since the Crees in overall referenda gave 69 percent support to the diversion of the Rupert, and 90 percent approval to the deal with the federal government.
In general there has been a lot of criticism from Crees that these deals with the governments were negotiated in secret and simply announced to the people as fait accompli; and that the referenda were not held with the openness and inclusiveness that characterized the earlier decision-making in the 1970s.
Kathleen Wootton, a member of the Jolly family of Mistissini, and now the Deputy Chief of Mistassini, whom I have known for many years, recently expressed some disillusionment: “It's very sad to see how we Cree have been corrupted by money—that is all our politicians and tallymen talk about now. While I agree that the Cree should be entitled to some compensation for the impacts we have had to tolerate, it is sad to see some tallymen refusing to share the money with other family members. It seems that we, as a people, have lost the value of sharing.” (Kathleen appears in Chapter 10 of this narrative with a sensitive account of the difficulties for a child growing up trapped between two cultures. She was then working in a factory in Vancouver.)
This change in Cree behavior was more or less confirmed to me by another man who has been a decision-making participant in the whole Cree struggle over the years: “I have been sorry to see how the Crees, who were so independent-spirited a people, have gradually switched to what might be called a culture of entitlement, as if they expect the government to take care of them.”
Ms. Wootton has also criticized the proposals under the federal deal which will, in effect, transfer jurisdiction from the federally mandated Cree-Naskapi Commission, to the Cree Regional Authority, thereby, she says, replacing one remote bureaucracy with another, albeit a Cree bureaucracy. In her view, this would strip Cree communities of their by-law making powers, and would be a step away from self-government, rather than toward it.
“The sad thing,” she says, “is that colonialism is so ingrained among Aboriginal people that administrative structures that were derived from Western cultures continue to perpetuate the cycle of silence, dependence, and apathy among us. We Cree are no exception to the effects of colonialism.”
On the other hand, a more favorable construction can be put on how the Crees have reacted to this immense imposition on them and their hunting lands. The original JBNQA provided the means by way of a guaranteed income, for anyone who wanted to continue in his or her way of life as hunters and trappers. So today many hundreds are recipients of this kind of help. Yet even the old-time hunters admit they cannot keep a family on the income they receive. And, over a longer perspective, there is now widespread admission that it was the cost of flying into their traplines that eventually became too much for the trappers and hunters to sustain. Hunting, as a way of life, is declining everywhere across the Canadian north, and the Crees of James Bay are no longer an exception to this.
When I expressed some reservations in print recently about the surrender of the Rupert, I had a thoughtful response from Andrew Orkin, a lawyer who has worked for many years with the Crees. I had written that the Quebec government’s act in robbing the Crees of their victory over the forestry regime by changing the judge might have been the straw that broke their resistance.
“A somewhat different cast should be placed on the role of the Crees, less akin to surrender, and more akin to making the best of things and managing cataclysmic, imposed transformation in a quite sophisticated way,” Orkin wrote.
He detailed a more generous and reasonable explanation of the Cree actions, pointing out that the children of the eastern James Bay Crees “all still live in extended families where half of the Cree workforce is employed in a Cree public sector that is maintaining decent communities.”
Since the beginning of the 1990s, Cree labor participation has risen from 30 to 70 percent; Cree graduates now teach in Cree schools, nurse in their clinics, provide social work services, administer their own programs and financial institutions, fly their own airplanes and fly the planes of other airlines. Few James Bay Crees are living on the streets in Montreal, unlike Aboriginal people in other Canadian cities. Most of the transfer payments are spent on maintaining a public sector equivalent to those in similarly-sized, non-native communities. And—an important point this—compared with many other Aboriginal peoples, Orkin notes that “suicide is a non-phenomenon among them.”
In addition, there are still an unusual number of Crees out on the land, existing on country food that they catch themselves, as always.
The Crees have had to deal with brutally imposed, immense changes, and although mistakes have been made and missteps have been many, they appear to be dealing with these challenges with relative success. A reflection, perhaps, of the wise guidance they have always received from their elders, those remarkable men and women whose world-view was formed during their life’s work as hunters and trappers in the bush.