(Host) For decades, the native Cree communities of northern Quebec have opposed hydroelectric development on their land. In 1994, the Cree successfully fought plans to develop the Great Whale River. Their cause drew the attention and support of environmentalists in Vermont.
Now the Cree have signed a major new treaty with the Province of Quebec. It would allow the construction of hydro dams and the development of other resources on Cree land. In return, the Cree people would have a greater say in future projects and a share of the revenues.
VPR’s Steve Zind reports.
(Zind) Cree leaders say the treaty settles many long-standing grievances. They say the pact gives them control over their own natural resources and a share in the profits from their development. This will amount to at least $3.5 billion over the next fifty years. The Cree will also take over government administered social programs.
Bill Namagoose is the executive director of the Grand Council, which represents the nine Cree communities in the James Bay region. Namagoose says the treaty gives the Cree people autonomy as well as the resources to deal with their problems. He says until now, native peoples haven’t benefited from development on their lands:
(Namagoose) “That’s why aboriginal people live in such deplorable conditions across Canada. They benefit from the extraction of our natural resources. There is $4 billion of electricity extracted from our territory every yearÂ¿we didn’t get a dime out of this. It was other people getting rich.”
(Zind) Namagoose says the Cree will make sure future projects don’t destroy the communities’ hunting and trapping economy. But Namagoose says the Cree population has doubled in the last 25 years and these traditional jobs aren’t enough anymore:
(Namagoose) “Hopefully, we will create jobs. That is the number one need of our community, because the traditional economy isn’t supporting our people anymore. We have a huge population explosion.”
(Zind) Namagoose says the unemployment rate among Crees is 30% and there’s a shortage of housing and services.
Before it was signed, the agreement was put to a vote of the Cree people; 70% of those who went to the polls approved.
Not all tribal leaders support the agreement. Matthew Mookash is deputy grand chief of the Cree Nation. Mookash says the Cree people didn’t have time to understand the complex agreement. He says the Cree should take charge of developing their own resources, rather than giving the government the go-ahead:
(Mookash) “My argument has always been: Â¿We should give ourselves the right to develop our own resources in a sustainable wayÂ¿. They’ll get more benefits in the long run than we will do as a people.”
(Zind) Under the revenue sharing plan, the more development that takes place, the more money the Crees would receive. Steven Guilbeault is with Greenpeace Canada:
(Guilbeault) “For the Cree to maximize the amount of money that they will get through this agreement from the government, they have to maximize the amount of natural resource exploitation that they do: either mining, forestry or hydro development.”
(Zind) Guilbeault says future hydro projects in the James Bay region will have a widespread environmental impact. Matthew Mookash says he has a hard time putting faith in any agreement with the provincial government:
(Mookash) “It’s very hard to trust the government of Quebec, particularly the political party that is in power.”
(Zind) The party in power in the Party Quebecois, Quebec’s separatist party. In the past, the Cree have called the separatist movement an attempt to kidnap them; to make them part of a new nation against their will.
David Massell is a professor of Canadian and American history at the University of Vermont. Massell says there are many obstacles to a sovereign Quebec, but this agreement removes one of them.
(Massell) “My argument is that from the separatist point of view, you’ve got to make peace with the Cree. The Cree are potentially an obstacle to sovereignty.”
(Zind) Massell says developing the resources on Cree lands gives the province a stronger economic base. He says the new agreement also serves to blunt criticism that the separatist movement has treated the province’s native population poorly.
For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.