Damned Deal

Cree leaders call hydro pact signed in secret a monstrous sellout

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no aboriginal nation in thecountry has been as cunning as the Cree in fighting incursions into their northern Quebec homeland.The hunters of James Bay were the first natives in Canada to win a form of self-government and land-management rights under the Cree-Napaski Act, signed in 1984, and the first to bring grievances to the United Nations in Geneva.

But after years of legal struggle, the unthinkable happened last week — the Grand Council of the Cree signed a $3.4-billion agreement with the Quebec government and Hydro Quebec that clears the way for the building of a dam on the Rupert River.

And, more shocking for First Nations traditionalists and eco activists, Quebec will have near unfettered access to natural resources on Cree territory.

The deal is a public relations coup for Quebec premier Bernard Landry. The Cree have long been a thorn in the side of the Parti Quebecois’s separatist aspirations. In this agreement, they recognize Quebec as a “nation.”

What’s in the deal for the Cree, however, is a matter of heartfelt debate. Some in the community wonder if their leaders have signed a deal with the devil.

The province and Hydro Quebec have promised the Cree economic riches before, under the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA), passed back in 1975. But these never materialized.

The Cree have filed some 30 lawsuits alleging abrogations of the pact. After all the promises, unemployment among young people hovers at about 80 per cent. Many Cree communities continue to lack adequate housing, electricity and plumbing. Rivers in the region are polluted with mercury from the earlier hydro projects and resource exploitation.

Reason enough, detractors say, not to trust this latest deal. More bewildering still to the naysayers is why chief Ted Moses and Assembly of First Nations grand chief Matthew Coon Come, the very leaders who led the bold and courageous fights against the Great Whale project at James Bay in the mid-80s, are so firmly onside.

“Today,” says the Crees’ deputy grand chief, Matthew Mukash, who thinks this deal is a monumental mistake, “native communities across Canada are calling us sellouts.”***

James Bay is the largest hydroelectric project in the country. Its eight dams and 198 dikes contain five reservoirs covering some 12,000 square kilometres, an area half the size of Lake Ontario. The first phase of the project dammed Le Grande River. The second phase, known as Great Whale, was stopped by massive opposition from the Cree. The new deal calls for a diversion of the Rupert River.The deal, signed with much fanfare in Waskaganish last week, calls for a cash payout to the Cree of $70 million a year for the next 50 years. It also includes jobs for Crees at Hydro Quebec, remediation of mercury contamination, as well as funding for Cree entrepreneur programs, job training, health and social services, electricity, sanitation and fire services for communities in the area.

In return, the Cree have agreed to grant access to resources in the area and to drop some $3.6 billion in environmental lawsuits.

But there’s a Catch-22. Although the proposed diversion will be subject to environmental assessments, the Quebec government will have the deciding vote on the matter. In effect, the Cree will not be able to protest, stop, inhibit or litigate over any eco and social fallout that may result from the project, including the expected drying-up of parts of the Eastmain River and flooding of trap lines.

Not a reassuring proposition for the Chisasibi Cree. This community sits at the foot of a reservoir that’s had its share of technical problems and whose waters are projected to rise at least 6 feet when the Rupert River diversion is completed. The best estimates of eco activists are that the facility, which is already experiencing problems, will be unable to contain the extra flow. Needless to say, the band voted against the deal.

The $70-million stipend that’s to go to the Cree each year is also not indexed to inflation, prompting some to wonder whether there will be enough money 20, 30 and 50 years from now, when the deal expires, to fund the projects outlined in the agreement. The payments are also not guaranteed, but rather are tied to the amount of hydroelectric, forestry and mining activity in the James Bay territory.

For some, this provision spells disaster. The larger the Cree population becomes over time, they argue, the more pressure there will be on the community to permit large-scale resource extraction.

“A very slippery slope,” deputy grand chief Mukash calls it.

To others, the way the agreement in principle was first brokered, behind closed doors between Cree chief Ted Moses and Bernard Landry, is disturbing. Seventy-two per cent of the Cree approved the deal in votes held across the community, but only 53 per cent of eligible voters actually cast ballots.

Former grand chief Billy Diamond, who is generally for the agreement but has reservations, says the chiefs gave consent to the project when they signed the agreement in principle, making the community vote on the matter irrelevant. “We’ve asked the people to trust the white man,” Diamond says. “This time we’re asking people to trust the separatists. Chuckle chuckle.”

While national chief Matthew Coon Come compares Moses to a great hunter who’s come back from a journey with deer for his hungry people, some point to the latter’s broken promises. Moses said during his election campaign that he wouldn’t “sell the land for any price.” Now that’s all changed.

Moses was unavailable for an interview. He’s described his change of heart in an interview with Cree paper The Nation in Trudeauesque terms, recounting an epiphany he experienced while in the bush. “I convinced myself I now have to think with the wisdom that God, the Creator, gave me, not with my heart,” Moses said.

The reality, however, may not be as romantic. There were enough other reasons to cut a deal, but most pressing was the $9 million the community’s been paying out annually to keep lawsuits related to the original James Bay project alive.

In the courts, the Cree have been losing more than winning.

Quebec courts have ruled against the Cree on forestry issues, and more recently against Cree opposition to a hydroelectric project on the Eastmain River. The prospect of losing more battles in court provided extra motivation to cut a deal. One source close to the legal team confirms as much.

But if these considerations weren’t enough, the bleak future facing the 80 per cent of Cree under 25 who are unemployed certainly was.

Moses may have been front-and- centre on the deal, but, oddly, it was national chief Matthew Coon Come, a former Grand Council chief himself, who got the ball rolling. Coon Come’s the one who set up the original meeting between Moses and Landry in September, he tells NOW over the phone this week. It’s a surprising revelation considering how hard Coon Come has worked to keep a low profile.

In fact, the three-paragraph release he issued upon news of a tentative deal last October decidedly played both sides. While praising the agreement’s revenue-sharing from resources, Coon Come declared it “not a model for aboriginal relations with Canada or with the provinces.”

“It’s not the role of the AFN (Assembly of First Nations) to go out and tell the Crees, “This is good, this is bad,'” Coon Come’s rep, Jean Larose, tells NOW before the deal’s signing last week. “We have to recognize the inherent right of self-government we’re asking for ourselves.” Indeed, Larose says the national chief’s role in the affairs of native communities is restricted by the AFN charter.

But, in fact, Coon Come had been pumping the deal in several Cree communities, including his own. “It was surprising for me to see the national chief involved,” says youth grand chief Ashley Iserhoff. “There were mixed reactions. It was a tough decision for everybody. It came down to, how long do we want to fight?”

Coon Come finds himself in a ticklish position. He is, after all, the individual most associated with stopping the Great Whale hydroelectric project back in the mid-80s. In 95, just before the Quebec referendum, he led the Cree in a vote of their own to remain in Canada if Quebec decided to secede. Back then Coon Come labelled that attempt “racist.” Now the two are signing agreements acknowledging Quebec’s “nation” status, a designation whose constitutionality some question.

But from Coon Come’s perspective, the revenue-sharing part of the Cree-Quebec agreement will provide economic opportunities and a blueprint for other native communities. He says the deal also saves some 8,000 square kilometres of land that would otherwise have been flooded. “We want jobs. We want a say in where development takes place, what happens in our own backyard.”

It’s a little difficult to pin Coon Come down, to get him to speak directly to criticisms of the deal or comment on the issue of whether his rep as a fighter has taken a hit. He prefers to emphasize the positive, speak the politics of inclusion rather than exclusion, a twist for a chief who has a reputaion as a lone wolf.

“Those who take the initiative are the ones who will be criticized,” he says. “I ask people who are opposed, “What’s your option? How are you going to solve the problem of unemployment in our community? Tell me.’ It’s easy to fight. But the harder thing is to sit down and sign a deal that’s in the best interest of your people.”

When it comes right down to it, he says, the people who voted for the deal “are the ones who’ll have to live with the consequences, not the environmentalists. They made a decision rather than continue to be procrastinators.”

Deputy grand chief Matthew Mukash, on the other hand, says the fix was in from the get-go, and many of the Cree don’t believe the Quebec government will live up to its obligations. He says more people didn’t come out to vote against the deal because “there was a great deal of fear. There was a determination that there was going to be a vicious campaign in favour of the agreement.”

Moreover, he says, the deal is a road map “for the gradual and progressive takeover of the Cree by Canada and Quebec. Why give up your rights to resource development, have somebody do it for you and get a little bit of what they get?”

Mukash believes Coon Come’s stature has been diminished by the signing of the agreement.

By and large, however, leaders in the Cree community have been reluctant to criticize Coon Come publicly. One tells me to turn off the tape recorder before he will continue our conversation. Most others share Diamond’s view that “we live in a modern technological society. We need to train our people, bring our people up to speed (or) industry is going to leave us behind.”

Environmentalists think the pact is unlikely to prove the economic panacea the Cree hope it will be. Says Stephen Guilbeault of Greenpeace, “Hydro is not a very good way to move forward. It doesn’t create a lot of jobs after the construction phase. Dams are highly automated.”

He points out that global warming is actually going to make producing electricity from hydro more difficult because of increased evaporation and reduced water levels.

Still, Cree support for the agreement has put some eco activists in a delicate position. Many who supported the fight against Great Whale worry about how to proceed.

Eric Gagnon of Rupert River Reverence argues that aboriginal people are not the only stakeholders in rivers around James Bay. enzom@nowtoronto.com

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