How Quebec Cree avoided the fate of Attawapiskat – by Terry Milewski (CBC News – May 14, 2013)

On the eastern shore of James Bay, a very different story

Freezing, mouldy homes. Sewage contamination. Sick kids. Unemployment. A blockade on the road to the mine. A hunger strike by the chief.

That, it seems, is the news from the Cree of James Bay — at least, as it’s defined by the desperate community of Attawapiskat, in northern Ontario. Before that, there was the news from nearby Kashechewan. Flooding. Despair. Suicide.

And both James Bay towns endured fresh emergencies this spring as the annual meltwaters exposed, again, their rickety infrastructure.

But bad news makes headlines and good news usually does not. So we’ve heard all about the mess on the Ontario shore of James Bay — and next to nothing about the success on the eastern shore, in Quebec.

Little noticed by the world outside, the Cree of northern Quebec are writing a startlingly different story than their cousins on the western shore of James Bay. Self-government. Revenue-sharing. Decent schools and new development. Mining companies being welcomed instead of blockaded. And no hunger strikes.

It’s taken 40 years, but a long struggle is paying off. The neat streets of Wemindji or Oujé-Bougamou feel like they’re on a different planet than Attawapiskat. If the stop signs weren’t in Cree, you’d think the rows of warm, solid homes were in a suburb down south. Shiny new courthouses, band offices, recreation centres and police stations are being completed. There’s no crisis to summon reporters from Toronto or Montreal.

So why is it so different on the Quebec side of James Bay?

‘The Indian Act doesn’t apply’
Matthew Coon Come, once a firebrand who stood in the way of Quebec Hydro’s plans to dam the province’s great rivers, is now the greying Grand Chief of the Cree of Eeyou Istchee — the Cree name for the 400,000 square kilometres of northern Quebec that make up the James Bay territory. Coon Come is clear on the reasons why his people are doing so well.

They stood in the way for a purpose, he says — not to stop development, but to share in it and to win the right to govern themselves.

“We are assuming the responsibilities of the federal government and the provincial government, that’s what we are doing.”

Bit by bit, Coon Come says, the Cree bargained away their land claims and their right to be treated as wards of the state under the Indian Act. In return, through a series of agreements beginning in 1975, the Cree won a healthy share of the huge resource revenues from the dams and the mines.

Today, power lines traverse the landscape of Eeyou Istchee and $70 million a year in revenues flow to the 18,000 Cree. They’re using the money to finance their second goal: autonomy.

“For the Crees, the Indian Act doesn’t apply,” Coon Come proudly tells a visitor in his spacious office in Nemaska, Que.

“The decision-making does not fall on the Department of [Aboriginal Affairs], the minister,” he says. “The only thing that the minister has the right to receive is our financial audit statements — and once a year.

“That’s never been done before … We’ve changed the governance regime so we can be able to be involved in the way development takes place.”

He’s critical of both First Nations and southern politicians who cling to the past.

“I think the First Nations are also guilty of always saying, ‘our treaties are sacred.’ That’s great. But the Cree survived because we adapted.”

He also says that self-government has to be earned.

“It takes time to build your institutions. Because, in order to build your institutions, whether it be school boards or health boards, you need to be able to demonstrate that you’re accountable, that you’re responsible, that you’re transparent.”

Equally, he says, governments in Ottawa are reluctant to “think outside the box.”

“Unfortunately in this country, the federal government does not want to tackle the real issue of the First Nations…. You need to allow the First Nations to participate, to be participants in the development of the territory, [whether] it be forestry, mining, or any other industry that may come.”

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