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Community ᐄᐦᑖᐧᐃᓐ

Project to protect and manage coastal regions nears fruition

BY Patrick Quinn Jul 3, 2024

Consultations for the National Marine Conservation Area (NMCA) feasibility study recently wrapped up in Cree coastal communities. Two-day focus groups were held in Waskaganish, Eastmain, Wemindji and Chisasibi after Goose Break, concluding with an information session in Whapmagoostui. 

Deputy Grand Chief Norman A. Wapachee leads a steering committee to guide the assessment process alongside protected areas manager Chantal Otter-Tétreault and members of Parks Canada. The feasibility report will be submitted to the Grand Chief and environment minister ahead of an expected announcement at the Annual General Assembly in Wemindji in August.

“Wenipaahk [James Bay] was always part of Eeyou Istchee,” asserted Wapachee. “It was a sacred gift from our ancestors, and we need to find ways to protect it. The NMCA team talked about the importance of culture, preserving the ecosystem, the traditional way of life.”

The initiative stems from Wemindji’s Tawich (marine) project starting in 2007, which sparked protection discussions with the federal government. In 2012, the Eeyou Marine Region (EMR) land claims agreement recognized Cree jurisdiction over coastal waters and 80% of the islands in James Bay.

A 2019 agreement began identifying offshore priorities for conservation as part of a federal plan to double protected areas on both land and water. While the proposed NMCA only covers the “Cree Zone” of the EMR, hopes are that discussions with the Nunavik Inuit will expand this coverage to overlapping areas north of Chisasibi. 

“For the Cree, it’s about expanding governance out in the bay,” Wapachee told the Nation. “The NMCA only touches waters. It would be up to the Cree if they want to build traditional camps on the islands – the youth were talking about maintaining cultural villages in the bay.”

While the NMCA wouldn’t replace existing EMR boards, it would provide additional funding for environmental monitoring and tourism infrastructure with flexible zoning to limit access to specified areas. Defining roles and responsibilities with Parks Canada will ensure Cree traditional practices are maintained.

NMCAs intend to balance safeguarding ecosystems with supporting sustainable use, inviting visitors to learn about preserving vulnerable regions. Parks Canada is currently leading the creation of 10 new NMCAs, contributing to Canada’s international commitment to protect 30% of marine and coastal areas by 2030. 

With many rivers bringing freshwater into the bay, Eeyou Istchee’s waters have a low concentration of salt and rich biodiversity. Freshwater fish mingle with marine fish, migrating birds are plentiful and beluga whales winter in its relative shelter. 

Recent community engagement sessions took a storytelling approach, with potential benefits explained through a conversation between “Kaya and Noomshoom” before splitting into focus groups and one-on-one discussions.

“One of the benefits is ecological restoration or recovery of species,” explained Wapachee. “Mining came up in almost all communities. I think the Cree will have to tighten up environmental regulations upstream wherever there are mining activities – we know this has intensified up north.”

People were reassured that their hunting and fishing rights remain constitutionally protected even in national parks. Whapmagoostui was eager to expedite the process to include their offshore islands, which Wapachee said hold intriguing legends. 

Communities anticipate an increase in tourism with associated infrastructure upgrades and job opportunities. At least one community will become a hub for Parks Canada, likely requiring reception centres, boats, storage and hotels.  

“We do want people to see the beauty of the EMR, learn from our culture and come to our communities,” said Otter-Tétreault. “That’s the main driver for me personally. I said to youth imagine your job is to get on a boat, knowing you’re protecting the environment and teaching people about your culture.”

Participants suggested the NMCA represented an opportunity to share a Cree perspective of history with Cree place names and activities that promote the Cree language and legends. It could serve as an outdoor classroom, improving access to the land.

Some shared concerns that the region’s remoteness would limit arrivals regardless of a NMCA while others felt a tourism influx risked overwhelming local capacity or threatening environmental and cultural security. However, more were optimistic about the potential for summer camps and niche adventure or eco-tourism.  

Expanding access to islands, perhaps even a landing strip on Charlton Island, could support both tourism and archaeological projects while growing Land Keepers and other conservation programs. Exploring James Bay’s mysterious waters could inspire biologists and possibly identify exciting new food sources. 

“Coastal people could harvest certain species of fish for commercial purposes,” suggested Wapachee. “Canada was open to that. On the west coast, they engage with the Haida for commercial fishing. If there’s an interest, we would go in that direction.”

With Cree leadership building relationships with neighbouring Indigenous nations, the NMCA may be an opportunity to collaborate with the Mushkegowuk Council on the other side of James Bay. The Deputy Grand Chief was invited to speak at their recent NMCA announcement. 

“I congratulated them and opened the door for both groups to work together to protect all the James Bay and Hudson Bay areas,” Wapachee shared. “We have common issues and interests – this is one of them. I’m hoping we can work together on a high-level committee that would oversee the west and east sides of James Bay.”

Negotiations with Canada will commence in the fall, likely with further consultations to identify sensitive areas. Otter-Tétreault hopes that next year “the real work will get started.”

“We’re just expanding our protected areas that are significant to the Cree,” said Wapachee. “We use those rivers – Rupert, Eastmain, Chisasibi, Great Whale – that flow into James Bay, Wenipaahk. Our actions flow out into the world. We must embrace our sacred responsibility preserve the area and promote our way of life.”

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.