The first steps in a 30-year journey to transform the economy and infrastructure of Eeyou Ischee were taken in Montreal February 17.
The Cree Nation Government (CNG) and Quebec announced a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that will see the two sides work towards a vast infrastructure project worth $4.7 billion in Cree territories called La Grande Alliance.
Among the lofty goals of the three-phased project are a 700-kilometre railroad between Matagami and Whapmagoostui, a deep seaport in Whapmagoostui, hundreds of kilometres of new power lines, as well as thousands of kilometres of new and upgraded roads.
While many welcomed the announcement, others are concerned about a perceived lack of consultation with Cree communities. Grand Chief Abel Bosum was quick to counter that sentiment.
“We’ve been talking about this plan at our council meetings that are live-streamed,” Bosum told the Nation. “We also received a supporting letter from the general assembly in Eastmain. We’ve been pretty transparent about it.”
Bosum also noted the preliminary nature of the project. So far, the only concrete steps that will come from the partnership will be a feasibility study for the first phase of the project (and the pre-feasibility study for the next two phases) to be conducted this year. The study is estimated to cost in the tens-of-millions of dollars which will be split between the Cree and Quebec.
Additionally, he explained that projections regarding job creation, and whether or not the rail line would include passenger trains would be determined following the study.
“Whatever projects come out of the feasibility study, it will be subject to environmental review and Section 22 of the JBNQA,” Bosum added. “Nothing gets built without social acceptability.”
Speaking at the press conference to announce the MOU, Premier François Legault said the agreement was a model of how nation-to-nation governance should be done. He also believes it will “foster a new generation of Cree entrepreneurs… [and] help to unlock the wealth of the region’s varied natural resources.”
Currently, shipping minerals outside Eeyou Istchee is by trucks that navigate logging roads before eventually offloading cargo onto an already over-taxed rail system. The new infrastructure would be a welcome support to a regional mining industry struggling with fluctuating commodity markets.
“One of the first-phase objectives is certainly to assist the lithium mines,” ensured Bosum. “It’s clear there will be quite a bit of mineral traffic coming south. The question will be, ‘What can we transport up north?’ We see fuel and other commodities being shipped up north by rail, bringing down the cost of living.”
Another proposed goal of La Grande Alliance is to balance infrastructure development with the environment. When asked how the CNG intends to square the circle of environmental and industrial interests, Bosum pointed out that the infrastructure projects would follow existing corridors such as the James Bay Highway. The study will also look at identifying new protected areas to help the territory’s wildlife flourish.
“We’re not looking at a rail line through the heart of Eeyou Istchee,” said Bosum, adding that the electrification of mining camps currently running on gas generators in Eeyou Istchee would also cut down on carbon emissions.
“This is the first step in a long and comprehensive planning process with Quebec, where the Cree will take the lead,” Bosum noted. “We’ll see what the studies conclude, and we’ll go from there.”