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Debate begins over Grande Alliance proposals

BY Patrick Quinn Feb 12, 2021

Discussion at the Cree Nation Government (CNG) Board Council virtual meetings January 26 and 27 revolved around two central issues – the ongoing vaccination campaign and La Grande Alliance. 

While everyone was eager for progress against the pandemic, it was La Grande Alliance that ignited passion among participants. When the long-term infrastructure agreement was struck with Quebec a year ago, many Crees were surprised that discussions on the agreement hadn’t even taken place. 

Grand Chief Abel Bosum responded that it was an opportunity to consider development that enhanced Cree values of conservation, beginning with the establishment of protected areas. He also noted it was an opportunity for Crees to express their points of view – which certainly happened at the latest Council meeting. 

“I want to make sure the process is inclusive, transparent and accessible for all people who are concerned about the project,” said Council member Irene Neeposh. “I had communicated the presentation seemed heavily weighted towards the extraction of resources. I suggested we could talk more about how this could facilitate development for the community.”

Neeposh told the Nation that quite a few members would like to see more dialogue on these proposals. She wants a “genuine consultation process” to gather ideas from community members rather than simply approving a predefined proposition.

“For any new development, there always has to be an opposition to create balance,” Neeposh asserted. “I think ensuring the feasibility study is representative of what people say is going to be key – the valuable insight of our people is so important.”

On January 27, the Cree Development Corporation (CDC) announced a request for proposals to conduct the feasibility study of La Grande Alliance’s first phase. The study will analyze the viability of upgrading the territory’s major transportation infrastructure, including the installation of a rail corridor along the Billy-Diamond Highway to Whapmagoostui, where a possible deep-sea port will be examined in the third and final phase. 

Phase 1 involves paving of roads between the Billy-Diamond Highway and Waskaganish, Eastmain, Wemindji and Nemaska. There are also two railways being contemplated – one starting at Matagami and the return of a line between Chapais and Lebel-sur-Quévillon, which was dismantled in the 1980s. 

“Part of the study is seeing how much was removed at that time,” explained Marc Dunn, who represents the CDC at the Grande Alliance. “The corridor is there – we know there are tracks in some parts and all the bridges are there. The new railway is to kilometre 257 in Phase 1, the bridge that crosses the Rupert River. But this is a study – nothing is being built right now.”

Grande Alliance Community Information Officers (GACIO) will be appointed in all nine Cree communities to answer local questions about proposed developments. 

“Write your questions, put them on paper,” encouraged Deputy Grand Chief Mandy Gull. “This will be the key time for our members to communicate to us if this is the direction they want the Cree Nation to head. Once we give them the information, it’s up to them to decide.”

At the Council meeting, Gull insisted on transparency and accountability, so the process remains fair and responsive to community members. While she expressed confidence in CDC management and said the consultation process would be independent of the feasibility study, she acknowledged seeing disgruntled comments on social media. 

“Maybe we could have been clearer with how the consultation process would unfold,” Gull admitted. “I think Covid did impede the communication process. That being said, I do anticipate that will unfold when there’s enough information gathered for members to reflect upon.”

The CDC has examined numerous feasibility studies from elsewhere in order to inform the debate, Dunn said. 

“Studies are done before you discuss something,” Dunn explained. “One thing they all have in common is the bulk of the debate happens after the feasibility study. I think people need to be patient and put a little trust in the process – they’ll see this debate will happen.”

Dunn argues there is a robust engagement framework to solicit community involvement. And he insists that nothing has yet been decided.

“People are a bit premature in assuming we’re further ahead than where we are,” Dunn suggested. “We’re very much at the starting line. The idea is to get concrete information so we can turn around and talk about it. All these debates have to happen, but we need more meat on the bone.”

Dunn addressed concerns that the proposed railway is at the service of resource extraction by asserting that industries like housing are equally relevant. Integrating sustainable development into the project’s implementation involves projecting various scenarios over La Grande Alliance’s 30-year lifespan. For instance, analyzing factors such as greenhouse gas emissions. 

For Gull, it’s a chance to consider how the Cree Nation’s governance may evolve in the coming decades. She says the CNG’s role is to remain neutral and accountable as work to flesh out the infrastructure program gathers steam after Goose Break. 

“Entering into a new format of agreement, we need to modernize and respond to the needs of our members,” affirmed Gull. “Reviewing our governance and what it’s going to look like in the future will be an enormous task.”

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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.