The Cree Nation Government signed a memorandum of understanding with the federal government June 27 to study the feasibility of a national marine conservation area on the eastern shore of James Bay, within the Eeyou Marine Region. Federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna and Cree Grand Chief Abel Bosum made the joint announcement.
According to CNG Executive Director Bill Namagoose, the Cree have pushed for coastal conservation since 1975, when negotiations for an offshore agreement began. Negotiations continued sporadically through the 1980s, producing the Nunavut settlement and the Nunavik Inuit agreement. Talks with the Crees on the marine area protection issue started in earnest in the late 1990s.
Namagoose said that Wemindji was the first community to develop a protected marine area in the early 2000s. It was at this point that the Cree began to work with Parks Canada, attending meetings with coastal geologists from McGill and Concordia universities.
This work was shelved when the Stephen Harper Conservatives came to power. But talks between Ottawa and the CNG resumed after the 2015 change in government.
“Prime Minister Trudeau expressed active interest in marine protected areas in Arctic Canada, and this remains an important source of support. The Trudeau government has specific objectives, expressed as a percentage of coastline length, for the creation of protected areas in the marine environment,” explained Namagoose.
According to Francine Mercier, the acting manager for Marine Area Establishment at Parks Canada, now that a MOU has been reached, there is a great deal of work to do as the feasibility assessment is a complex and time-consuming portion of the establishment process. She added that it is the most important step because it is the one that looks at all the social, economic and ecological aspects of the conservation area as well as its benefits and potential impacts.
“There is also lots of consultations with local communities, Indigenous peoples in the area, regional stakeholders, other governments and other government departments. What we are looking for is whether people support having a national marine conservation area? If they do, we go forward; if they don’t, we will choose another area,” said Mercier.
She said that while the conservation project will not be able to stop hydro development or existing projects, what it will do is ensure that some studies get underway to see if they can collaborate with Hydro-Québec to make things better and perhaps find a way to restore the eelgrass.
“We can’t promise that kind of thing, but let’s work on it,” said Mercier.
The Cree will play a significant role providing input, expertise and opinions on what, how and the specific area this project should protect. Currently the proposed area stretches from the Ontario-Quebec border to Whapmagoostui, but Mercier said that if those in the Nunavik government wish to jump on board, the protected area could be extended. At present, the area slated for protection is within the Eeyou Marine Region Land Claims Agreement.
Mercier pointed to the work done with the Inuit on Lancaster Sound, north of Baffin Island. While scientists for the federal government and the Inuit each did their own studies, she said that when the two were put together, the feasibility study “blossomed” into something incredible.
“We knew that what would come out of the traditional study would be similar, but it would show slightly different shapes because the Inuit had gone to areas that nobody had ever been to before or had done any scientific research. I am expecting the same here. Yes, there has been some science done because of the Hydro-Québec developments but it has been very localized. The Cree will have the impact of the broader region that will be so instrumental to this entire thing,” explained Mercier.